When they go to the bar with $5 in their pocket, they return with a bottle of grey goose and the bouncer’s snapchat. When they come back from school, their professors rave about how motivated and dedicated they are. When they get pulled over for going 50 in a 30 they get let off with a warning and a playful grin. They’ve won every superlative, student body election, and club position they’ve ever put themselves out there for, and they swear it’s on account of their stunning personality. But look closer and you’ll find that there’s a few other factors in play. And they usually come in the same tall, blonde, and cisgendered package.
Pretty privilege. The idea that being more physically attractive means you are treated better by society at large. We’ll admit, it sounds sort of crazy when you first hear it; mostly because we try really hard to pretend that we don’t recognize the differences between ourselves and others. After all, actually noticing when someone is more or less attractive than us would make us shallow and petty. But the funny thing is, scientifically, we all absolutely make those judgements, and they cause pretty radical changes in our behavior.
For starters, it turns out that people who are more conventionally attractive are actually more financially successful, according to economist Daniel Hamermesh. In fact, after collecting data from an assortment of different countries, Hamermesh found that “Most of us, regardless of our professed attitudes, prefer as customers to buy from better-looking salespeople, as jurors to listen to better-looking attorneys, as voters to be led by better-looking politicians, as students to learn from better-looking professors.” Meaning pretty privilege isn’t just a few quirky little perks bestowed upon a lucky few. It’s something we can count in big, green dollar bills.
Aside from the money, social psychology backs this pretty privilege phenomenon with something known as “The Halo Effect,” which essentially implies that what is beautiful is also good. It’s a cognitive bias, wired into our minds that tells us that our overall impressions of other people carry over to our assumptions about their character. So if a person looks nice on the outside, we tend to assume they are nice/smart/capable on the inside as well. But if they’re too short, too tall, too asymmetrical, too old, too fat, too thin, too different? Don’t waste our time.
In case you’re doubtful, use pretty much any Disney movie ever created for reference. Because let’s be real, would those seven men really have let Snow White into their home if she came in rocking a bowl cut and sweatpants? Science says no! Would we be just as impressed with James Bond’s badassery if he started fighting Russian spies **gasp** without his six pack abs and rugged good looks? Probably not. Sure these are fictitious examples, but start asking yourself how the looks of different characters reflect your perceptions of them, and you’ll find that they largely coincide with the effects of pretty privilege.
An experiment conducted in 1972 also provided scientific support for pretty privilege by asking subjects to sort 27 different personality traits between three pictures. One photo showed a highly attractive person, the second showed a person with an average level of attractiveness, and the final photo showed an unattractive person. The results were (not so) shocking, as the participants assigned the most positive personality traits (intelligence, altruism, stability, etc.) to the most attractive person. The participants also said that the more attractive individual possessed these traits more strongly than their less attractive counterparts.
However, if we’re going to spend all this time talking about how being beautiful can come with a lot of advantages, we also need to talk about what “beauty” looks like in our society. And if you ever find yourself unsure of where to find a concrete example of our beauty standards, please refer to any number of fashion magazines, health publications, red carpet events, advertisements, Instagram profiles, or Kardashian family members. For men, it’s all about muscles on muscles on MUSCLES, strong jawlines, thick hair, and tall builds. For women, it’s more about big butts, big boobs, small waists, symmetrical faces, long hair, and whatever else the male population demands at any given time (oops, we went there). But there are a few more standards that apply to men and women alike, and that is a certain amount of youth, heterosexuality, cisgenderism, and whiteness.
Although there has been a recent push for diversity in the past few years, these antiquated standards still affect our perceptions of ourselves and other people. Which means that being young, heterosexual, cisgender, and white allows you to be seen as more beautiful, and, as a result, more inherently good. Transgender activist Janet Mock has seen this concept play out in her own life, saying that, “Pretty privilege… is not often extended to women who are trans, black and brown, disabled, older, and/or fat.” This is where pretty privilege starts to become especially problematic.
But there’s another side to the story, specifically involving our perceptions of beautiful women. Although being pretty can have its advantages, many women assert that there are also many disadvantages. These include things like harassment, a lack of sympathy, and stereotyping, which has a lot to do with sexism. For instance, although more attractive men are seen as strong and capable and are often offered more high-paying jobs, more attractive women are actually less likely to be hired for positions involving authority because of gender-based stereotypes. Stereotypes that usually insist that beautiful women can’t be smart or capable or strong. Additionally, the health concerns of attractive women have been known to be taken less seriously because of their outward appearance, which is concerning to say the least.
It’s a real damned if you do damned it you don’t situation, wherein being too pretty means you’re not taken seriously, and not being pretty enough means you’re overlooked altogether. But without considering the disadvantages of being pretty, we would be missing a huge part of how appearance can affect our internal biases. As stated in the Huffington Post, “The widely held beliefs that ‘pretty’ people don’t suffer, aren’t mistreated, live the best lives, are always happy, and are mean, are excellent examples of how stifling it can be for society to pack things into the ‘pretty’ woman’s identity that don’t belong.” It’s an extremely valuable point to consider, but do these kinds of drawbacks overpower the problematic advantages that come with being labeled conventionally beautiful?
Ultimately, the most relevant lesson we can take away from pretty privilege and possible pretty oppression is how important it is to recognize and fight against our own biases. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we notice how people look and our minds are always judging and making generalizations. It’s a big part of how we organize information and go about our daily lives! However, when those judgements start to unjustly change and bias our behavior, that’s when we need to take a step back. Otherwise we’re left with a lot of racist, sexist, ageist, and homophobic notions that will absolutely affect how we treat other people. So take a second to ask yourself how pretty privilege affects you and start making an effort… or else risk becoming pretty problematic.