I have lots of insecurities. My weight, my height, I have seriously ugly knees however I’ve never been insecure about how I look on the whole. This isn’t to say I’m an ethereal, Amazonian goddess but I know I’m not ugly — even under the subjective beauty standards society currently holds. My features are distinctive, my skin behaves itself most days and I don’t have to wear make-up unless I want to. I like the shape and size of everything on my face so in many regards I won the genetic lottery.
The above probably comes across as deeply conceited seeing as we women are programmed to believe there is something always to be improved. There is something endearing about a woman who doesn’t know how beautiful she is isn’t there? But I’ve looked in the mirror and I can relay that I do ok.
I can name multiple situations where I have got away with something or been given something because of how I look. I have also been lucky enough to gain access to very attractive partners — in general, if I am attracted to someone, they tend to be attracted to me also.
Navigating online spaces is interesting as there have been times where people have shown themselves as being a little obsessed with me, even though they disagree with my views.
It is because of this I know that I have and I have benefited from “pretty privilege”.
This isn’t to say I’ve never struggled, I have, but my level of attractiveness has never been a hindrance or shaken my confidence.
What is “pretty privilege”?
Our society is obsessed with looks — the beauty industry is multi-billion dollar industry and it continues to thrive. Most products are sold to us under the premise that they’ll increase our desirability. Whether this is getting the newest iPhone or car, the superficial increases our social capital. It makes us feel better but it can also help our access to further opportunities. It’s common sense that good looking people have bigger social advantages when compared to those who don’t meet our societal beauty standards. Our looks also give people the (incorrect) perception of our health. Slender athletic builds are perceived as healthier than larger ones.
Pulchronomics is the study of the economy of physical attractiveness and so far research has shown that being attractive can make getting a job easier, make you more popular (both in real life and on social media) which increases your opportunities and access to more money and on average attractive people earn more money. They are also less likely to be convicted — and more likely to get lighter sentences if they are.
This bias towards attractive people isn’t necessarily intentional, with research, indicating that both children and adults unconsciously favour attractive children over unattractive ones in general. Due to social conditioning, we unconsciously perceive attractive people as smarter, healthier and more competent, trustworthy and in general they are treated better.
Pretty privilege is difficult to pinpoint as attractiveness is entirely subjective. Beauty standards are set by us, and the elites. For a long time, we had a preference for people who were white, cisgender and skinny however society has slowly begun to step away from these criteria (though it is still regarded as beauty).
Views on pretty privilege
Interestingly there are polarizing views on pretty privilege, for example, Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode in her book The Beauty Bias criticises how women put their looks like a high priority when discussing self-image. She believes the law should ban look-based discrimination as it “limits self-expression and reinforces the subordination of groups where ‘unappealing’ characteristics, like obesity, are concentrated (like among the poor, some ethnic minorities)”. However as “attractiveness” is not easy to quantify, enforcing such laws would be almost impossible.
London School of Economics academic Catherine Hakim believes that instead of banning it, pretty privilege is something to be harnessed, honed and used. In her book Honey Money, she states that:
Erotic capital” can be an underrated class of personal asset, to combine with economic capital (what you have), human capital (what you know) and social capital (who you know).
Erotic capital is not just physical appearance and sex appeal, but also charm, sociability and sexual expertise and it are largely independent of birth and class. It is especially valuable for poor people and young people. In heterosexual settings, erotic capital belongs mainly to women.
While attractive men often flourish, it isn’t the same for women due to the “the male sex-deficit”: both the commonality of female sexual imagery and the persistent unwillingness of society at large to validate women’s good looks.
It just isn’t in the interests of patriarchs to allow women to actualise their erotic capital, because this would shake the balance of power between the sexes which is why it is important for women to use their erotic power against men at home and work.
Society favours beauty and places it on a pedestal
I find pretty privilege as a concept very interesting as I think it is very far to claim that pretty privilege is a currency afforded to a lucky few. However, it is important to note that the level of attractiveness doesn’t override other privileges that someone has. An average looking white man still holds more social capital than a stunning white woman, for example.
Though beauty is subjective and superficial, it evidently and influences how society functions and treats you.
As Janet Mock said in her piece Being Pretty Is a Privilege, But We Refuse to Acknowledge It:
If I did not look the way I do, then I would not be on TV or on two book covers. I would not have a beauty column or an Instagram with more than 100,000 followers. This does not mean that I have not put in work and effort and done my job well, but my beauty is not something that I earned. I did not work for it, yet it has opened doors for me, allowing me to be seen and heard. And for me to pretend that it does not exist denies the ways in which being perceived as pretty has contributed to my success and made the road a bit smoother.
Though beauty can transcend things such as ethnicity, these are people are usually exceptions or have eurocentric features. On the whole, there is a clear idea of who is beautiful and who isn’t, even if society is changing. Therefore, it is fair to say that the racial, transphobic and ableist ideals of what we as a society perceive as beautiful are evident.
Which is why I believe “pretty privilege” is something that should be studied. I would love to live in a world where someones looks don’t matter, however that isn’t the world we live in. Which is why it’s important to uncover why certain traits are seen as more desirable and how we as a society can counteract these inbuilt biases.
I am undecided on whether it is something to be banned or weaponised (as detailed above in the two perspectives highlighted), but in the mean time it is also important for people like myself to acknowledge our privilege if we want to dismantle these systems and hierarchies.
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