Hey. So, I know we live in an era where people are constantly outing each others’ privileges: male privilege, white privilege, ableist privilege, etc. To me, these things are pretty obvious. Being a man, being white, being physically able are all objective qualities that can be quantified and demarcated. It’s easy to identify who the people who possess these privileges are, and it’s easy to talk about how these privileges have helped them in their life. However, in this feminist era, one thing that I haven’t seen discussed openly is the privilege that attractive people possess. It’s a sentiment that is reiterated over and over again in popular culture: attractive people are awarded certain privileges that others are not. Most recently, this can be seen with the line “Jump the line, to the front/Do what we like, get what we want/We’re just so pretty!” in the new Iggy Azalea – Britney Spears joint “So Pretty.”
Being pretty or attractive is not an objective quality. Different people find different traits attractive, however when I speak on ‘attractive privilege,’ I would describe attractiveness as a physical quality that conforms to popular culture’s (and therefore the media’s) ideal of beauty. Ironically, whiteness does seem to fall under the umbrella of what popular culture considers beautiful or attractive, but this goes beyond just skin color. Body type is a huge component of what the media considers to be attractive, as well as facial symmetry, facial features, and hair styles.
The other thing about being attractive is it’s something that can be changed, improved or lost. Unlike skin color and gender, the quality of being attractive is by its very nature constantly in flux. (Gender can be in flux, obviously, but not in the same way that physical attractiveness is.) A person can make the choice to learn skills such as the application of make up, to invest money in cosmetic alterations such as hair cuts, boob jobs or manicures, to learn poise and posture — all of which can impact a person’s perceived attractiveness. However, despite these efforts, attractiveness can still be elusive because the cruelty of the collective subconscious might deem a person unattractive despite these efforts.
However, enough on the nature of being attractive, and more on the issue of attractive privilege. Attractive privilege is something that is a large part of American culture, and this can be seen in our culture’s emphasis on celebrity culture and consumption as a means of validation. Celebrity culture is a branch of the entertainment industry, one that occupies the newspaper racks at the grocery stores and the blinking ads on our favorite websites. Celebrity culture fixates on certain people, vaunting them as idols of beauty and virtue. Within celebrity culture, the pressure to be attractive and beautiful is evident, and that pressure is something that has trickled down into the lives of average people.
Women and men alike are held to the standard of movie idols because we are told that these beautiful people are somehow better than us. Celebrities are lauded as a pretty face; oftentimes, the story of the celebrity is a commonplace one, a story that the average person can identify with, yet it is the concept of beauty that makes this certain person special. This is the cultural benchmark for the enactment of attractive privilege: this person is just like you and me, yet because this person is more attractive than you and me, this person was afforded the privilege of celebrity and fame, and all the trappings that come with those titles. Celebrity culture indoctrinates us with the idea that with beauty comes fame and fortune. It’s not wit or cunning or perspicacity or perseverance that are lauded within celebrity: it is beauty.
When we identify celebrity culture as the jumping off point for attractive privilege, we see that consumerism is the commodification of that concept. Celebrity culture is the selling point for many products: make up, hair treatments, laser eye surgery, hair removal, spas, fashion…you know, all those things that are supposed to make us pretty. These items are sold to us based on the idea that for a small fee, we, too, can attain the status of beauty and attractiveness that celebrities possess. We, too, can attain the privilege of being attractive, and we, too, can know what it feels like to be a celebrity. Because too many people have an invested financial stake in selling us attractive privilege, attractive privilege is perpetuated throughout our culture as something valuable that can be attained. Perpetuating attractive privilege is profitable for many people, so many people that the eradication of attractive privilege will never happen.
When we look at attractive privilege from a macrocosmic level, it’s easy to see how it functions. It is interwoven with many aspects of our society, but looking at how it affects people on a daily basis is completely different. Within our own social groups, many of us can identify who is the ‘celebrity’ or the pretty one within the group, and we can also identify the privileges that these pretty people are afforded. This is a very high school analysis, because one only need look at how high school social groups function in order to identify how attractive privilege functions. Certain advantages are afforded to attractive people: popularity, sexual validation, social opportunity, social attention. All other things being equal, being attractive affords certain people certain privileges. This why everybody in high school secretly hates the pretty girl.
As we move away from the high school example and look at how attractiveness functions in adult life, theoretically we temper the value of attractive privilege with other qualities, such as intelligence and moral fortitude. However, yet again, as we see people who are attractive being vaunted in high school, it goes to show that they would necessarily have higher self-confidence and higher self-esteem due to the validation of their attractiveness. In adulthood, the validation of their attractiveness manifests as the confidence to continue in life, to achieve, to feel supported by people as they move higher and higher in social circles. Because they are validated on a base social level, this encourages them to achieve more later in life. Attractive people are given more of a voice in this society. However, it takes intelligence to leverage attractive privilege into something more meaningful and tangible, much in the same way that it takes intelligence to catapult any type of privilege into any sort of monetary, social or physical gain. It’s not that you have privilege, it’s what you do with it that counts.
Which leads us to the question: is attractive privilege inherently bad? It’s worth noting that attractive privilege is rooted in fundamental biology. As sexual creatures, we are trained to seek out attractive people, because attractive people offer something positive in the gene pool and propagation of our species. From a biological perspective, attraction is a sign of genetic fitness. In this way, being attractive is good. However, when we look at society as a whole, we have to ask ourselves: is the emphasis on physical attractiveness really valuable in our society? While I believe that beauty in and of itself is a positive thing (at the end of the day, I’m an artist, so I really believe in beauty), the overemphasis on being attractive within American culture has been taken to an absurd level. But, hey, that’s how American culture functions.
The fact of the matter is, there is incredible pressure within society to be attractive and pretty. It takes hard work, even for those whom attractiveness comes naturally. Admittedly, once someone has attained the status of being “attractive” there is still judgment passed on the attractive person. While the advantages afforded therein might make that aspect of attaining attractiveness worthwhile, because attractiveness is not an objective quality there will always be a trade off. We as a society have decided that being attractive is inherently valuable, yet we also make being attractive almost impossible to attain (and maintain).
This isn’t about devaluing attractiveness in society or making it cheaper. This is about broadening the definition of attractive to be inclusive of myriad definitions of beauty, rather than just being some waifish, blonde-haired white girl who seems on the verge of death. With recent campaigns, we have seen people fighting to promote alternate images of beauty, be it women of color, plus sized models, or different standards of attractiveness. This is about affording people of every ilk the opportunity to attain the validation and privilege of being attractive while at the same time asking ourselves: how can we emphasize other positive traits in people, such as the ability to love other people? The ability to be a good person? The ability to contribute positively to society?
This is something that no pretty girl wants to talk about, mostly because we are content to hold onto our privilege and status as attractive. That privilege allows us to get away with a lot of bullshit. It’s much easier to get away with being a shitty person if you’re attractive, but what’s the point of working towards attractiveness if one of the advantages is that it allows you to be more awful? The value of beauty comes in conjunction with other positive traits such as honesty, intelligence and valor. I hate to moralize here, but if you have the advantage of attractive privilege, you should be using it for something good. It will work out better for you in the long term. Promise.