But the nation's central bank now says that if you're gorgeous, chances are better that you will get paid more than plain folks.
Analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggests that good-looking people tend to make more money and get promoted more often than those with average looks. The analysis is published in the April edition of The Regional Economist, the Fed's quarterly magazine.
Research analyst Kristie Engemann and economist Michael Owyang looked at the possible link between appearance and wages by evaluating previous surveys and research. Their conclusion: It helps to be tall, slender and attractive.
Less clear was whether the less attractive are victims of bias, or if good-looking people tend to develop self-confidence and social skills that simply enhance their marketability.
"It doesn't seem like anti-discrimination laws, even if you enforce them strictly, would be a magic bullet," Owyang said.
The researchers cited one study that found a "plainness penalty" of 9 percent in wages — meaning a person with below-average looks tended to earn 9 percent less than those with average looks — and a "beauty premium" of 5 percent.
A study concerning weight showed that women who were obese earned 17 percent lower wages than women of average weight.
Height matters, too, the researchers believe. One study looked at the height of 16 year olds and the wages they earned later as adults. The taller teens went on to earn an average of 2.6 percent more per additional inch of height.
"Maybe they developed extra confidence early on that their shorter counterparts didn't have," Engemann said.
The researchers also cited a survey by journalist Malcolm Gladwell showing that the average chief executive is 3 inches taller than the average man. While a typical American male stands 5 feet 9 inches, Gladwell's study found that about one-third of CEOs are 6 feet 2.
Jean Seawright, a human resources consultant from Winter Park, Fla., said the analysis backs up what she sees in the workplace.
"To some degree, it's that the (boss) is drawn to certain characteristics, and they tend to put more weight on that," Seawright said. "What can happen, unfortunately, is that they miss more important job-related traits.
"It hurts employment in the long-run because there are talented people out there who are not tall, blond, slender and attractive."
Engemann and Owyang said that, in some cases, the attractive are simply more self-confident because of their good looks. For jobs where interpersonal interaction is important, that increased confidence can result in better communications skills that may improve job performance.
"Employers might believe that customers or co-workers want to interact with more-attractive people," the researchers wrote.
The research indicates that some people who are obese may be held back by health factors or low self-esteem. Yet discrimination also seemed to play a role. Researchers said the wage differential for obese women seemed to be limited to white women, "which seems to contradict an unmeasured productivity explanation."
Owyang and Engemann also cited a study indicating the beauty premium existed, even for occupations that do not require frequent interpersonal contact.
"As these results suggest, disentangling the effects of productivity differences and discrimination can be problematic," Owyang said. "Though discrimination is a possible explanation, anti-discrimination laws might not guarantee that these wage differentials would evaporate.
"Unmeasurable productivity might still result in pay disparities, and CEOs might still be tall."
By Jim Salter