Discrimination is a long-standing issue that continues to prevail, even in our progressive society. It seems that being pretty earns you privileges that others don’t receive.
Discrimination covers all forms of bias including gender, race, age, sexuality and social standing, alongside many others. However, I want to focus on racial bias, and the correlation between being pretty and receiving privileges.
From a young age, I grew up hearing the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. The purpose of the phrase being to avoid pre-emptive judgement, especially about people.
Don’t judge a person by their situation or their look. Don’t assume things about them. The idiomatic expression branches over all forms of judgmental behaviour which is, in my opinion, a universal moral. But the question is, have we lived up to that moral standard?
Understanding pretty privilege
Pretty privilege is when somebody has an advantage over others because of their attractive appearance. Therefore, people get privileges based on other people’s perceptions, creating an unfair criterion for beauty benchmarks.
Judgment or prejudice?
As much as we try, humans are judgmental by nature. We have both a conscious and subconscious mind. Our subconscious is a reflex system that behaves based on involuntary reactions. We have control over our conscious mind, but the subconscious thought process is a little harder to understand.
I believe in most cases, we are not even aware of our own biases because of its involuntary and impulsive nature. It’s only after you reflect on your actions that you understand the bias you hold. By taking the time to think and evaluate your actions, you’re able to understand both yourself and your thought process to avoid negative judgmental thoughts.
Some people may claim to be non-judgmental and that can be true, but our actions speak louder than words and a prime example of appearance-based judgement can be seen through the use of apps like Tinder.
Tinder allows users to place judgement on one another because of their appearance. Judgement by swiping left and right to approve or disapprove is routine on such apps. With an estimated 50 million active users, it seems that placing preconceptions on one another is part of many people’s daily routines.
Most people I know have Tinder and watching them use the app clearly shows pre-emptive judgment placed on people because of their appearance.
We do this with everything, even our food. We go to restaurants and make snap judgements about the food based on the way it looks. I know I’m guilty of this. If one of the bananas in my fruit bowl has a little bruising on the side, I’ll avoid eating it and will choose to eat the banana with no bruising, despite its inside being perfectly fine.
However, it is important to note that judgement is a survival instinct. An example of this can be seen in the ‘fight or flight’ response. The fight or flight response is when you analyse a situation and then determine how you will respond to that situation. However, there is a fine line between judgement and prejudice.
I believe a judgement can change over time, but prejudice is more rigid and therefore more toxic as it creates harmful barriers and standards that people try to reach. This may lead to problems like low self-confidence in the process.
Prejudiced views have meant that we have created a link between attractive people and positive characteristics, which in turn has led to favourable opinions towards “attractive” people. For example, in situations like job interviews, decisions are made based on a person’s appearance. Research has found that an attractive person is more likely to be called in for an interview than a less attractive person. However, I don’t understand the virtue of this, as from what I understand, being more attractive does not mean you are better suited for the role.
In my opinion, judgments should be made based on relevant qualities. For example, if you were to judge the quality of a fabric you wouldn’t just judge it based on appearance, you would consider the texture and the material used. This same thought process can be applied to the judgment of a person. In most cases, preconception based on looks is irrelevant and detrimental to our society as it means we no longer are valued on merit but instead on attributes over which we have no control. Initial judgment is understandable but holding your views so rigidly without any particular reason is narrow-minded.
Freedom of power: Does that mean beauty is power?
Being attractive earns freedoms, hence the term pretty privilege. There’s no burden on attractive people as they are the beauty standard and therefore have less to work towards, in terms of appearance. They are not constrained by the social benchmark of attractiveness.
However, I think that people who do not fit the idealised goal of beauty feel they need to work harder to reach the beauty standard and in turn earn the freedom that comes with being more attractive. Working harder may mean exercising more or working to earn more money for cosmetic treatments. This unattainable target is a burden and an entrapment. It reduces peoples feelings of self-worth and thus means they are not free in the way people who receive pretty privilege are.
Here are some examples of how pretty privilege results in freedom and advantages:
- Attractive people are perceived as smarter
- Attractive people are sometimes paid more
- Attractive people have better social and psychological wellbeing
- Attractive people are expected to be more trustworthy
- Attractive people have more choice of partners
- Attractive people are found to be more popular
- Attractive people are given more attention
Set a standard to reach that privilege
Although beauty standards are constantly changing, some facts stay the same. I believe there’s a general standard for beauty: you are either beautiful or you are not.
Yes, the idea of attractiveness varies from one person to another, but there is a general trend we follow with a large focus on Eurocentric features. We are continuously being flooded with beauty propaganda of what the ideal look is. We’ve seen this in the modelling industry, on social media and on television. Blonde, white, blue eyes, thin and tall. Therefore, people of colour are excluded from the beauty standard and are left at a disadvantage. Being white earns white privilege which pretty privilege has come under.
A relationship between being beautiful and being white has been created by westernised beauty standards. Which we have further entrenched into our society through the elevation of lighter-skinned models, focus on western features as being beautiful, and ideas that straight hair is more beautiful than naturally curly hair.
These are all western features, that for so long, I tried to attain with the use of hair straighteners, using a foundation that was too light for me and scrubbing my skin in an attempt to alter my skin colour. This essentially creates a thought process of ‘that person is prettier because their skin is lighter’.
What do I mean by this?
There has been a constant pressure to look prettier, because as mentioned before, being pretty means you have more value and freedom. However, being prettier and in part successful has always meant, to me and many women of colour, having a lighter skin tone.
Examples of the white beauty standards placed in our society:
1. The racial and body size controversy of Brandy Melville
Brandy Melville was under heavy criticism for their discriminatory hiring process. They show a clear catering towards white, thin people with their ‘one size fits all’ approach that favours white models and store employees.
2. Tanning and its connotations for white people vs BIPOC
People of colour have fallen victim to racism. Historically a darker complexion is associated with manual, outdoor labour, which was seen as a poor person’s job. However, the act of white people tanning was seen as a sign of wealth as they could afford to soak in the sun on holiday. This is massively hypocritical.
3. Advertisement of skin lightening treatments
The production and advertisement of these treatments identifies a need for creating more light-skinned people and feeding on insecurities of being ‘too dark’ which further idealises white beauty standards.
4. The lack of representation in the modelling industry
We are an extremely diverse society; however, our modelling industry is not. We are advertised a look which does not represent everyone and makes some groups feel like a minority. Because of a lack of inclusivity, seeing a rigid beauty standard makes those who cannot attain these standards feel like an outcast.
5. Black women’s natural hair becoming an issue in the workplace
Black women have been told their natural look is considered unprofessional which further emphasises the point that western ideation has been entrenched into us. Black men and women’s natural features are being called “messy”. In black culture, hair is a part of their identity, and by being told that their hair is unprofessional, their identity is also being invalidated.
Setting beauty standards in order to receive pretty privilege is a harsh social injustice. People shouldn’t worry about appearances and it certainly shouldn’t indicate a person’s worth.
People should be judged on their personality and meritocracy. Physical attributes should not play a role in our lives. I believe this would reduce so many mental health issues, as people would feel less social pressure to reach an unattainable goal. Not fitting the beauty standard does not make you less attractive and no one should be judged on such a narrowminded perception.
Reducing the role of physical attributes in our social and professional lives would benefit everyone, as it would create a healthy professional work environment. People would be judged on meritocracy rather than appearances and so the halo effect would diminish in other circumstances with people being judged on their personality. It would also lessen social injustice as people who have been told they do not fit western beauty customs would be free from the entrapment of unreachable criteria.
We are in the 21st century where we can travel anywhere and meet anyone. We are an integrated and diverse society, so there should also be an integration of beauty standards. People should not conform to something simply because it is the dominant thought at that time.
Through the centuries technological and economic advancements have been made, yet our beauty standards have stayed rigid. I want our beauty standards to evolve too. Not a one size fits all situation, but an understanding that all people are attractive in their own way.
Beauty should not be so narrow in that it influences people to look the same in order to align with some set standards. We should be striving for individuality, aspiring to be what makes us happy, not what we think other people would like.