Using a role-playing experiment, more than 300 people from 38 countries participated in a hypothetical society online where each version matched one of the many economies of the world today.
Participants were asked to indicate how anxious they were about social status in their respective society and then chose an outfit to wear for their first night out. Options ranged from least to most revealing.
Researchers found that women assigned to economically unequal societies chose more revealing, sexy outfits for their first night, and they did so because they were anxious about their social status.
By making women worry about social climbing, research shows that economically unequal societies incentivized women to use their attractiveness to get ahead.
Lead author Khandis Blake - an adjunct lecturer at UNSW Science and lecturer at the University of Melbourne - said results show that for some women, being the fairest of them all can be a smart strategy to climb the social and economic hierarchy.
“Although we might like to pretend in today’s environment that beauty doesn’t matter anymore, research and our day-to-day experiences say otherwise,” Dr Blake said.
“Our results favour a view of women as strategic agents, using the tools available to them to climb the social hierarchy in specific socio-economic environments.
“When we see women in these outfits, pouting into their phone cameras or preening over their appearance, we might think it’s just narcissism. But things are more complex. It’s really about women responding to incentives in their environment, given the state of their economy.”
As economic inequality continues to grow, researchers say so too will women’s preoccupation with their physical appearance, and the mental health issues that tie in with this.
“Beauty is one way women can out-do others and try to maximize their lot in life, but it’s important to remember that beauty has a shelf-life and obsessing over your appearance comes with other risks and challenges," Dr Blake said.