Pretty Privilege
December 27, 2019 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Prettiness is the privilege we don't want to acknowledge. "Here’s the math: If I did not look the way I do, then I would not be on TV or on two book covers. I would not have a beauty column or an Instagram with more than 100,000 followers. This does not mean that I have not put in work and effort and done my job well, but my beauty is not something that I earned. I did not work for it, yet it has opened doors for me, allowing me to be seen and heard. And for me to pretend that it does not exist denies the ways in which being perceived as pretty has contributed to my success and made the road a bit smoother."

"People with privilege do not want to discuss their privilege — whether it’s privilege derived from whiteness, straightness, cisness. But we must acknowledge our privilege if we are to dismantle these systems and hierarchies. We have to be honest, and I’ll start with myself: I am pretty and I benefit from my looks."

This piece may be a quick read, but it does a good job of highlighting the ways different sorts of privilege intersect, negate, lift up and interplay with each other. I encourage you to be thoughtful when engaging with a piece written by a trans woman of color. In specific, she is a woman who has experience moving from being not pretty to being pretty, giving her a first hand view of what it's like to gain this privilege. If your first instinct is to deny that pretty privilege exists, give it a second and check it.
posted by Anonymous (53 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's Request -- frimble

Precisely because she is a trans woman of color, she speaks on this subject with authority.
posted by SPrintF at 1:49 PM on December 27, 2019 [13 favorites]

It's a little odd -- when she talks about what she's gotten out of pretty privilege, she mostly talks about things for which being pretty is sort of a bona fide qualification. That is, of course being pretty helps with getting paid for a beauty column, or being on TV, or having Instagram followers, just like being strong or fast helps with being a pro athlete, it's directly relevant to the activity. Calling it 'privilege' makes me think of benefits you get from being attractive in areas where beauty shouldn't be an issue.
posted by LizardBreath at 2:05 PM on December 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

Calling it 'privilege' makes me think of benefits you get from being attractive in areas where beauty shouldn't be an issue.

She addresses that in pgf 9. She may not relate it to her own personal experience explicitly, but the general implies the specific.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:16 PM on December 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

I was actually thinking about this just today. I was listening to a relatively new female artist, and it occurred to me that most of the new female artists I listen to on spotify or elsewhere turn out to be fairly conventionaly attractive when I look them up online and see a picture/video. Which isn't to undermine their skill, they are talented and deserve their success, but it does seem like there must be a lot of equally talented people who never got the same opportunity because the gatekeepers to their success judge them (consciously or subconsciouly) on their appearance. It makes me sad to think of the people who won't succeed - and, selfishly, the music I'll never hear - because of this standard.
posted by AllShoesNoSocks at 2:27 PM on December 27, 2019 [52 favorites]

Average-looking men can be characters actors, pop singers, etc. Their fame will make them attractive, to some extent. A woman can have amazing talent, but without looks, is unlikely to be successful. I do know a few women who are only okay-looking, but use makeup, hair, clothes and confidence to seem prettier. And I definitely know women who are quite pretty but do not use makeup and fancy hair, etc., and are often not thought of as pretty.

A Chorus Line, Dance: 10, Looks: 3
posted by theora55 at 2:34 PM on December 27, 2019 [22 favorites]

Pretty privilege is absolutely a real thing. Im not gonna go into all my bona fides but everything I've accomplished in life has happened because someone was making a judgement call about me based on my work & before seeing my face.

However real it is though, I don't think "pretty" people need to really do anything different, but it would be great if everyone could question the assumptions they make about someone based on how symmetrical their face is, how well jaws line up with each other, how nice their teeth are, how much they conform to whatever gender bucket you want to put them in and then assuming they're probably "trouble" or complicated or annoying if you don't like what you see. It's one of these shorthands that maybe was useful a million years ago that we have to leave behind now.
posted by bleep at 2:35 PM on December 27, 2019 [16 favorites]

I know I shouldn't comment before reading the article but I feel once again as if I must have come from a different planet. I just assumed everybody knew this. It is in the same area as how 9 times out of 10 hiring decisions are made 30 seconds into the interview. I remember a 60 minutes or some such piece from back in the day when they did these kind of things where they sent out a good looker and an average looker (a boy and a girl of each, young too 20's ) and pretty much confirmed the universality of bias favoriting the good lookers in most all interactions.

I hope I can be persuaded that there is someway of changing this but I really really doubt it, at base we are just animals driven by forces we can barely if even control.
posted by Pembquist at 2:40 PM on December 27, 2019 [48 favorites]

I read a lot of short articles put out by PR departments describing recent work by scientists and teams of scientists, and such articles feature photos of attractive women at rates which I think must be far out of proportion to the level of representation of women as a whole in the sciences in question.

Here, for example is the first article from today's front page of the thumbnail for which features a person.
posted by jamjam at 2:53 PM on December 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

One place you can see this in action is "The Voice" tv show. While you can get onto the show as a not-conventionally-attractive woman if you sing well, once the public starts voting you basically don't stand a chance if you're not a hottie of one stripe or another. (While this may be true for male contestants, it does not seem to matter as much, as far as i can tell.)

Pretty helps, whichever gender you present as, but fugly men can, in all but a few fields, go pretty far on just ability, whereas that's harder for women who are not also pretty. So pretty is a privelege, but for women it seems to present as "do you get this opportunity even blah men get" vs...i assume being a pretty man (no experience) also has benefits outside of mating, but perhaps not as pronounced?

In any case, interesting article.
posted by maxwelton at 3:28 PM on December 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

Pretty as a word is more relevant for feminine-looking people, but for everyone across all industries and social situations having average or above attractiveness has been shown by research to be a big advantage. And yes this pretty deeply embedded in our psychology.

But that doesn't mean attractive people shouldn't change their behavior. Like all forms of privilege those who have it often act like it doesn't exist, which leads to less attractive becoming a shorthand for evil or incompetent in lots of popular media. This is very unfair because people or blamed for things beyond their control and those stereotypes are very harmful.

As much as anyone has an obligation to be aware of and counteract any privilege they have, attractive people should do the same. It's not about feeling guilty about it, it's about using that awareness to compensate for our inherent biases and make more just and fair actions towards others
posted by JZig at 3:31 PM on December 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

I love Janet Mock! And I especially appreciate that she can talk about how her various intersecting identities both give and deny her privilege. Her beauty doesn’t negate how beautifully she writes in any way but I appreciate the recognition that it opened doors and that she’s trying to keep them open for those without that privilege.

Privilege is a hard thing to talk about for most people, it’s a hard thing to understand for most people. It’s hard to claim and talk about privileges you hold and not want to counteract it by talking about how difficult your life may have been anyway or the ways you’re marginalized outside of the privilege you hold. This essay is a great example of how to do so.

I found early on that I could somewhat counteract the way that people treated me as a fat person if I went full femme and looked impeccable “otherwise.” It’s a weapon and I am angry about needing it. As I get older I am able to have enough resilience to stop wearing full makeup and beautiful dresses to run errands and deal with the consequences. But there are consequences and I find it enraging when people brush off why someone might wear makeup or dress up everyday. No one should have to, but people are nicer to you.

In related news, this news story was linked in a newsletter I got earlier today: In the US, very thin women make $22,000 more a year than “merely average” sized women (study controlled for education) and heavier women make even less than “average” sized women. Weight is of course just one component of what’s considered “pretty” but oof, yeah, those numbers have been a self fulfilling prophecy that keep me from applying to many jobs and make me accept lower pay from clients out of gratitude.

Anyway, it gives me a lot of hope to see an essay like Mock’s in Allure magazine. I’ve seen more mainstream magazines handling body image in more inclusive ways (going beyond the whitewashed “body positivity” movement that centers thin white women’s feelings). Thanks for sharing, stoneweaver!
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 3:40 PM on December 27, 2019 [42 favorites]

I mean, perhaps if we are able to say honestly that a lot of times beauty matters when it shouldn't, we can change some of our processes to mitigate this? Treating it as "oh of course beautiful people will get the best jobs and housing and food and treatment, that's life, and also talented but average-looking people can give up on any career that isn't the back office" seems pretty stupid to me, unless of course you are both beautiful and have some kind of age-stopping plan.

Most people by definition are average-looking. Most of us average-looking people date and befriend other average-looking people. Surely we could bring ourselves to, eg, listen to a talented musician who was average looking?

Also, mass culture has a huge influence on people in terms of what they expect to see and value. I grew up with basically no mass culture - very little television, very few movies, no mass distribution magazines, etc, and my family placed very little emphasis on appearance other than being clean and neat - and while of course I absorbed some beauty norms by virtue of being a human in the world, I've definitely noticed that I grew up finding more interest in human variety (like, I find far more people attractive, I like to notice people's faces regardless of whether they're "good-looking", etc) than most of the people I met in later life. I do think that I escaped being poisoned by mass beauty culture as a kid and it's made me a happier person.

My point being that it's possible to change mass culture and it's possible to be intentional about limiting how much you consume, and I believe from my own experience that this gives you a better eye and more pleasure in the world.
posted by Frowner at 3:50 PM on December 27, 2019 [23 favorites]

I am a non-passing (I prefer ‘visible’) trans-woman. The standards of others are invariably bullshit. Nobody passes. Everyone is beautiful. That’s the only way I can cope.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 3:51 PM on December 27, 2019 [49 favorites]

Not only is pretty a privilege, but the lack thereof is apparently threatening (perhaps most average looking folks, ok, guys, are afraid they are less than and I remind them of this?) to the extent where we are regularly called on it, publicly, loudly and aggressively, without any other provocation. On a bad day, I would absolutely settle for average, just to avoid abuse from strangers. On a good day, it’s slightly hilarious to watch my conventionally attractive friends get better customer service, etc. It’s not getting much better as I age, either. (Do I think I’m *that* ugly? No. But I clearly make some strangers feel that they might be, just by dint of association or proximity.) Note: I am fully aware that conventionally attractive folks also get lots of unwanted negative attention. Just saying that us “unattractive” people aren’t seen as neutral.
posted by mollymillions at 4:17 PM on December 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

This is one of those cases where the language of privilege isn’t really enough to describe what is going on, I think. It’s not that the effect or the phenomenon isn’t real, it’s that inequality and power seem to be shoehorned into an individualised model of ‘privilege’ that don’t quite fit.

Physical beauty is maybe the most ancient and universal form of unearned advantage that people in all societies have thought about since forever, and that’s the key: people who depend on it or who want to benefit by it are forced to think about it all the time—ask any teenage girl, for whom one person’s prettiness is another’s relentless burden of being noticed and judged (or dismissed!). It’s not the same at all as the typical ‘invisible knapsack’ instances of privilege we are familiar with, like fluency in English, or having a first world passport, the ones that are notable for being easily taken for granted and forgotten.

And more deeply the standards of ‘prettiness’ themselves alter as social inequality changes—it’s the beauty typified by dominant groups (racial, social, class) that is always the benchmark; even fashions for appearance alter wildly. Being rich, on the other hand, is eternal. Describing prettiness as a ‘privilege’ seems right in the older sense—an unearned and arbitrary virtue—but somehow not quite fully descriptive of what’s going on.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:42 PM on December 27, 2019 [16 favorites]

@Fiasco da Gama: What was that middle part again?
posted by lometogo at 7:44 PM on December 27, 2019

So—explaining inequality and power in terms of privilege is extremely useful where it involves features of life that are easily ignored or forgotten: white people rarely need to consider or acknowledge the advantages that white skin provides, men walk home in the evenings without even looking at their surroundings. But individual ‘privilege’ is not so useful a model to think about power and inequality where the benefits aren’t of this easily-elided kind, because ‘physical attractiveness’ is something that is so much work in our society, and so fleeting. Think of how much energy and money goes into selling cosmetics, hair products, up to surgery, and enforcing strict conformity.

I think what the author’s describing isn’t precisely her own privilege of conventional good looks, but the immense and unjust baggage our society places on appearance, and individualising ‘privilege’, as a characteristic of people who enjoy it, isn’t the best way of understanding that.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:54 PM on December 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

The male side of this is height I think. Taller men (maybe it's also true for women but I haven't read research on that) are on average better paid and have higher (oops) societal status.

Genetics can be a drag or a leg-up.

I'm just re-reading "The Lemur's Legacy" where Dr Russell describes how male mouse lemurs are almost disposable, needed only once a year for fertilizing the females (so few males are necessary and many males die young.)

And that just reminds me of how our English language is, where for the words 'man' and 'woman', and 'male' and 'female' there's an inbuilt bias in categorizing: masculine vs feminine.
posted by anadem at 8:15 PM on December 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

I think what the author’s describing isn’t precisely her own privilege of conventional good looks, but the immense and unjust baggage our society places on appearance,

But that's what the knapsack definition of privilege explicitly includes, i.e., what Peggy McIntosh called conferred dominance. The unjust baggage that is socially constructed. Maybe there is one, but I don't follow the counterargument. Men's height privilege is well-accepted, so why can't people's faces, bodies, and clothing practices, count? In other circles people talk about intellectual privilege. All of these are different examples that partially factor from winning the genetic lottery. I implicitly agree that privilege as a concept has limitations to social critique, but I don't yet see this area as being one of them.
posted by polymodus at 8:26 PM on December 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

(Also, the fact that privilege costs collective and individual work to maintain, e.g. to keep others out, does not exempt it from being a privilege. This is how performativity and power combine to produce and reinforce such social constructs.)
posted by polymodus at 8:34 PM on December 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I always appreciate reading Janet Mock's writing. If you haven't yet read her memoir Redefining Realness, I recommend it; it interweaves her own story with statistics and context, especially regarding transphobia and intersectionality, in a graceful and fairly easy-to-read way.

I'm reflecting on interactions I've had with people who are prettier than me, both in how I've acted towards them (generosity, envy, giving or not giving them the benefit of the doubt, etc.) and in the assumptions I've made about what prettiness does in their lives.
posted by brainwane at 8:39 PM on December 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Polymodus—I think where using the model of privilege to explain power is insufficient here is that unlike height, or skin colour, ‘prettiness’ is so obviously such an ambiguous and ambivalent virtue for the person themselves. The first half of Mock’s article is precisely about anguish, how much passing/not passing cost her emotionally, and the latter has a number of anecdotes: being looked at without listened to, doubting promotions and the like on the basis they might have just been for good looks. As unjustly conferred baggage goes, it seems like burdensome baggage, and unlike the other privileges we’re taking about in a real way.

To paraphrase someone who put it better than me, it doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things. An older way of explaining it might have just been to say; patriarchy enforces impossible standards on people, and does it in extremely unequal ways.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:01 PM on December 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

The inimitable Ted Chiang has written a thought-provoking sci-fi story that touches on this subject, called "Liking What You See: A Documentary". The premise is: what if the technology existed to (safely, reversibly) induce "calliagnosia", a hypothetical brain condition in which one is unable to recognize beauty or ugliness in human faces? Would people choose it for themselves, or even for their children, in order to overcome prejudice? How would they view the world, and themselves? And what other uses would such technology be put toward?

(The link goes to a brief review, since the story itself doesn't seem to be legally available online.)
posted by teraflop at 9:21 PM on December 27, 2019 [13 favorites]

I used to not be pretty, and now I am. This has quite thoroughly reordered the way that people interact with me and the ways I feel comfortable acting with them--strangers, acquaintances, and family. It's different worlds, and you can't get it unless you've been on both sides.

It's a topic worth talking about, but it's hard to discuss without removing the taboo against what we call vanity.
posted by Sterros at 9:35 PM on December 27, 2019 [23 favorites]

Also, in having that privilege, pretty people can and do hurt others without intending to -- simply because they do not realize the power they have.
posted by amtho at 9:44 PM on December 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

For a couple years in my twenties I spent four months a year where I grew up, where I was considered average to dowdy in looks, and the rest in an older city where I was really good looking. There is pretty privilege but you’re only allowed to do very specific things with it (or, probably, it takes longer than I had to learn to do more with it). Men wanted to give me things, but nothing I wanted.
posted by clew at 9:46 PM on December 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

So my global response to "well it's not privilege because..." is that well, money is exactly like that. Money also lets you do specific things (money does not buy love, etc.). Money also costs work to get. Money also is a socially constructed, ambiguously meaningful, arbitrarily powerful construct. Money... and so on and so on. But in face of such apparent factors, it is accepted that socioeconomic status (money/capital-having) is a form of privilege, on the balance as a social phenomenon even if anecdotes might suggest otherwise. Which is to say that microprivileges can be intersectional and thus complex, but it doesn't make them forms of not-privilege. I think there was an FPP last year about how rich New Yorkers don't feel privileged because being rich comes with lots of problems.
posted by polymodus at 12:22 AM on December 28, 2019 [12 favorites]

Well... but again, conceiving of power relations in the frame of 'privilege' breaks down, I think, when it deals with such visible and obvious forms of inequality as money. I don't think it's meaningful to think of wealth privilege, that's just tautological, it's saying privilege-privilege. Just as conversely the privileges of youth and good looks are partly about social advantage, but are also so very very much more than that.

Mainly in Mock's article I wondered at the use of the term privilege, meaning power, for prettiness, when it was so obvious to a reader that she herself had experienced it partly as a disempowering virtue.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:55 AM on December 28, 2019 [9 favorites]

I'm white, male and tall. Two of those things have caused me varying degrees of anxiety, guilt and a desire to find some way to live knowing that two arbitrarily assigned markers work to my benefit without any direct effort, every day. The third, it's like a freebie. It dangles, seductively: privilege without guilt. I doubt it's provided me the same advantage as the other two, but I've had enough comments from romantic partners and been in enough rooms with clients that looked very much like me (and learned to stay seated in a chair when they didn't) to appreciate that it's not trivial.

I don't think we should strive to construct some absolute model of privilege that everyone should plug in to - but we should organize our behavior around the idea that it is a contingent and dynamic force. No one is exempt, and some of us have more to adjust/correct for than others - a totally fair expectation, given the rewards that accrued to us before we even tried to fix anything. Any chance we have to provide inclusion or relief for people who feel excluded mitigates and subverts harmful social structures.
posted by 99_ at 1:06 AM on December 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

There is pretty privilege but you’re only allowed to do very specific things with it (or, probably, it takes longer than I had to learn to do more with it). Men wanted to give me things, but nothing I wanted.

While I appreciate where the author is going with her line of argument, this here, this resonates with me. I spent a lot of time trying to be taken seriously as a conventionally attractive, "sexy" looking young woman. I've very curvy and top heavy. You try and break into a male dominated space, and you will be facing a wall of misogyny that being pretty is only going to amplify.

People only started taking me seriously once the gilding came off the lily. And I can't talk about that. I'm very smart, funny and articulate, but for an easy twenty years it all was blasted away under the torch of "pretty". You try and say "no one in the room takes me seriously because of the way I look" and you get a lot of blowback. You're conceited, vain, you got tickets on yourself. I just wanted people to listen to me, pay attention to my expertise, rather than be blown off as having "just gotten my job because she's pretty, because the boss wants to fuck her, etc. etc."

So I think for a transwoman, pretty is going to have a lot more milage for her than it did for me. It's got a greater value because of how it ties into her experiences and I'm not going to deny her experiences. But for me, by my mid twenties I'd stopped wearing makeup that beautified and started painting my face like a corpse. I'd stopped altogether by my mid thirties because I've put on some weight, gotten older, and am greyer, and I have less shit to wade through as a consequence. People take me more serious as a less beautiful woman than they did when I was pretty.

It's not quite the same as being white or able bodied, in terms of privilege, for women especially. It's really fraught and ties into misogyny in ways that are hard to compare to other axis of privilege.

Women have been trained to minimize their greatness in an effort to be more likable. We learn that when we are complimented, especially about our looks, we must dismiss the compliment, feign self-deprecation and modesty, undermine our looks and pretend we did absolutely nothing to contribute to them.

The prettiness is something we're given. Our beauty, well, that's subjective, but being "pretty" is something others give to women. You claim it as your own, you face blowback. It's a social judgement and you don't get to participate. It's "pretty for black" and "can't tell you're trans", it's something that is a part of standards applied to you. Do you perform your gender properly? Do you present your race in a way that is not confrontational to the majority? Are you decorative, the way women are supposed to be decorative? Men can only be attractive in masculine ways - the men here have spoken about being tall, broad shouldered. Plenty of feminine featured men are very, very attractive, asthetically pleasing, and pretty - and shit befalls them, too, especially if they fail at conventional masulinity in other ways, like by being gay or trans or disabled or non-white, or any of the other axis men cop it as well. It's the wrong sort of prettiness.

I have learned to make pretty work, but it's a knife with no handle. A pretty woman is meant to be decorative, silent and compliant. You fall outside of that and you start to be punished, just like other time you cross the lines.
posted by Jilder at 2:47 AM on December 28, 2019 [38 favorites]

It's really noticeable in sports where athletes rely on sponsorship to be able to afford to train or get hold of the equipment they need - the athletes literally have to look hot in adverts (often wearing limited clothing if female).
posted by quacks like a duck at 2:55 AM on December 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

The kind of pretty matters too: I don't remember who said this, but Keira Knightley and Megan Fox get very different reactions, even though they're both beautiful brunette white women.
posted by airmail at 3:24 AM on December 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

Metafilter: Men wanted to give me things, but nothing I wanted.
posted by amtho at 5:15 AM on December 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

"Pretty privilege" or whatever is substantially a created and culturally reinforced thing that gets treated like it's natural. You have only to look at the difference in pretty privilege between men and women, or the difference in social spheres, to see that it's not natural or inevitable and in fact piggybacks on racism, misogyny and capitalism.

First off, we all discount the amount of indoctrination we receive, because no one believes that advertising works on them - we all think that when we see only actors/media figures/writers who are thin,. cis-looking, light-skinned, etc, that this doesn't deeply condition us to believe that those things are "normal" and everything else is a failure.

Second, "pretty privilege" works like other forms of privilege to prop up the mountain of inequality - rich white cis straight men at the top can be as beautiful or non-beautiful as they wish, and then everyone else down the mountain can confer limited privilege on whoever is downhill according to their looks. So a very good-looking person can climb a bit, maybe, but not infinitely. And a very good-looking person can step on the people below them, but of course the very good-looking person has only their face as their fortune unless they are privileged in other ways.

I bet that the more gender- and otherwise unequal a society is, the more power beauty has, because the people who have it will need to use it more and it gives the people with power even more power to choose and to set people against each other. If you live in a roughly equal society you don't need to scramble to climb and other people can't leverage your status against you - if everyone has housing, education and the freedom of the city, "here participate in this sleazy beauty economy and get ahead" doesn't have the power it does in an unequal society. If you're not going to age out of the job market and into poverty, "buy all the anti-wrinkle creams" isn't a powerful slogan.

Also, of course, the "beauty is extremely powerful and important" thing sells a lot of stuff - it feels like it sells more now that ever in my lifetime.

I've had a greater-than-average number of better-looking-than-average friends in my life (seriously, it's weird; I'm the troll friend) and it's basically because I don't hit on them and can be relied on not to take sexual advantage. Having a reliable friend who won't coerce or proposition you when you're vulnerable can be really useful to a beautiful person, as can having a friend who isn't covertly in love with you. I watch them get free stuff and have people be extra nice to them, etc etc and it's...well, it's cool to be able to date anyone you want and never know romantic rejection, which is the case for most of my beautiful friends, but honestly that is a limited power. It really, really looks better from the outside.

It's nice that they're pretty and I do take hair and fashion tips as appropriate, but the desperation and possessiveness and general fucked-up interpersonal stuff that we are taught about beauty* is just really unappealing and makes life worse for all. It's setting everyone up for failure. If I sat around waiting for the magic extremely beautiful person who would date and/or validate me, as we're taught to do, my life would be a hollow and awful one.

*And it's taught; if it were intrinsic I'd have it too.
posted by Frowner at 5:46 AM on December 28, 2019 [20 favorites]

because ‘physical attractiveness’ is something that is so much work in our society, and so fleeting.

Yeah, I’m not sure this maps really well because of precisely this, and also because - it is in a sense, often a portion of what feels, as a heterosexual woman, like prettiness is one of the skilled labor portions of the semi-waged sex work that has been most heterosexual relationships for women for the last thousand or so years. It’s a desperation survival skill where the “prize” is semi stable housing and food and clothing and the ability to bear children in a relatively safe environment, not a privilege, and it must be desperately maintained against the ticking of the clock or risk losing all one gained.
posted by corb at 6:14 AM on December 28, 2019 [12 favorites]

As the perennially fat, funny, not hot friend among hot people, i have been fascinated bu the way my friends have been freaking out about aging now that we’re all in our forties. Pretty has all sorts of obvious real life disadvantages, especially for women wanting to feel safe and respected. But the there’s a whole other level of “how will I ever convince a person to like me/notice me if I’m not hot” bullshit that I find perplexing and kinda tragic. Perplexing because us non-hot people had to learn early on how to make people like us for reasons other than looks. The invisibility cloak of being a not-hot middle aged lady doesn’t frighten me because i’ve been wearing one since i was a not-hot ten year old girl. And while it has had it’s liabilities (there’s a reason I quit , say,both acting and Tinder), there are also plenty of advantages to not being noticed. Which brings me to the tragic part. Because all those hot friends who assume people only like them because they are hot still don’t seem to realize that they’re funny and smart and empathetic and ridiculous and kind and that’s why i love them and have continued to love them for decades. To me, they’re all beautiful as they are and that has nothing to do with how they look.
posted by thivaia at 6:49 AM on December 28, 2019 [31 favorites]

500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art, Philip Scott Johnson, YouTube, Apr 22, 2007. Music: Bach's Sarabande from Suite for Solo Cello No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007 performed by Yo-Yo Ma.
(High resolution version:

Women in Art, with additional artist information, Imperial Hotel Management College, YouTube, Jul 11, 2008. The purpose of the making of this video is to help students who are interested in art, to learn the period, names of the artwork and artists, as shown in Philip Scott Johnson's Women in Art. To make the most out of the video, the high quality version should be selected, and students are encouraged to pause the playback to take note of the names of the artist and artwork throughout the 3 minutes.
(Complete list of artists in the video’s “Show More” drop-down caption.)
posted by cenoxo at 7:40 AM on December 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Stunning and brave. Attractive people, take notice : your tyrannical oppression is coming to an end. The future is plain-looking.
posted by jchgf at 8:39 AM on December 28, 2019

The future is one in which we redistribute power everywhere we see its manifestations producing unequal outcomes.

This is not an easy subject to approach, but I think we've seen some interesting stuff on desire here recently and I'm thankful to OP.
posted by Acid Communist at 9:15 AM on December 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I spent a lot of time trying to be taken seriously as a conventionally attractive, "sexy" looking young woman. I've very curvy and top heavy. You try and break into a male dominated space, and you will be facing a wall of misogyny that being pretty is only going to amplify.

Jilder, this is the other side of something I've been thinking about a lot lately--I work in a blue collar male-dominated job where I often walk into a room and have to manage an entirely new group of men (often older than me) on a weekly, if not daily basis. The fact that I am not a "hot chick," not pretty, has served me very well. No one would ever hire me just for eye candy, so in every new situation I have a leg up with regard to presumed competence. Which, honestly, is really fucked up.
posted by mollymayhem at 11:38 AM on December 28, 2019 [9 favorites]

Thanks for this stoneweaver. I was unaware of Janet Mock, but after reading the link, I’ve made “Redefining Realness” my choice for my book club. The other members are falling over in shock because I’m the hard sci-fi person. Coincidentally, they all have daughters who are entering high school, so young women, perception, nerdiness, sexuality, race (all are mixed, all have one white parent), and intersectionality is already a common topic. What a great serendipitous post.
posted by lemon_icing at 12:27 PM on December 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

In the end, Charles Allen Gilbert’s ink drawing All Is Vanity (1892) [small, large] is just an illusion.
posted by cenoxo at 1:16 PM on December 28, 2019

Pretty as a word is more relevant for feminine-looking people, but for everyone across all industries and social situations having average or above attractiveness has been shown by research to be a big advantage

The Halo effect, just for starters.

I'm a little surprised, though probably shouldn't be, that there is any disagreement at all about this. Something can be a significant advantage overall while still presenting challenges in specific circumstances and situations, and physical attractiveness (and/or height for men) is obviously a good example of such a thing.
posted by Justinian at 3:05 PM on December 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I know pretty privilege well. Several months ago, I lost a close friend of many years, due to tension derived from the discrepancy between us in terms of conventional attractiveness. He’s this chiseled, curly-haired, buff-armed, extroverted farmboy, with an inverted triangle chest. I’m a lanky, soft-faced nobody. Looking at him and myself, I don’t think that the aesthetic distance between us is exponential, but it certainly felt that way whenever we were in a social situation.

Despite all that he had, he was bitter that I was three inches taller than him. He identified as a “manlet”, at 5’10, and projected an immense sensitivity on the topic. More than once he took these little potshots, like “You’re not 6’1, it’s just your boots and your desperate ego.”

Meanwhile, I’d had past girlfriends make comments to my face about how hot he is, often very explicitly and always to my face. Random girls had sent me messages to the same effect whenever I had posted pictures of us together on social media. His humour was crude and based around creatively bankrupt poop and fart jokes, which were always well-received, presumably for his appearance. When I went out on trips and to activities with him, people would walk right past me to talk to him first.

On a particular road trip to another city, he once pulled up Tinder, in front of me and despite already being in a relationship, because he liked “the little boost” it gave him. I was aghast as he was getting matches with nearly every third woman he swiped right on. My sorry, single ass, couldn’t wrangle a single match the whole trip.

The most painful part of all this was that he would not recognize it. He was clearly getting a bit smug towards the end of our friendship; it was going to his head. Everything was a fucking humble brag. He was never held to account for things he did.

Sorry for the miserable rant. All I mean to do is underline how real this is, having spent five years closely associated with a really handsome guy. It was immiserating. All you gotta’ do is live in the shadow of a shinier human than yourself to find out.
posted by constantinescharity at 5:09 PM on December 28, 2019 [9 favorites]

What I don’t get in the linked essay is how pretty privilege is something we don’t talk about. When I was a rebarbative girl I thought the culture never talked about anything else.

The economic deadweight from hiring for pretty when the job needs something else must be serious, on top of the costs of the Red Queen competition to be pretty enough.

Or it’s suitable for `thick description' or novels - Moll Flanders, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Anne of Green Gables, The Bluest Eye, so many!
posted by clew at 6:01 PM on December 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Schindler’s List (1993) – Choosing the secretary.
posted by cenoxo at 6:20 PM on December 28, 2019

All I mean to do is underline how real this is, having spent five years closely associated with a really handsome guy.

It's part of the halo effect. It's hard for a fish to recognize the water.
posted by Justinian at 6:30 PM on December 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

The future is one in which we redistribute power everywhere we see its manifestations producing unequal outcomes

Right, so I can understand the legal and historical violence establishing white supremacist capitalist cishetero patriarchy, because there is an order established by law and mob violence.

this one seems different. This does seem like a knock on effect of other social constructions, rather than something independent. Not trying to Harrison Bergeron this, because I see the outcomes as I myself age, and I m interested in those wage differential stats.

Also, the, failure to produce an analysis like the one in the article has already made a vacuum into which the incel death cult festers. And a bunch of the recent murderers were people who seemed 'pretty' to me.

but what am I missing from the historical record? What is the Malleus Maleficarum for this?
posted by eustatic at 8:40 PM on December 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

It could be emergent - I know I’ve read a scholarly analysis of how young English women’s self-descriptions changed as mirrors got affordable, and again as photographs and printed photographs got cheaper. IIRC the public discourse about how girls should be didn’t change much - all based on Anglican theology - but each young woman became far more aware of how she looked to others, and then of what `the prettiest' was, because it became possible to be aware.
posted by clew at 9:15 PM on December 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

> It's a little odd -- when she talks about what she's gotten out of pretty privilege, she mostly talks about things for which being pretty is sort of a bona fide qualification. That is, of course being pretty helps with getting paid for a beauty column, or being on TV, or having Instagram followers, just like being strong or fast helps with being a pro athlete, it's directly relevant to the activity. Calling it 'privilege' makes me think of benefits you get from being attractive in areas where beauty shouldn't be an issue.

But there's no reason that being pretty should make you more qualified for being on TV, writing about beauty, or having Instagram followers. It doesn't have to be directly relevant to the activity. Plain people can be on TV, talk about makeup, and be in interesting photos, too.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:34 AM on December 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

What’s the work a televisual performer is actually doing for the audience , though? Do we want `information casually expressed' or `it feels like a pretty person is my friend'?

The latter is pretty privilege as much as hiring only sexy office staff is, but the leverage to change it is even less evident to me.
posted by clew at 2:20 PM on December 29, 2019

This is so infuriating. I recently learned that the classic song by The Roots, "You Got Me," which famously features a hook sung by Erykah Badu, was actually written by Jill Scott. She was originally supposed to sing the hook--but the label said she was too fat. If you can tell how fat someone is from their singing voice, you have the world's lamest superpower. And this is extremely gendered--I notice that Questlove's weight didn't cause the same kind of problems. It's just totally irrational.
posted by zeusianfog at 1:01 PM on December 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I notice that Questlove's weight didn't cause the same kind of problems. It's just totally irrational.

It's just totally the patriarchy.
posted by thivaia at 8:05 AM on December 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

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