Thursday, July 24, 2008

Beauty Privilege

Why do we hate tall, thin, curvy (but not too curvy!) women with perky tits? I think it has a lot less to do with the fact they "support patriarchy" and a lot more with privilege.

I knew i wasn't done the other day. Especially in regards to my first question: Is feminist and conventionally pretty compatible? I was quick with a YES! But there is a lot more to it than that. People are pissed off about this right now and i don't blame them. I think the reason there is such a divide in this topic is because some think fitting a status quo set by patriarchy, is "antifeminist." Others think it's antifeminist to call people out for their looks, conventional or otherwise. I certainly stand by my previous agreement with the latter argument, except for one other thing: privilege.

Much like white-privilege, male-privilege, hetero-privilege, and cis-privilege, there is an absolute amount of privilege that goes along with being conventionally attractive. This may be why there is such a divide within this conversation. Without putting words to it, are we all talking about the "what is beautiful is good" phenomenon?

The physical-attractiveness stereotype (AKA "what is beautiful is good") is the presumption that physically attractive people possess other socially desirable traits as well. This is based solely on their appearance.

How does physical appearance and attractiveness tie into privilege? Research shows that, "in our society people who are good-looking are assumed and expected to be better than the rest of the population. According to Kenealy, Frude, and Shaw (2001), research indicates that an individual’s physical attractiveness is an important social cue used by others as a basis for social evaluation. This leads one to believe that physical attractiveness affects how society views people and also how people can be misinterpreted based on their looks. Since many people stereotype physically attractive people as being more socially acceptable, it becomes harder for average or unattractive people to be perceived as having positive traits."

In numerous studies photos of people that were stereotypically attractive were rated more favorably by participants than photos of people not conventionally attractive. Physical appearance had many implications for those rating the photos on impressions of personality. The "beauty is good" stereotype existed in many studies where participants made biased decisions based on physical attractiveness in everyday situations. "Understanding the types of inaccurate perceptions we hold can help us to explore social stereotypes by limiting biased judgments. More specifically, this area is important to the field of social psychology such that stereotypes involving physical attractiveness and social perceptions have always been a major occurrence."
(I realize the photo is laughable but i just wanted to give ya'll an idea of the types of images they use. Even the one that is supposed to be "not attractive" has gorgeous blond hair, perfect cheek bones, big eyes, etc.)

As early as 1972 researchers found support for the "what is beautiful is good" phenomenon in a study that concluded, "stereotyping based on physical (specifically, facial) attractiveness does occur. Physically attractive individuals were rated as having more socially desirable personalities and were expected to have greater personal success on most of the life outcome dimensions." LIFE OUT DIMENSIONS! In most everything in life, just being attractive gives one an upper hand, or at least research shows that Americans believe it does?! This is how much weight we place on physical appearance!

The physical attractiveness bias exists in our professional lives, such as in hiring practices, as well:
Attractiveness biases have been demonstrated in such different areas as teacher judgments of students (Clifford & Walster, 1973), voter preferences for political candidates (Efran & Patterson, 1974) and jury judgments in simulated trials (Efran, 1974). Recently, Smith, McIntosh and Bazzini (1999) investigated the “beauty is goodness” stereotype in U.S. films and found that attractive characters were portrayed more favorably than unattractive characters on multiple dimensions across a random sample drawn from five decades of topgrossing films. There is
considerable empirical evidence that physical attractiveness impacts employment decision making, with the result that the more attractive an individual, the greater the likelihood that that person will be hired (Watkins & Johnston, 2000).

Ok so the physical attractiveness stereotype exists. How does it tie into the currently ongoing feminist conflict of appearance? I think it has a lot to do with privilege. "Beauty privilege" to be exact. Race is socially constructed, yet white privilege exists. Gender is socially constructed, yet male privilege exists. Social status is socially constructed, yet class privilege exists. I think these same rules apply to beauty privilege. For something to be socially constructed it would not have a meaning (ie a biological meaning) without a social representation that is constructed specifically to give it value. Beauty, for example, would just be a state of appearance, no negative or positive connotation to it, except for there is a socially constructed meaning for beauty that creates bias and privilege.

To look at beauty privilege in already accepted and understood terms i will turn to white privilege. The definition i put together below was adapted from Kendall Clark's definition of white privilege.

Beauty Privilege can be defined by:

1. a. A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by conventionally attractive people beyond the common advantage of all others
b. A special advantage or benefit of conventionally attractive people
2. A privileged position; the possession of advantage a conventionally attractive person enjoys over those not conventionally attractive people.
3. a. The special right or immunity attaching to conventionally attractive people as a social relation
b. display of beauty privilege, a social expression of a conventionally attractive people demanding to be treated as members of the socially privileged class.
4. a. To grant conventionally attractive people a particular right or immunity; to benefit or favor specially conventionally attractive people
b. To avail oneself of a privilege owing to one as a conventionally attractive person.
5. To authorize or license of conventionally attractive people what is forbidden or wrong for those not conventionally attractive; to justify, excuse.
6. To give to conventionally attractive people special freedom or immunity from some liability or burden to which non conventionally attractive people are subject; to exempt.

I realize that definition is unnecessarily long but it covers privilege extraordinarily well. Advantages of beauty privilege goes beyond financial benefits such as making more money in tips as a server or not having to pay for drinks at the bar. Research shows that the physical attractiveness phenomenon (thus beauty privilege) affects being hired for employment, called on in the classroom, sentenced for a crime, selected for a position of power, etc. Being able to actively or passively fit into the contemporary standard of beauty offers a set of privileges that go well beyond getting out of a speeding ticket.

The Happy Feminist wrote about beauty as privilege a few years back:
When I was in my 20s, I constantly got pulled over for speeding without ever once getting a ticket. I have frequently been told that the cops probably didn’t ticket me because I was young and cute (and white, but that’s not the issue here). Was I glad to not get a ticket? Sure! But the power in these situations was always in the hands of the male cops who pulled me over. They got to decide whether they deemed me attractive enough to exercise their power and discretion to let me off the hook for speeding.

Although I agree with her to a point i don't think this can be used as an argument against beauty privilege for two reasons.
1. The same argument could be made for the other forms of privilege, but we'd know it's crap. For example a statement like "POC aren't racially profiled, the power to determine who to arrest is in the hands of those doing the arresting" is faulty because we operate within a system of institutionalized racism in which the power isn't solely in the hands of a person but a response to the culture that the person exists in.
2. Even if Happy Feminist's argument is taken into account there is still an element of privilege that goes along with beauty because those who fit into the conventionally attractive category are at least given some element of power which, those who do not fit into the status quo, are not. For example, if a conventionally attractive woman is pulled over, she may or may not get a ticket. If a non-conventionally attractive woman is pulled over, she doesn't have that chance. (I use "non-conventionally attractive" because i think all women are beautiful, we are just talking about beauty in societal terms here).

This is closely linked to feminism because feminists work to educate others about privilege as well as give up our own (be it hetero, white, able-bodied, thin, cis, wealthy, etc) to live in a more just world. Could this be why some radical feminists are up in arms about others reclaiming conventional beauty?

If it is, i wish they would be more intelligent about it and lay off the personal, and unjustified, attacks.

I hate to do it but here's a gem that you'd think was written by a troll, but no, it's someone who claims to be a feminist:
"Jill Fillipovic is the original Fake Pretty Feminist. [Fame within the feminist blogosphere] is all based on looks it's all vapid it has nothing to do with women's liberation. UNTIL WOMEN ARE NO LONGER SEXED UP THEY WON'T BE SEEN AS HUMAN BEINGS BY MEN. Actually these are the women who will never see THEMSELVES as human beings. They'll be too busy buffing their nails and deodorizing their vaginas, ha!." (emphasis hers)

Wow. Way to discredit all the amazing work someone has done just because of the way she looks. How is this any better than telling a woman who is not conventionally attractive her work is meaningless because she is "ugly"? It's not.

I think all this women hate is just as much crap as beauty privilege merely because neither will get us anywhere. As far as beauty privilege goes, "beauty" itself is a socially constructed term that determines which physical appearance is better than another. Years back a heavier, pale woman was considered beautiful. It represented her wealth and abundance. Now, women starve and pay for cancer boxes (tanning beds) to achieve just the opposite look because it's what is now socially desirable. Why are we hatin on each other when we should be hatin on the system that tells women they should starve and get cancer to fit a socially desirable appearance? Beauty privilege needs to be recognized in the same way as the other privileges are. We don't tell white people they are useless or hetero women that they can't be feminists. No, we just expect them to understand their privilege and use it for good and not for evil... you know what i mean...

We can't start excluding women from the feminist movement for (intentionally or otherwise) fitting into a standard of beauty that we should be fighting against. If a woman is naturally thin we can't go around saying she must be anorexic and that being thin is unfeminist. No, she is just naturally thin and that's perfectly fine. Saying the opposite is just as much bullshit as if we were to call fat women unfeminist. In the same regard being conventionally beautiful isn't unfeminist, but it does provide an element of privilege that needs to be recognize. As feminists, we can't attack the women who fit this (almost unattainable) standard of beauty but rather we must question the standard and expand it to fit all women, hell, not just women, everyone. Ren says it best, "why are we blaming the woman with the perky tits rather than the society, which says perky tits are the best?"


lindabeth said...

Really great post.

I think there's a difference, too, between those who are naturally conventionally attractive and those who go to great lengths to (financially and philosophically) support the very industries that profit off of the very value system that feminism is trying to question.

I too have been in those situations where I thought my appearance advantaged first I thought I was glad, thought thought it was too bad, then after thinking more I felt really crappy about it afterwards. It's easy to feel like in those instances (where all we see is our own advantage) that I'm the only one affected, but the flipside of privilege is the non-conventionally attractive women (or women who aren't wearing "sexy" clothing, etc) who don't get that kind of treatment. When you remember that you getting out of a speeding ticket in reality comes at the expense of others who never get a break, it feels awful.

I think being consistent is important, whatever you do. We shouldn't blame women for how they look but we should also be at every opportunity exploding those myths about human value.

For those of us who benefit from society's fucked-up ideas, we need to be even more outspoken, and also need to be ready to give up privilege...would we really accept it if men just said, "I can't help it that men are privileged in x, so I'm going to use it the best I can to create more advantages for myself...hey it's not my fault, blame the system"? We wouldn't and shouldn't. We shouldn't blame women for how they look, but we can blame the extent to which they participate in an exclusionary system.

It's like when actresses lament the emphasis Hollywood puts on their appearance over their talent, but then they're the first to pose in their underwear for Maxim.

Anonymous said...


I myself find that I often hate those who are thin and "beautiful", while I fit into the category of women who are heavier and pale, and I often used to feel so miserable that I wasn't born years ago. But I'm happy I've found a guy who loves me the way I am. I now realize I'm LUCKY and that "ugly" women are the ones with real privilege, in a way. While the women who society sees as beautiful often end up with men (or women!) who only love or respect them because of their appearance, if we find someone who wants to be with them, there's a far greater chance they are with us because they truly, truly love us. And that brings me peace and happiness.

Excellent article!

Anonymous said...

I've reread this post a few times now, trying to think of the best way for me to comment in a coherent manner.

I actually kind of think that debate of "beauty privilege" is rather silly. Now before another reader tears me apart over that comment, hear me out.

The second to last paragraph I think is one of the most important paragraphs of the blog entry. It speaks of how women who were pale and heavier were once the "beautiful ones" and that society periodically changes the social expectations for beauty. That is absolutely true and whether people will believe this or not, selection by beauty (or physical traits in general) is a biological occurance. Prime example would be the peacock, the male has the colorful feathers and when it is mating time displays them proud so that the female peacocks may make a selection. It happens with other species as well.

That brings me to the next (and main point) I wanted to make. It goes both ways!!! Women make selections based on beauty all the time, and men are often recipients of privilege because of their beauty!

Examples: How often do you see the "ugly, goofy, nerdy" boy with the "hot" girl? Look at "pretty" women and look who they associate with, often times they are other "pretty" women. Sorry I'm not meaning to generalize there in either example, because we all know that is not exclusively the case, but I think you can see the point I'm making. It certainly happens. Men are often discriminated against, or unfairly privileged because of their looks.

Now while we have women (and men) in the United States spending thousands of dollars for enhancements, reconstructions, lifts, etc., we are certainly not alone in this phenomenon. Other parts of the world try to change themselves as well, except they desire a form that we would look down on! Many Asian cultures feel that weight shows prosperity, so from a young age they try to "plump up" their children so that they look like better parents that can afford to raise their children.

So back to my original statement about the debate being "silly," can anyone out there in the blog world see what I mean by that? It's silly because while those of us that believe in equality for all may not agree with "beauty privilege," there is little that can be done about it simply because it's a natural biological trait and sometimes we really should just leave nature alone because eventually it all comes full circle.

And for the record, not everyone in society feels that "perky tits" are best along with the tallness, skinniness and blondeness. Plenty of us appreciate the "fuller" woman, but then again what real relationship is based solely on looks??? In the end it's the whole package that really matters. :)

whatsername said...

My recognition of my own beauty privilege has led to a certain amount of feeling I have a duty to buck conventional beauty. No makeup, no styled hair, hairy legs... I can buck those conventions, and so I do, because some others aren't so lucky. It might be the reason Valenti's repeated "we're not all ugly, hairy legged, lesbians!" comments from FFF bugged the crap out of me. Because guess what, I have hairy legs, and I'm very good looking! Omg! They're not mutually exclusive, what?!

I got her point, we all hate being ostracized for our looks, but I felt like she went about it REALLY badly.

Anyway that's a side rant cuz I only recently read the book. The larger point is, yes, you are totally right. Of course on the other side of beauty privilege are some serious annoyances and/or oppressions that come with it, but I don't have to tell you that, right? Things never go only one way in every situation.

shrink on the couch said...

I got into a heated debate with a group of women about this concept, physical attractiveness as social advantage. I boiled it down to "good teeth" -- You're very lucky to be born with good teeth, or, into a family with the means and willingness to fix your teeth. I couldn't believe the denial about the role attractiveness plays in one's ability to get hired and get hired into the better jobs. Take a look at the employees at an upscale department store, vs. those at a thrift store.

I'm rambling, but .. excellent post. The righteousness and sense of entitlement of the priviledged class, be it finances or looks, is infuriating.

Radical Reminders said...

whatsername, i absolutely agree with you about the way Jessica touched on the topic in her book AND about the oppression that goes along with fitting conventional beauty norms. Unlike other privileges that don't have many downsides, beauty privilege comes with it's host of shaming, victim blaming, cat-calls, and unwanted attention

Daisy Deadhead said...

The disability rights movement had a big discussion some years ago about whether facial scarring could be considered a disability. It was widely agreed that it WAS, but it really IS NOT a "disability" in that it rarely impedes someone's ability to actually function or move about in the world. But the discrimination may be worse for that person, than for an actual physically disabled person who is considered facially attractive or pretty.

This was brought on by intense discussion over Lucy Grealy's book Autobiography of a Face. (It is notable that Grealy is no longer with us, due to a drug overdose, unknown if accidental or not.) Grealy considered herself a disabled person, and this marked the first time I truly understood the "disability is a social construct" argument.

I mean, what is "disabling" the scarred person* if not simply the reactions of other people?

*In Grealy's case, however, she had cancer and accompanying physical pain and drug dependence. I am speaking in general here.

Great post, thought-provoking! :)

Anonymous said...


One of the things that irks me is the people who've been popping out to say that only ugly women can be feminists.

My usual response is "I don't know any ugly women."

I just got back from a wedding this weekend, and I spent the weekend dancing and drinking with some of the most beautiful women I know--none of whom were thin or blonde. Hell, I'm not thin and blonde.

Accepting myself as beautiful even when society has not said that I am is the hardest part. And that's what we need to be fighting for--not throwing women out of the 'movement' for being too pretty, but making sure all women feel pretty.

I don't remember where I read the statistic that feminists tend to find other women pretty more often than non-feminists. I don't think it goes that way for some of these women, but it sure has for me

Anonymous said...

i like this article, but have to say i don't think the term "privilege" is exactly accurate. There are many negative things that go along with this beauty "privilege" as well as the positive.

This includes:
1. constantly fielding unsolicited comments and stares,very often from men, about your appearance.
2. never really knowing if your male boss hired you because you are competent or because you are pretty.
3. second guessing "platonic" relationships with (male) friends, leaving yourself to wonder what they are really interested in
4. constant worry and anxiety caused by wondering whether anyone you meet is able to just you by your mind and intellect rather than assumptions based on your looks. (i realize this can be anyone, but i certainly have a high amount of anxiety because sometimes i really wonder if i wasn't "conventionally attractive" if i would have the friends i do, get the responses i do - in other words, i constantly wonder about my INNERself and wonder if anyone even cares about it..)

i realize the amount of privilege that goes along with "conventional" attractiveness, etc. but i have to say that it can also be very difficult and isolating, wondering how much you get by this privilege and how much you actually earn..

Radical Reminders said...

Anonymous, i completely agree with you and would make the same point if i read a post like this one elsewhere :) This is why i mentioned, "unlike other privileges that don't have many downsides, beauty privilege comes with it's host of shaming, victim blaming, cat-calls, and unwanted attention." I think conventional beauty offers both it's sets of advantages in society as well as disadvantages.

Here i addressed the privilege that conventional beauty grants but you are absolutely right as well :)

Anonymous said...

A little of the beauty privilege is rooted in the fear of the abnormal.

I work with the mentally ill, and many of them have personal care issues. They "look wrong", without brushing their hair, their teeth, washing regularly, getting haircuts, wearing clothes that are clean/fit, and so on. They have checked out of society.

If those that check out are "wrong", than those that check in are "right". The well-groomed, stylish, cutting-edge of fashion person must be sane, normal, and participating in society. They care about how they are viewed by society. They are playing the game.

Those that care about societal versions of success buy into social standards and are "pretty". Those that do not care about social success check out, and are "ugly".

I do not believe this to be true, but I think this is the tacit logic often used. And I am guilty of using it as well, on occasion.

Anonymous said...

I understand that this conversation is long over, its participants moved on. But there's something I'd like to address real quick.

Some people have said that beauty is a privilege unlike other privileges, because beautiful people, mostly beautiful women, also suffer for it. This is, I think, failure to sufficiently consider the analogues.

Patriarchy hurts men too. Little boys aren't allowed to play with dolls, men aren't allowed to cry, men are under pressure to provide for their families. Men aren't allowed to wear certain clothes. This does not negate their privilege, nor does it make them equally oppressed. So it is with beautiful people.

Particularly in the case of beautiful women, I would interpret bad experiences as examples of intersectionality. The correct analogue here is the intersection of masculinity with blackness, disability, or queeritude. (okay, couldn't think of the real noun there.) Most of the intersectionality there comes from the narrative that black/disabled/queer men cannot meet the standards of masculinity, are somehow broken men.

It's not quite the same narrative in the case of beautiful women, but I would still call it intersectionality.

Anonymous said...

I would say that the narrative that 'fat' or 'ugly' women are not allowed to be fully sexual or present themselves as sexual beings fits into this concept of intersectionality. Like the old talk shows, Sally Jessy Raphael in particular, where a 'fat' woman would come on stage dressed in sexy clothes, full of self-confidence and the audience members would say 'how dare you dress like that'... as an ugly girl in school the biggest joke was for one of the guys to act as if he wanted to go on a date with me, like 'haha, who would ever want to go out with her...' My whole life I have felt like a 'broken woman' unworthy of love or respect. It is still very difficult to see myself as other than neuter, and especially as I get into midlife, the great equalizer, when even conventionally attractive women start to complain that they don't get the special treatment they are accustomed to.