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Beauty and Status

Elizabeth McClintock headshot
Elizabeth McClintock
American Sociological Review

For years, academic literature has supported the theory of the "trophy wife." Romantic partner selection has been studied by scholars with great interest because of its importance in reproducing group boundaries and social inequalities. According to sociologist Elizabeth McClintock (pictured here), much support has been given to the “market model” which says that partner selection is competitive and that partners trade desirable characteristics for different desirable characteristics.

In this example, a beautiful woman marries a wealthy man to achieve a higher socioeconomic status. Thus, the husband gains a fetching wife despite his own lack of good looks, and she gains wealth and status otherwise inaccessible. The social implications of this model are women’s economic dependency in marriage and the perpetuation of gender inequality.

New research by Elizabeth McClintock (‘11 PhD Sociology), pictured above, challenges this model of partner selection, insofar as it applies to the exchange of beauty for status. Using data from Add Health Romantic Pairs Sample, courtesy of the IRiSS Secure Data Center, McClintock has discovered that the strong tendency towards matching—in other words, for individuals to choose partners with characteristics similar to their own—is more scientifically sound than the market model.

This conclusion was hard-won. McClintock challenged prior literature by noting that the apparent evidence in favor of exchange might instead result from individuals’ tendency to select partners with characteristics similar to their own. She noted the strong empirical evidence that partners tend to be matched on many characteristics, including socioeconomic status and physical attractiveness, and also that individuals of higher socioeconomic status are, on average, rated as more physically attractive. As a result, she argued that the tendency toward matching might create a spurious correlation between one partner's appearance and the other partner's status. Specifically, if attractive women and men are of higher socioeconomic status on average, partner matching on status (or on physical attractiveness) would create a positive correlation between women's physical attractiveness and men's socioeconomic status, and between men's physical attractiveness and women's socioeconomic status, even in the absence of a beauty-for-status trade. In the course of her work, McClintock discovered that prior studies had failed to fully control for matching and for the within-individual correlation between socioeconomic status and physical attractiveness. Because these controls were absent, prior support for the widely-accepted trophy wife stereotype may not be valid.

What might this mean for those searching for a romantic partner? It strongly supports that individuals tend to seek partners with qualities similar to their own—whether it be race, education, physical appearance, or socioeconomic status. Thus, women aren’t really out there looking for men with money, nor are men looking for beautiful women—rather, individuals are seeking relationships that provide compatibility and companionship.

The Add Health Romantic Pairs data provided a unique opportunity for McClintock to conduct the study, as it is the only large, nationally representative sample of couples to contain physical attractiveness ratings of both partners. Without this information, says McClintock, it would not have been not possible to test between the market and matching models. The dataset was accessed through the IRiSS Secure Data Center, which is located on Alta Road in the hills west of campus. “I would not have been able to complete this research without support from IRiSS and the SDC,” according to McClintock. “In addition to providing the secure office space that I needed, it is in a beautiful and quiet location and is a great place to work without interruptions.”