Halfway through my mascara application, one eye exaggerated with black goop, I stopped. Suddenly it all felt silly, ridiculous even. I was going to a job interview, not a date … so why was I spending time doing my makeup? My employer’s opinion about me should be formed based on my capabilities and skills as an employee, not on how attractive I am. It shouldn’t matter if my eyelashes are sky-high or if they aren’t even there at all. Why was I doing this?
I reflected on the times that I felt admired, heard and seen. When I was listened to, and when I was taken seriously. All of these things had one thing in common — I looked good. It was then that I realized an uncomfortable truth: People only respect me when I’m pretty. I finished with my mascara and left resenting it a little bit.
“Pretty privilege” is a term coined recently to describe the daily advantage that attractive people have. It’s why a nice smile can get you out of a ticket and why the most gorgeous girl you’ve ever seen in the Starbucks line gets her drink twice as fast. It’s the reason we wear makeup to an interview and why people might hold the door for you more when your hair is done.
The narrative that attractive people have an advantage is not a new idea and is actually well documented. You may have heard of the “Halo Effect,” where someone’s unrelated traits can cause a bias in how people perceive them. The classic example of this is the “attractiveness stereotype,” where attractive people are thought of more highly. People tend to perceive attractive individuals as being in better health, more intelligent and even more moral.
These psychological connections reflect how important physical looks are in our society. People value appearance so much that it actually shapes how they view others entirely, even in unrelated aspects, like their personality or intelligence.
Human nature is to be drawn towards individuals we find attractive, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But how much is too much? Once appearance becomes about more than just how someone looks, it begins to become a problem. Beauty is only skin deep and should only be viewed as such. Advantages and judgments given based on appearances create untrue assumptions and unfair benefits, especially because attractiveness is subjective.
Think of what a pretty girl looks like to you. She’s probably athletically skinny and tall, with straight white teeth, thick shiny hair, a straight, tiny nose and killer sharp cheekbones. She meets the Western beauty standard. Pretty privilege and the halo effect function using social beauty norms. In America, Eurocentric features dominate the beauty standards, so those with these features are going to have a real social advantage in life.
This is great if you fit into this standard, but creates a disadvantage if you don’t. People with non-European features, often people of color, experience this disadvantage in a society that gives less value to the esthetic of other races and ethnic groups. White privilege is closely tied to this, as our society gives an advantage to white people, who are inherently more likely to fit the Eurocentric beauty norms. This advantage can come in the form of more authority, better pay and better treatment. Furthermore, pressure to conform to these norms can create intense insecurities and motivate people to go to extreme measures to fit them. One study found that African American women are more likely to “engage in skin bleaching, excessive hair care and the willingness to endure financial debt related to beauty.”
It’s clear that a specific type of attractiveness is highly valued in our society. Individuals who are viewed as attractive might experience small daily advantages, things that would be nice but might not be obviously a pervasive problem. However, pretty privilege goes well beyond the “would be nice” level, and allows for unfair, unequal and sometimes racist behavior to persist.
By all means, it is normal and natural to want to feel pretty. It’s okay to wear mascara and do your hair. When we look good, we feel good. But we must remember that looks are just that — how we look, and nothing more.
Amy Edmunds is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.