The Beauty Myth: Prescriptive Beauty Norms for Women Reflect Hierarchy-Enhancing Motivations Leading to Discriminatory Employment Practices

The “prescriptive beauty norm” reflects a desire to enhance gender hierarchy and contributes to social policing of women and employment discrimination practices known as the “beauty tax.”


American women spend an average of 45 minutes grooming each day and make up 80-90% of the $115 billion industry for beauty products, affecting both their time and financial resources.

Feminist writers have long critiqued the burden that beauty imperatives place on women. A key critique came from Naomi Wolf, who argued that after feminism’s “second wave,” the pressure placed on women to pursue beauty increased dramatically, reflecting a backlash against women’s progress and increasing power in workplaces and other domains. The “prescriptive beauty norm” (PBN), is a term that describes this social phenomenon, where women feel social pressure to intensively pursue beauty.

Social science research shows that women’s belief that their value is determined by their beauty, which translates into their self-objectification (viewing their bodies from an external perspective), negatively impacts women and gender equality. Women’s self-objectification has been found to be associated with decreased political activism for gender equality, less assertiveness in cross-gender interactions, and poorer performance on math assessments. When women are objectified (e.g., evaluated based on their appearance) observers perceive them as less competent.

This study tests cultural critics’ hypotheses, assessing 1) the motivations behind those who uphold the Prescriptive Beauty Norm (PBN), 2) the workplace backlash, known as the “beauty tax,” against women who fail to conform, and 3) the relationship between the PBN and orthodox religious values that uphold gender hierarchy.


The Prescriptive Beauty Norm (PBN) reflects a desire to enhance gender hierarchy and contributes to social policing of women and employment discrimination practices known as the “beauty tax.”

  • Those who subscribe to the PBN are more likely to have values and ideologies that seek to enhance gender hierarchies, or the dominance of men over women in society.

    • This is not the case for those who merely subscribe to beauty ideals (such as valuing certain traits like youth or thinness), or those who believe that beauty is attainable but do not demand that women pursue beauty.

  • When primed to think that gender hierarchies are being threatened, people who hold sexist ideals are more likely to endorse PBN.

  • When employees climb the professional ladder they are required to invest more in their appearance. Yet this “beauty tax”; namely, demand for extra investment is higher for women than for men.

  • Women face the biggest backlash when they most threaten existing power and gender hierarchies.

    • Female job candidates who are “insufficiently groomed” are more likely to experience backlash; namely, be judged as unqualified for the job, if they are interviewed by someone who holds sexist ideals.

    • This effect is particularly significant if they are interviewing for a high-power (vs. low power) job, in a predominantly masculine field.

  • Religiously orthodox people are more likely than secular people to endorse sexist ideals, but not the PBN. Researchers interpreted this as confirming the arguments made by feminist critics, who claimed that, in an age of increasing secularization, the PBN replaced orthodox religious values such as chastity as an alternative way to control women.


Researchers conducted six studies on a total of 1,867 adult volunteers to investigate the motivations behind and the effects of the Prescriptive Beauty Norm (PBN). To distinguish between related concepts, they designed questions in all of their studies to differentiate between three related ideals: 1) having beauty standards, such as valuing certain attributes like youth, thinness, grooming practices, 2) attainability, such as believing that can attain beauty via various practices, 3) the PBN, such as believing that women should intensively invest their time and resources into pursuing beauty.

In order to conceal the nature of the study from participants, researchers worded the statements about the PBN in neutral vocabulary, so as not to appear obviously sexist. Furthermore, in studying the relationship between the PBN and sexist ideals, the researchers separately tested for hostile sexist beliefs (such as those demeaning women) and benevolent sexist beliefs (such as idealizing women as caregivers and romantic objects). All studies were conducted using questionnaires.

Study 1a and 1b tested whether those who endorse the PBN are motivated by desires to enhance gender hierarchies. Study 2 tested whether priming participants with threats to the gender hierarchy would be more likely to endorse the PBN. Study 3 tested whether sexist people are more likely to impose a “beauty tax” to push women employees. There were 12 occupations that were tested, which fell into 6 domains: politics, natural science, insurance, prison, municipal system, and finance.

Study 4 tested the relationship between many of the previous findings and investigated whether hierarchy-enhancing motives was associated with PBN endorsement and resulted in increased backlash against female employees. Condemnation of women who failed to pursue beauty was measured through the participants’ replies to statements such as “A woman who neglects her appearance should be ashamed of herself,” “When a woman neglects her appearance it conveys disrespect to others in her environment,” “I find it disgusting that some women totally neglect their appearance,” and “Women who choose not to invest in their appearance do not harm anyone.”

Study 5 tested whether people who have experience interviewing candidates have punished female candidates who were poorly groomed by judging them to be less qualified for the job. Study 6 tested whether people with conservative religious values that uphold gender hierarchies are more likely to disavow the PBN.

Random assignment was used in multiple aspects of these studies, such as to determine which participants would receive the messages about the gender hierarchy being threatened vs. affirmed, whether participants would face a scenario of interviewing male or female job candidates, and whether a candidate in question was pursuing a low- or high-power job.

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