We regularly talk about white privilege or male privilege, but all too regularly we simply fail to mention “pretty privilege.” Here’s why that’s a thing, and why, for the sake of congruence, we should talk about it more.
We live in a society that drives us to work really hard on our looks. Makeup tutorials, workout routines, and special diets are all the rage: they sell, and they sell big. Why do we work so hard to be pretty? What exactly is it that we crave so much about the superficial glamour of good looks? Well, to feel better, for one. But what about being privileged?
Yeah, let’s talk about privilege. Though it’s pretty obvious and well-accepted that good looks afford people many opportunities in society, we often forget to frame this advantage in terms of the popular privilege logic. Does being pretty give you a social advantage over your less attractive counterparts? It seems it does. Is there such thing as 'pretty privilege'? That's tougher. Here's why there is, and why it's a terrible thing.
Evidence for pretty privilege
There’s actually been good research into the advantages of beauty. There’s even a whole field dedicated to this: pulchronomics, or the study of the economics of physical attractiveness.
Being pretty makes finding a job easier. It makes you more popular, in real life as much as in social media (which, in turn, makes it easier to gain money). It helps with career advancement in many professions (not all, mind you, but enough to point to a systematic advantage), and generally facilitates positive work reviews. On average, pretty people earn more money. Also, most people tend to act better when dealing with a good-looking person.
This bias is not always conscious, however. According to research, children and adults alike unconsciously favor attractive children over unattractive ones in general. Attractive people are also automatically perceived to be smarter, healthier, nicer, more confident, more trustworthy, and more capable than others, not because of any explicit social prejudice, but because of deeply embedded and unconscious dispositions.
Pretty privilege is not real?
Yet, in spite of the evidence, there are many people, like Huffington Post collaborator "Plain Jane," who argue pretty privilege is not a thing. Generally, they claim the advantages of good looks simply never amount to what would qualify as a privilege at all.
These skeptics usually like to point out countless cases in which being pretty actually is a disadvantage. Rape culture, stalkers, abusive relationships—even femicides. Many women are attacked because they are pretty. The problem with this argument is that, if we accept it, then we have no foot to stand on when men do the same to deny male privilege. Men could list countless occasions in which they were expected to kill or be killed for being men (the whole history of war, for starters), and suddenly their argument would get some traction. But if we reject that argument in the case of male privilege, we must also reject it when it comes to pretty privilege. The existence of counter-examples does not in itself refute the fact that we systematically favor certain groups—even if favoring them often entails dire consequences.
Pretty privilege deniers constantly invoke the “ask them” rhetoric. “Ask a pretty woman how many times she’s been sexually harassed” or “ask her how often she’s presumed a liar for not accepting someone’s advances.” This is followed by the punchline “And then tell her being pretty is a privilege!”
But again, that’s neither an argument nor a rhetoric we should encourage, because it can easily backfire. It’s like saying: “Ask a non-alpha male how often toxic masculinity has harmed him and then tell him there’s such a thing as male privilege!” Clearly, the existence of male privilege has nothing to do with whether non-alpha males suffer for being men. Likewise, the existence of pretty privilege does not depend on whether some pretty people did or didn’t suffer for being pretty in this or that situation. Being male systematically affords benefits (even though sometimes it may cause harm), and that’s privilege. Being pretty systematically affords benefits (regardless of those fewer occasions in which it doesn’t). And that’s privilege.
Also, pretty privilege is not only about pretty women. It encompasses all attractive people, regardless of gender, sex, race, or sexual orientation.
It's not the most powerful privilege of all
But let’s not fool ourselves, either. One thing is the privilege afforded to pretty people, and another thing is how different privileges interact and intersect with one another. Male, class, or race privileges stand way above in power distribution when compared to pretty privilege. In other words, being a rich white dude confers far more overall social advantages than being a spectacularly attractive woman. No one should deny that. But, again, that doesn’t mean there’s no pretty privilege. In fact, being a good-looking rich white dude entails even more advantages than being an “ugly” rich white guy.
We must indeed understand how different privileges work. Rape culture and sexual harassment injustices against beautiful women are not proof that there’s no pretty privilege; but they are proof that there’s male privilege (and that it stands at the top). There’s a big difference, as you can see, between both conclusions.
Where does it come from and why is it bad?
But why do we favor pretty people so? And why is it so wrong for us to like them? Well, we generally complain that objectifying women—or men, for that matter—is wrong. Rape culture is based on treating people like mere objects, and we strongly object to that. Rightfully so. The problem is that all the social benefits provided by being good-looking are also ultimately grounded on objectification.
When we extend someone a courtesy based on their looks, we are certainly not “humanizing” them. We don’t do so for the merits of their person or for the mere fact that they are human beings—we’re doing it because we like their appearance.
There are many reasons why we would do this. Evolution is one of them. After all, attraction and appearance-based judgments are a key component of selective breeding, which itself is key for natural selection. But perhaps we should hold ourselves to higher moral standards than our base natural inclinations.
A simple social appreciation is another reason why we might benefit better-looking humans. We often associate appearance with personal care and hygiene. After all, if someone looks nice, it’s usually because they’ve worked on it. And we appreciate the effort. It speaks well of someone’s organizational skills and commitment to themselves when they take the time to care for how they look.
But merit-based self-care is certainly not all there is to our privileging better-looking individuals. Regardless of how much attention they put on their appearance, we tend to favor good genes. A naturally good looking individual has it way easier in life than a bad-looking one who cares for his or her look. And that’s clearly unfair.
That's not to say we should make pretty people accountable—it's not their fault. This privilege, rather, signals a deeply troubling feature of society as a whole, not about attractive folks in particular.
But that’s society, as it stands now. Whatever the reason and morality for favoring pretty people, the first thing to do is acknowledge the fact they’re privileged in a very particular kind of way. We, as a society, need to talk about it more often, as it goes hand in hand with a form of discriminatory bias against the least physically fortunate. After all, being pretty gives you a formidable privilege, and that’s a bad thing—especially when we neglect the fact.
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