The Greatest Privilege We Never Talk About: Beauty

The benefits of being attractive are exorbitant. Beauty might be the single greatest physical advantage you can have in life*. And yet compared to other other privileges that may arise from race, gender, or sexuality, we don’t talk much about it.

There is plenty of evidence that attractive people have it easier. Let’s start with the most obvious: hot people are more desired romantically.

Experimental research that examined real life romantic choices from scenarios like speed dating found that attractiveness was the single most important factor in making dating decisions. What might come as a surprise is that participants were unaware of their bias for beauty, reporting a lower preference for attractiveness than what their actual choices reflected. Interestingly, you’ll hear people often claim that women are less superficial than men, but what the study showed was that while women self reported a lower preferences for looks, their actual preference for hot partners was equal to that of men.

The advantages of good looks go far beyond finding a mate.

Attractive people are more likely to be seen as competent and be hired for a job (Busetta, 2013). They are perceived as smarter and having more social grace (Kanasawa, 2010). They are perceived to have better personality qualities like trustworthiness (Dewolf 2014). They are perceived as kinder (Snyder, Tanke and Berscheid 1977). They are more persuasive. They are more likely to benefit from acts of kindness from a stranger. They have greater self esteem (Thornton, 1991).

This bias for beauty can cause real harm. In a meta analysis of the role of attractiveness in criminal sentencing, it was found that unattractive people received 120–305 percent longer sentences than attractive people. As a comparison, another study found that black people received 6–20 percent longer sentences than white people. Yes, in criminal sentencing, looks were over 10x more important than race.

In two separate studies, it was found that black men received 19% longer sentences for the same crime as white men (from 2011–2016) while unattractive people received 120% longer sentences than attractive people.

The list goes on. Just google “attractiveness” and any desirable social outcome and see for yourself. Research pertaining to the advantages of good looks is bountiful and consistent.

These advantages start remarkably early. Children who are perceived to be more attractive are treated with more respect and admiration from adults and peers alike, and are more likely to manifest the positive traits, like intelligence and gregariousness, projected onto them, creating a virtuous psychological loop of competence and self esteem. Meaning that into adulthood, better-looking people aren’t just perceived to be smarter and more competent, but, all things being equal, they actually develop into smarter, more competent people.

Attractive people might have a hard time coming to terms with all of this. Doing so would require relegating at least part of their achievements to something mostly unearned.

A friend of mine is a beautiful young girl in her mid twenties who runs a makeup and lifestyle instagram account and accompanying blog. She is blessed with naturally perfect, glowing, caramel skin, infectious smile, and the kind of large, Bambi-like, helpless eyes that stimulates in most straight men an instinct to wrap them in a blanket and protect them. From what? I don’t know.

She wrote in an article once “The way you look doesn’t matter as much as you think. The way people perceive you has nothing to do with the way you look, but how you make them feel.”

I once showed this article to another friend of mine and she pointed at her open mouth and made a gagging sound. There is little more triggering than instruction from someone who has never had to experience the subject of their own advice, like reading about the virtues of hard work from someone who lives off a trust fund.

No one is doubting that personality is important. The opposite, really. Developing a genuinely likeable personality is often the path of finding acceptance in the absence of remarkable looks. I sometimes wonder wether a great personality is the consolation prize of being ugly when you’re a teenager.

All of this raises the question: if good looks are such a privilege, then why isn’t it more of focus of social justice activists?

One explanation is that most of us are a bit in denial when it comes to physical beauty. On the unofficial but universally-understood 10-point scale of looks, I’ve heard people call themselves a five, but never a one or a two.

You might tell a friend “you’re a 10” but when was the last time you told someone you respect “you’re ugly.” In the world of euphemisms, “average” is the new below average and “ugly” is a taboo term reserved mostly for high school bullies or kids playing in sandboxes — or whatever it is five year olds do now.

Another explanation is that our biases towards attractive people are so ingrained in our animal brains that we can’t actually change them. Things like racism, sexism, homophobia are mostly socially constructed, and social mores can evolve. Prejudices of the past can become celebrated points of pride. Gen Z children are more sensitive to transphobia in a way that millennial children were not. Millennial children were more sensitive to homophobia in a way that Gen X were not. And so on. But when it comes to physical beauty, has much changed?

The common optimistic retort is that beauty is indeed a social construct and that we have the capability of shedding ourselves of the instinct favouring conventionally beautiful people. The keystone in this argument is the fact that standards of beauty have changed, and in the past few decades alone have moved from historically European standards to more global ones. Darker skin, wider noses, curvy hips, thicker lips, are all more beautiful today than they were a century ago.

Media campaigns like Dove’s “real beauty” campaign, which showcases “real” people, who are at worst tv ugly, are at the forefront of retraining our animal brains to buy into more attainable standards.

But the reality is that standards of beauty evolve around the margins but stay mostly constant at their core. The tenets of beauty are much more fixed across time and culture than you might think.

Here is a list of features that are objectively beautiful, and their absence, objectively ugly. Facial and body symmetry; proportional anatomy, height (particularly among men); a full set of straight, white teeth; a full head of hair; clear, evenly-toned, taut, skin; a well-toned physique; proportional features; large eyes.

Like the earlier-mentioned experiment on dating found, we want to believe looks are unimportant, but our actions say otherwise. We want to be beautiful. We want to date beautiful people. We want our children to be beautiful.

I’ve always had a hard time reconciling my own rational feelings about the inequities of beauty with my instinctual drives. How quickly I make excuses for the awfulness and thoughtlessness of an inhabitant of a beautiful face. How I unconsciously play mental gymnastics to make virtues of their faults.

I suspect these people live in an entirely different reality. A lifetime of receiving attention and adoration must create certain expectations of other people. They are accustomed to admirers they’ve never met. They love to travel, because strangers from around the world adorn them with attention. Dating is a matter of simply saying yes, not learning through repeated heartbreaking rejections the subtleties of chasing or being chased.

Hotness isn’t just a privilege, it is in some ways the ultimate privilege. It transcends other social hierarchies. Hot people are often the pioneers in breaking prejudiced ideas and advancing social causes.

I was 24 and living in Vancouver when I first heard of Jenna Talackova, a Miss Universe Canada contender who was initially disqualified because she was transgender. I never paid much attention to beauty pageants but for a few weeks, Jenna was the center of media attention. I recall the public outpouring of sympathy she received when her story came to light. Even conservative media outlets and members of the religious community apparently were warming to the idea that perhaps some people are genuinely born to a different gender than their biology would otherwise dictate. What set Jenna apart was that she was remarkably beautiful. How would a stodgy, old-world, straight man explain a physiological attraction to another man other than to accept that she is indeed a woman?

Jenna Talackova

It took the suffering of a hot person to bring light to injustice.

So what do we do?

Your answer really depends on your ideology so let me state mine: I believe in equality of opportunity but not equality of outcome.

Good looks, just like intelligence, positive affect, or disease-resistance, is a largely genetic advantage in life that we should not punish. We are all born with different tools in our arsenal and life is not about fairness but about making the best of what you’ve been given.

Having said that, the advantages of good looks should stay confined to social arenas and not institutions like the criminal justice system. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future we use deepfake technology to make criminal defendants’ looks homogeneously beautiful (or ugly).

Moreover, in an ideal society, standards of beauty should not benefit one race or group over another. While I’ve argued that things like facial symmetry or straight teeth are universally considered beautiful, European-dominated standards of beauty are a byproduct of century-long social engineering and we still have a long ways to go in resetting those standards.

We’re taught at a really young age that ugly=bad, hot=good. Cinderella’s wicked step sisters were made to be ugly and undesirable.

There’s been a lot written about how white princesses, white models, and white superheroes indoctrinate children with the supremacy of European standards of beauty from a remarkably young age. For what it’s worth, Hollywood seems to have finally gotten the message, but there’s a long ways to go. It’s not enough to throw a brown, black, or yellow character into a supporting role of a white movie, but instead casting minorities as complex, fully-formed protagonists in their own right.

Unlike what we’re told, we are not all born (equally) beautiful — at least not in the classical, physical sense. And that’s okay. Let’s just stop pretending. Because as with many things, acceptance of the truth is the first step towards peace and productive change.

* Excluding obvious and common privileges such as being able-bodied.

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