Pretty privilege: the bias that favors the ‘beautiful’

What is pretty privilege and why is it problematic?

Pretty privilege is a buzzword that really took over the internet via Instagram stories and Tiktok trends. Individuals — overwhelmingly women — identified circumstances where their appearance either benefitted or hindered them in certain situations. Being beautiful isn’t just some gift in and of itself, but it allows for opportunities and relationships that others don’t have access to.

The concept of pretty privilege — also known as beauty bias — provides the upper hand to folks who are deemed attractive according to our societal standards of beauty. Sure, we all know that beauty is subjective, but there is certainly some congruence between the individuals who cover our magazines, billboards and television screens.

Physical attractiveness is often seen as superfluous by the likes of people with a lot of privilege, but it is a determinate for how an individual goes through the world. Lookism is directly tied to pretty privilege; it is prejudice or discrimination someone might face on account of their appearance. This prejudice can saturate an individual’s career, social life, dating life and placement in society overall. 

It’s easy to say, “Looks don’t matter;” especially when you’re someone who is quite clearly attractive. Yet, pretty privilege shows that appearance can have a serious and detrimental effect on a person’s life.

Financial impact

Jon Briggs, a communications coach, has referred to ‘Pulchronomics;’ the concept that says that the more similarities an individual has to those ‘beautiful’ people seen in media, the more likely they are to be rewarded financially and given more opportunities within society. 

Some of this has to do with the natural rewards we want to provide to beautiful people, but a lot of it also has to do with confidence. People who have grown up knowing they’re beautiful will move through the world with confidence not just in their appearance, but in their skills and capability. 

This makes a lot of sense: young girls who get bullied at recess for their appearance might not be jumping at the opportunity to draw attention to themselves in the classroom. Studies have found that there is a direct correlation between appearance and academic performance. Female students who are deemed pretty will earn higher grades than those who are not.

Employers generally believe attractive people are better employees. In fact, researchers have found that attractive people often receive salaries that are 10.5% higher than those of their ‘unattractive’ counterparts.

An attribute like beauty, which does not make any reflection on an individual’s intelligence, capability, passion or skills, is determining what availability they might have to job opportunities, salaries and academic performance. In other words, pretty privilege affects to what extent we are able to succeed.

Dating and socializing

Perhaps nowhere is pretty privilege more obvious than in the dating pool. Many people — especially young people — look towards dating apps, like Tinder, for potential matches. While a clever bio might make or break a Tinder swipe, if we’re being honest with ourselves, much of these apps rely almost exclusively on looks.

Studies have shown that 84% of women and 92% of men think that being “good-looking” is an essential quality of a long-term partner. This isn’t surprising when you know that attractive people are typically seen as more sociable, which translates into being seen as good communicators and better relationship potential.

Most people have heard someone say, “Oh wow, they’re really dating down.” While this might refer to someone who is dating someone in a different career field, it most often refers to someone who is seen to be more attractive than whomever they’re with (and isn’t really a great thing to say either way). 

The world of social media is one that rewards the beautiful with likes and comments. Someone’s glorious personality isn’t often translated into a small, square picture. Individuals will seek out partners and friends that might provide them social capital through their appearance, and exclude those who might not.

Enforcing stereotypes

The beauty standards we see today aren’t some random amalgamation. Most of these standards are Eurocentric reflections of the tall, white, thin, able-bodied, cisgendered, Instagram-model worthy person. When this is presented as the ideal, subsequently, short, non-white, fat, disabled, transgendered individuals are othered and told they are not beautiful.

More than this, these beauty standards are overwhelmingly directed at women. By telling women they are most worthy when they are ‘pretty,’ women must decide between playing into those stereotypes and altering their appearance or remaining the same and giving up certain opportunities.

The same also applies to nonbinary and transgender folks who must battle normative standards of beauty in order to feel valid. It’s a system that benefits no one, except those who would profit from oppressive identities or capitalistic gain through body-altering products.

What pretty privilege is doing and how we can fight it

Pretty privilege is contributing to marginalization and is feeding into unrealistic beauty ideals. Photo-filters, fad diets, make-up or expensive clothing — these are all things that might alter us from our normal and wonderful selves. 

This is not to say that individuals deserve to be shamed for these things or can’t be empowered by them, simply that there might not be such a dire investment in beauty-altering products were it not for the privileges that come with being more ‘beautiful.’

Besides providing unfair advantages in jobs, schools, dating and socializing, pretty privilege is damaging to our social psyche. Upward comparisons — looking to those you might see as better than you — can hurt our mental health and contribute to poor self-esteem.

There are ways to fight against the negative impacts though. The body positivity movement and educational tools working to inform people about incorrect beauty standards can help. Bringing more diverse individuals into television or media in general will combat representation problems.

More than this, simply talking about our bodies and being more aware will make a huge difference. Privilege is a complicated concept, and there are certainly those who deal with intersecting oppressions through their race, gender or sexuality as well as their appearance who will navigate the world differently. But the first step in stopping one type of privilege, pretty privilege, is recognizing that it exists.

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