Is Pretty Privilege Real? The Surprising Benefits Of Being Beautiful That You Probably Never Consider

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What Is Pretty Privilege? Intersectionality, Racism & How Beautiful People Succeed In Careers & Relationships
Self, Health And Wellness

In today’s world, privilege is a marker. It is a key that can gain you access to opportunities, choices, and doors that may be denied to others.

Privilege is, according to Wikipedia, defined as a specific advantage experienced by only one group of people that can be "based on age, education level, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and social class" and it is powerfully linked with inequality.

Privileges can also layer upon one another, as can oppressions, to create different levels of access to opportunities. This is why, when talking about privileges, it's important to mention intersectionality.

For instance, racism and disability may intersect to cause a person of color who uses a wheelchair to have even less access to certain opportunities than either an able-bodied person of color or a white person who uses a wheelchair.

As a society, we like to think of social privilege as unearned, something that you were born with. You can't choose your race, your disability, or your age.

But there is one privilege, pretty privilege — sometimes referred to as beauty privilege, or lookism — that is less commonly understood and rarely discussed.

Pretty privilege usually includes feature such as being thin, able-bodied, cisgender, and possessing balanced and symmetrical facial features. It is also often tied to whiteness and colorism.

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As a man who generally meets the standards of “handsome” in our society, engaged to a woman who definitely (at least in my humble opinion) meets the standards of being beautiful, I hadn't thought much about the privilege I experienced by meeting some of these standards until my fiancée, Michelle, showed me an example of pretty privilege.

We were watching FOX Sports one day not too long ago and during an introductory chat between the cohosts, Joy Taylor, said, “I don’t buy coffee, I just drink it here,” motioning to the studio.

Michelle laughed and commented, “Like a woman who looks like that would pay for her own coffee anyway." She then said, "hashtag pretty privilege!"

I laughed at first, but then thought to myself, maybe she is right. Joy Taylor is a beautiful woman, by mainstream Western beauty standards. I started wondering what other benefits a woman who looks like Joy Taylor might experience simply due to her physical appearance.

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Pretty privilege is not something that is not necessarily talked about, and yet it is acknowledged — almost like an open secret. We know that it exists, but to admit it would point to a failing in our society that many people refuse to acknowledge.

We are a culture that prides itself on meritocracy and rewarding hard work, and the existence of pretty privilege proves how untrue that can be.

As with most social privileges, it starts with how the world sees you and determines how far you can advance.

Simply put, the way you look is paramount to how easy your life will be.

It would be dishonest for us to not acknowledge the degree to which beauty impacts the way people are treated — including myself.

We've all witnessed department store clerks tripping over themselves to assist the beautiful thin woman who wants to try on the latest designer jeans, waiters running across the restaurant to refill the water of the young woman who looks like a fashion model, and bartenders ignoring money-waving patrons in order to pour an attractive young person a shot.

Seeing this with my own eyes, I can’t help but laugh. On the surface, it seems harmless. But when I realize how much society has given to those that are deemed pretty and those aren’t? It loses its humor.

For every classically attractive man or woman who is given preferential treatment because they have the physique of a fashion model, there are people who are ignored and not seen. Invisible, because they don’t fit the mold of what is aesthetically pleasing.

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Talking about pretty privilege with “pretty people” is an interesting endeavor. In chatting with people who fit our society's expectations of attractiveness, I heard stories about receiving preferential treatment since the age of 13, being offered a job in the middle of an interview, never having to stand on the bus, every door opened without a pause, free meals, and extra time to complete assignments in class.

So many examples were given to me, I could not believe it. To be looked at as beautiful means that life may be, in many ways, simply easier — including in finding employment.

This becomes even more serious when one considers that racism is very closely related to lookism in our society.

According to a report by the Council on Contemporary Families, “Women who have above-average looks earned 8% more than normal looking women, while below-average looking women earned 4% less, and attractive men make 4% more than a man with average looks.”

Being pretty can also be an asset when accessing resources. Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the now-defunct health technology company Theranos who was proven to be a fraud, embodies this. Tall, slender, and blonde, Holmes was able to gain investors for a product that never worked.

Examining the Theranos story, you have to wonder, what did the predominately male investor group see in Holmes? The blood-testing product she claimed to have created never actually operated in the way she said it would. So, other than investing in a pretty young woman, what would the attraction be?

When I spoke with a close friend, whom I will call Tiffany, about pretty privilege, she recalled growing up and seeing the advantages that came with being attractive.

“I remember being treated differently when I was younger. I realized that I had leverage and that I could get things. Life was just different for me.”

I asked Tiffany if this was fair, being treated differently because you are beautiful.

“Life isn’t fair,” she shot back. “There are plenty of privileges, and in the end, it will all balance out.”

While Tiffany's physical beauty may open certain doors for her, as a non-white woman who was not raised in wealth, her pretty privilege may have limits. In other words, we need to understand that pretty privilege doesn't necessarily supersede other oppressions people may also have faced.

Thinking about our conversation, I laugh at her brutal honesty, but I also realize that for many people, not all privileges balance out. That's where intersectionality comes in and is exactly why it matters.

Intersectionality, a term coined in 1989 by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how different privileges and oppressions interact when defining identity, is helpful in understanding this complicated network of problems.

According to Wikipedia, intersectionality "is a qualitative analytic framework that identifies how interlocking systems of power affect those who are most marginalized in society."

In essence, the combination of certain privileges such as racial or socioeconomic with beauty can give one an even greater advantage.

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In modern pop culture, beauty is viewed through a very linear lens. Women who are thought of as attractive usually are tall, slim, and blonde. Of course, there are privileges that are less-often discussed, such as ability, sexual orientation, or gender identity at play, too.

Men are considered handsome when athletically built, broad-shouldered and have brown hair, and blue-eyed. Think of the cliche of “tall, dark and handsome”.

This beauty standard also shares another attribute — they are white.

It is impossible to discuss pretty privilege without acknowledging how race plays a major factor. In America, as well as around the world, blonde hair and light eyes is still treasured. One 2010 study even found that blonde people were more likely to have a higher household income (including their wages and their spouse's wages).

Growing up Black in America, I was told, through the media I was exposed to, that being pretty meant being white.

Images of white beauty permeated television, magazines, and billboards. For every Black face I saw, 10 to 20 white examples followed. Only seeing whiteness represented informs the populous that this is what attractiveness is. To be pretty, according to society, you have to try and emulate this as much as possible.

The World Health Organization reports that skin bleaching, the practice of lightening one’s complexion, is popular in many African countries and is an 18 billion dollar industry in Asia. By altering your appearance, one tries to get as close to whiteness as they can in order to be considered pretty and to possibly access whatever pretty privilege is available to them.

Body image is also a very important component to pretty privilege. Those who are deemed physically attractive are often thin or muscular, slim with muscle definition.

A 2012 study performed in the United Kingdom studied what a group of heterosexual men and women considered the ideal body type. For men, the ideal was considered an "inverted pyramid with broad shoulders and small waist, while the female ideal is an hourglass with a small waist-to-hip ratio," as reported by Today.com.

What's so interesting is how extremely rare the "ideal" attractive appearance is, considering that the average woman in America is a size 16, and men measure in at 5’9 and 192 pounds. Blonde-haired people make up only 2% of the world’s population.

Learning this, it is clear that for many people, pretty privilege is more than just aspirational, it’s impossible. Very few of the people we consider ideally attractive actually exist.

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For every story I hear of a woman getting a free haircut or more attention at lounge because of appearance, there is someone who says they are not heard or taken seriously because of their beauty. What they have to say or offer is brushed off because they are attractive.

My friend, whom I will call Diana, a VP of Marketing, recalls the looks she gets when she tells people her title and responsibilities.

“People assume that I got this position because I have a pretty face. They never take into account all the hard work that I put in. Being a pretty woman, people automatically think you are not smart.”

Diana describes a time in a meeting where people were shocked at how she looked

“People would walk into the meeting and assume that I was there to take minutes. When I would introduce myself, they would say, ‘Oh, I thought your LinkedIn was a fake photo.’”

Before you say, “Get out the smallest violin,” it’s important to understand this is another form of erasure.

Just imagine being well-regarded or known as an expert in your field, and whatever you have to offer is disregarded because people think your position was attained not because of hard work or intelligence, but because of your physical appearance.

Worse, people may assume that you got your job due to sexual favors.

That’s not privilege, it's a form of denying of who you are.

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Thinking about pretty privilege and how it influences society, I have to hold myself accountable for how I perpetuate this. I admit that I have given preference to people I find attractive and have gone the extra mile for a pretty face.

Honestly, I didn’t even realize I was doing it until the concept of pretty privilege was presented to me.

Also, I have to acknowledge my own pretty privilege. As a Black man, this is complicated. But, in addition to my race, I am 6’2, slim and fairly muscular, and I've been called “generically handsome” and I often wonder if there are times I received faster service or a discount on food because of my appearance. How about more serious benefits, like in employment or housing?

This is such a tough thing to look at in oneself because we all want to believe that our successes are based entirely on merit on our hard work or something else that runs deeper than our appearance.

In a world that is already so imbalanced, with so many people with limited access to the most valuable resources due to race, gender, class, or gender or sexual identity (just to name a few), pretty privilege is one of the few systems we can actively fight against, and the first step toward doing that is learning to recognize this type of privilege in ourselves.

We need to pay attention to our reactions to people who may not fit the standard Western beauty ideal. We need to question why we react the way we do to people who don’t, can’t, or won’t fit that mold.

In addition, in every way that we can —whether it is just in our personal lives, or whether it’s at work—we need to do away with unrealistic beauty standards and granting people special privileges because they are "hot".

Ultimately, beauty is everywhere and in us all. It is time we see this.

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LeRon L. Barton is a writer and speaker who has published essays about race, mass incarceration, politics, business and dating. His work has appeared in Black Enterprise, Salon, Raconteur, The Good Men Project, Multibriefs, and The EastBay Express. He has also appeared on Al Jazeera's The Stream and delivered a TEDx talk about his childhood stuttering. Find him on Twitter for more.

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