content warning: body image, eating disorders, body dysmorphia
“If only our eyes saw souls instead of bodies, how very different our ideals of beauty would be.” – Unknown
The way we look impacts whether an interview goes well. In entertainment, it impacts whether a rising artist gets signed. Most intimately, it affects who wants to be your friend. Sometimes you see an entire friend group or cohort of professional students and ask yourself “why is everyone in this circle so physically attractive?”. Why is it that a staple trope in many well-known movies is the leading lady getting a makeover as part of her character development?
In subconscious and fully conscious ways, we are often extremely shallow.
As someone who identifies as a woman, I have explored this end of the gender spectrum most closely. Human society has always been visual. In the 1800s, full-figured or “desirably plump” women were a symbol of wealth and being well-fed. When I was growing up, large breasts and thigh gaps were what a lot of girls wanted. Today, big hips and tiny waists are what many women strive towards. It never ends, it just evolves. It can never be as simple as, do you feel good, strong, and healthy?
Important disclaimer: The point of my post is not to promote disdain for all the conventionally attractive people in our lives. Rather, I want to start more honest dialogue and perhaps wake us up to the societal environment we all live in. I hope we all can have a conversation with a friend or loved one about pretty privilege and its implications. This article is not to give you permission to spew hate on those you think do not deserve their achievements. This article for me is to remind us all of this form of privilege and check our biases in interactions hereafter.
What is pretty privilege?
I use the term pretty privilege but, in my mind, I see it more as the benefits of being conventionally attractive according to societal beauty standards. I suppose that is a mouthful. However, I feel conventionally attractive is more all-encompassing than “pretty.” There is no “pretty” and “ugly”, there are only standards that we have been subconsciously fed our entire lives through movies, television, and other forms of mass media. I think the term pretty privilege and the connotation around the word “pretty” also leaves out an important fact: masculine people can have this privilege too. We just as often see conventionally attractive masculine figures achieving more success than their counterparts.
Pretty privilege is like all other forms of privilege (male privilege, white privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc.) in that it is unearned, societal benefits from an aspect of oneself that you cannot really control – the way they look. This aspect of society fuels the beauty and cosmetics industry, I mean look at the empire that is Sephora. Ultimately, it comes down to who wins the “genetic lottery” or who can afford the products or plastic surgery to amass this privilege.
If we want to get nitty-gritty, there is research on this topic. Attractive people get paid more. Attractive people get lesser criminal sentences. Even attractive kids and youth reap the benefits from teachers in school. This is not a benign form of privilege and we see it in the people who often are among the highest rewarded or highest achieving in society. There are sometimes implications that folks who are pretty, especially femme-identifying individuals, have “more to prove” or are perceived as “less able.” In fact, the present data shows this is quite the contrary.
It is found within society’s preference towards certain body types – and these body types often change. Body type standards disproportionately impact women and we see this in the prevalence of eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
Brilliant women who also have some element of pretty privilege. Bonus: AOC discusses the politics of beauty in her video with vogue.
Why is pretty privilege so hard to talk about?
In my opinion, it is difficult to talk about because it is an odd feeling for someone to acknowledge their own conventional attractiveness. Many grappling with self-esteem and body image issues themselves, may not even realize that they fall into this category. Since checking our privilege is crucial to talking about, it, I will uncomfortably admit that I think I live with some “pretty privilege.” There is nuance to pretty privilege and its intersections with Blackness (coming up!) but its validity in my life does not strip all of the internal work I have done for myself.
Pretty privilege has implications to some folks that everything you may have earned, you only earned because of how you look. This is not true in my eyes. You can be incredibly ambitious, hardworking, and competent – but also have pretty privilege. If you “work hard”, you should not be threatened by the idea of a world where merit wins over our conventional standards of beauty.
Pretty Privilege, Colorism, and the Black Community
Colorism: prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
A pivotal yet complicated layer to this topic is how it applies to the Black community. I feel it is complicated because often Blackness and attractiveness have been treated as mutually exclusive. Black women are the farthest away from our white-centric beauty standards, particularly dark-skinned Black women. However, it would be naive to deny that pretty privilege does not exist within my community. Many would say it manifests most through colorism and I would agree. However, there are other facets to conventional attractiveness – certain body types, specific eye shapes, facial symmetry, clear skin – that impact which Black women we find attractive as well.
Living as a Black woman, I still grapple with the idea of my own pretty privilege. Growing up as a little Black girl in Western society is essentially being told for your entire life that most people at baseline are probably not attracted to you. It is often parsing out, does this person find Black women attractive? In the age of social media, I feel for the young girls these days being succumb to “Dark Skin vs. Light Skin” videos on TikTok. As I have grown up, I have come to realize my worth is not tied to any societal beauty standards and my confidence is rooted in self-assuredness above anything else. The way we Black women “win” is by rejecting that notion entirely and coming into our own – comfortable within our skin, not wanting to trade it for anything. I may not shout from the rooftops how much pride I have in my “melanin” but I truly feel it every day when I look in the mirror and that personal feeling for me is everything and more.
Pretty privilege often compounds with racism and colorism. For instance, we see many Black women succeed because they have some kind of physical appeal along with their talent. We primarily see light-skinned Black women receiving praise in the media. Being beautiful does not take away the talent that women like Beyoncé and Rihanna have – their talent is simply undeniable. It does make me ask, how much talent are we missing when “making it” is precluded by how much how you look will sell? (Probably a lot.)
What can we even do about pretty privilege?
There’s a lot of privilege being brought up these days and you feel like you can’t keep up. This form of privilege is a bit different because unlike other forms of privilege, this one is not as objective. What constitutes “pretty” is different to a lot of people and often how people carry themselves can profoundly shape if they are perceived as “pretty.” Like anything else I will talk about on here, mindfulness is key. When you are speaking to someone new or conducting an interview, if you happen to find the person physically attractive, notice that. Likewise, if you do not find someone attractive by your beauty standards, remind yourself not to let that cloud your perceptions of the person – the human being in front of you.
Learning to give non-physical compliments is your friend. A society that does not value people based only on how they look starts in our mind. We can choose to complement people on their generosity, patience, hard work, and more.
Finally, do not stop looking your version of your best to feel your best. Do not stop being happy with how you look and accepting yourself. Definitely do not stop being hygienic and keeping yourself clean or “polished” in whatever way that means for you. Sometimes people we see as “pretty” are just aware of how they present themselves and carry themselves with confidence. However, when you encounter others who seem just as happy and comfortable in their skin, let them be – regardless of what standards you feel inclined to impose in your head.
People do not need to look like our conventional standards to be valuable human beings. There should not be secret benefits to simply winning the genetic lottery that is physical appearance.
I hope this post initiates some fun conversations within your own circles.
Thank you for reading and remember to take a screen break if you need today.
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Donating here helps connect children with gifts and support during this time of year. Hope you choose to give a little!
Other articles and videos on this topic:
1. Women’s Ideal Body Types in the Last 100 Years- Natacha Océane: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SY9BxTuYtcY&t=483s&ab_channel=NatachaOc%C3%A9ane
2. Pretty Privilege Is the Most Useless Privilege: https://medium.com/an-injustice/pretty-privilege-is-the-most-useless-privilege-e1d446caa373
*Do not love the title, but good content.
3. Is “Pretty Privilege” Real? – Not Even Emily: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoPihs0nDRE&ab_channel=NotEvenEmily
4. AOC’s video: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Guide to Her Signature Red Lip | Beauty Secrets | Vogue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXqZllqGWGQ&t=1s&ab_channel=Vogue
5. Why Women in Movies Get Makeovers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJClnOgtdJ8&ab_channel=TheTake