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As we enter the Whoring 20s and ticketed play parties resume in the Bay Area I’m thinking a lot about attractiveness.
Specifically, I’m thinking about “pretty privilege,” what constitutes “conventional attractiveness,” and the role attitude plays in how we’re treated. There’s a lot that’s immutable about attractiveness. I think it’s worth acknowledging and interrogating the ways attractiveness impacts how people are treated and the ways hierarchies impact conceptions of attractiveness.
At the same time, I think attitude plays a huge, underappreciated role in how we’re treated. And, I think we have more control over our attitude than we realize.
What is “pretty privilege?”
I don’t remember when I first encountered the concept of “privilege” but I do remember writing about it around 2012 and being really surprised by the pushback. To me, the idea that society treats people better or worse based on certain characteristics seems obvious. If everyone wearing red to class gets a spanking and you just happened to have showed up in blue that day, that’s obviously an unearned privilege. Similarly, if racism exists (and it does), then to be exempt from or impacted less by racism is an obvious advantage, all else equal.
I recently stumbled on this video of TikTokers talking about their experiences with “pretty privilege.” The empirical research is super clear that, all else equal, people who are considered more conventionally attractive get treated better on average than those who are considered less conventionally attractive. Most people assume pretty people are more intelligent, for example. Research shows teachers are more likely to give pretty students good grades and jurors are less likely to convict pretty defendants. My understanding of the evidence is that conventional attractiveness benefits both men and women, but most people reward and punish women more for our conventional attractiveness or lack thereof.
Conventional attractiveness can also have downsides. “Other studies have found that while people are more likely to ascribe a host of positive qualities to attractive people, they are also more likely to believe that good-looking individuals are vain, dishonest, and likely to use their attractiveness to manipulate others,” Kendra Cherry wrote.
In addition, for women there’s an attractiveness double-bind. We’re required to be conventionally attractive for many jobs which ugly men are allowed to do. At the same time, if we’re “too” attractive (often meaning sexually empowered or too obviously *trying* to look good) people use this as an excuse to dismiss us, demean us, or otherwise not take us seriously.
What the research says about attractiveness
So what makes someone “conventionally attractive?” Some traits are seen as beautiful cross-culturally and throughout time. Generally these are markers of youth, health, and fertility. Think thick, shiny hair. Clear skin. Etc. We are attracted to youth, health, and fertility (and the traits that are associated with them) because having sex with people with those traits is more likely, all else equal, to lead to healthy, successful offspring.
But the evidence I’m familiar with indicates beauty is always partially socially constructed. Part of socially constructed beauty is a preference for features that mark you as part of the dominant groups in your social hierarchy.
In a culture with a hierarchy it’s also reproductively advantageous to recreate, procreate, and simply be in proximity to those at or near the top of those hierarchies. Even absent reproductive motivations, one of the reasons we have sex is to place ourselves in proximity to power.
Western culture has white, cis, young, thin people at the top of our social hierarchy.
Then there are beauty markers with both biological and cultural roots. Youth is nearly universally seen as more attractive than age, but western culture also idolizes youth more than many other cultures. So youth is a beauty marker that indicates health and fertility as well as a dominant place in the social hierarchy in western culture. Thinness is another example. In the west, thinness is associated with health and fertility and with a dominant place in the social hierarchy.
Thicker people tend to be seen as more beautiful than thin people in places where calories are scarce, for example. But in places where calories are abundant, thinness is prized because it marks health, class, and dominance in the social hierarchy on the basis of thinness alone.
Then there are beauty markers which only indicate one’s place in the hierarchy. For example, research shows western people of all races in the US rate Black women and Asian men as least attractive on average. People in western cultures show a preference for “white” features even among non-white people. Longer, straighter hair, lighter skin, narrower noses, etc. That’s because whiteness dominates the social hierarchy in western cultures. My understanding is that even in non-western cultures whiteness is seen as more beautiful if the culture ever endured colonialism.
I think it’s important to be aware of the ways heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, classism, etc. play into and influence what we think of as “beautiful.” I know for me as I’ve gotten older and begun to interrogate these systems my conception of beauty has widened dramatically. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed.
The attitude dimension
The last thing I want to talk about was sparked by a video I ran into where Oh! Stephco talks about not having pretty privilege. Some of the video I couldn’t really relate to, especially where she talks about putting a lot of effort into looking pretty and then entering a room and having no one look at her or pay her any attention. I’m not saying I light up a room or anything. Lol. Just that I haven’t really noticed or paid attention to that phenomenon.
But I did relate when she talked about going out to a club or bar and not being seen, not being approached, not getting her drinks paid for.
I just spent a bunch of words admitting that health markers and markers of your place in the social hierarchy have a huge, measurable impact on whether you’re considered by most people to be conventionally attractive.
At the same time, there’s a third factor that I think is really underrated, probably in part because it’s harder to measure. All my life I’ve watched women who are about as conventionally attractive as I am (or less!) get way more attention, free drinks, etc.
One thing that differentiates them and me is what I call “liking yourself.” Other people describe it as confidence. Some people talk about having an attractive energy or aura.
There’s also a power element to this factor. Liking yourself is a massive flex. It’s a superpower. Genuinely enjoying your own company, believing you’re a basically decent human, not being at war with yourself or hypercritical… can you imagine? When you like yourself you’re telling people you’re worthy of being liked, without having to say a word.
Liking yourself means other people can enjoy the fact that you like them without fear. It enables them to feel confident that you like them for them, not for their validation or what they can give you. They don’t have to worry that you’ll compare yourself to them or need to find flaws to assuage your own ego.
When you believe you're worthy of being treated well, people will treat you better. When you like yourself, people will like you more.
This isn’t AT ALL to say anyone can simply like themselves out of systemic racism, ageism, fatphobia, etc.
But, in my opinion and experience, attitude is so powerful that two people of fairly similar levels of conventional attractiveness on all other axes will generally be treated far differently based on how much they genuinely like themselves.
So how do I start to like myself?
Girl, if I knew that I’d be selling courses, not writing a newsletter about the politics of my vagina.
But, after a year and a half and thousands of dollars of therapy, and based on everything I’ve read, if I had one piece of advice to give you it would be to act yourself into right thinking. Which is a phrase I actually learned through some lovely alcoholics in recovery.
I once read a study that I’m too lazy to find that said it’s actually the incredible investment in their children that makes parents love them. I think it’s the same with ourselves. Similarly, there’s evidence that humans will back-justify their behavior. That is, if you do something your brain will come up with reasons why it made sense for you to do it afterwards.
Which leads me to believe that if we behave as we think someone who liked themselves would behave we will naturally come to like ourselves.
Think about how you treat the people you like. You give them a break when they mess up. You assume they have good intentions. You encourage them to make choices that will pay off for them. You look for ways to make their lives easier and more fun. You celebrate their wins and comfort them in their losses. You focus on their good features rather than their flaws.
I think if you do that shit for yourself more consistently eventually you’ll start feeling and thinking like you like yourself because your brain will need to come up with a reason you’ve been acting like you like yourself and the most obvious conclusion is that it’s because you do.