“Pretty Privilege”

by Courtney C Horne @FireezDragon

If you asked the average person, they would say that being “pretty” – conventionally attractive – was a big advantage for a woman to have. And indeed in many ways, prettiness can be a source of benefits. It also can be as significant of a source of problems. Despite this, most women would certainly chose to be conventionally attractive if possible. Our society places such an emphasis on the physical appearance that the privilege of being “pretty”‘s complications are often overlooked. This emphasis reduces women, both those with the “pretty privilege” and those without, down to a sum of their looks. And it makes a lot of people a lot of money.

Being “pretty” can be a real financial advantage in some parts of life. If you have ever worked in a tip based industry, you are aware that conventionally attractive women get better tips. Beyond this, there are some jobs that are only generally open to women deemed attractive. Modeling, acting, working in TV news- all jobs that go to the women who one would call “pretty,” “beautiful,” or “cute.” These jobs are far from alone. Sales people, company reps, secretaries, and many other job candidates are commonly chosen based on meeting someone’s standard of attractiveness.

This financial advantage is shadowed by the very real problem of women in the workplace not being taken seriously enough if they happen to be “cute.” The same people who hire a woman for sales because she was “prettier” than the other applicant may be unlikely to take that woman seriously enough to promote her. They after all know that her looks gave her a leg up, since they are the one responsible for that. In science and tech fields, “pretty” women may not get hired at all because of the age old assumption that “pretty” women aren’t smart. 

In day to day social interactions, conventionally attractive women have both advantages and disadvantages. People may be more likely to help a woman who they think of as a “pretty girl” out if they are in a crisis. They may also be more likely to ignore or excuse that woman’s bad behavior because of her appearance. However, if some people perceive the woman as attempting to use her looks- whether she is or not, they may lash out her and attempt to punish her regardless of the reality of the situation.

Being seen as attractive both raises one’s social capital and at the same time makes one a target. Because being attractive is often viewed as being socially powerful, the social status of those women rise accordingly. Women who aren’t lucky enough to be viewed as conventionally attractive find themselves compared to men or animals.  The social emphasis on appearance exists both for women who have “pretty privilege” and for those who do not. At the same time, inherent in the societal emphasis on appearance is a push towards jockeying for position and competitiveness.

There is an unfortunate sense that beauty is a competition and winning can be achieved by bringing someone else down. Whether it is through harsh critiques of the person’s appearance or accusations of “cheating,” (claiming the competition has an eating disorder) many women fall into the societal trap of trying to win “pretty privilege” by tearing down the women they see is competition. This only serves to make it harder for women to work together to get past a societal point where women are judged first on their looks and second on everything else.

No woman really wins when the contest is who can be the prettiest. They just suffer different negative outcomes of the contest.

Who does win? The beauty industry.

Plastic surgeons are a part of that. But it goes far beyond the liposuction and botox. Indeed beauty as privilege is a pervasive theme in advertising. The idea that somehow if you use their products you will get to have a “pretty” status and advantages from it. You will get the right guy or the right job if you just buy their wrinkle cream/ makeup/ hair conditioner/ etc. Or skin whitening cream. 

And then all that money goes right back into more and more advertising emphasizing appearance and how important it is to obtain- and through their products maintain- “pretty privilege.”