What is pretty privilege?

Written by Kimberlee Joi

The Peaks and Pits of Pretty Privilege- Men and women, no one escapes its bias. 

I love lazy Sundays. My days are usually jam-packed, and I appreciate every opportunity to mull about the house in my P.J.s, eat horribly unhealthy food, and do a whole lot of nothing.  On Sundays I really enjoy watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday sessions on the OWN Network; the shows are uplifting and motivational without being too heavy or dramatic.  

A couple of weeks ago I was doing a Super Soul Sunday binge, and happened to catch Auntie O’s (Oprah Winfrey is my auntie in my mind…Indulge me for a moment) interview with Janet Mock.  Janet Mock is the transgender activist that authored the book “Redefining Realness” which discusses her transition from living as a male to living as female.   During the interview, Janet Mock acknowledged that she was the beneficiary of a certain “pretty privilege,” and as such her transition, although emotionally taxing no less, was easier than it otherwise would have been for another transgendered woman who was less attractive by society’s standards.

Although I was resisting the urge to get all pedantic, thereby ruining my lazy Sunday, I couldn’t help wonder: was “pretty privilege” really a thing? Does being more attractive really matter? Does it affect our contentment in life, or our perception of ourselves? And, what was the effect of pretty privilege on those in marginal communities who might already be disadvantaged by their social identities.

I grabbed my laptop—and started researching.  I learned quickly that beauty, for better or worse, is not inconsequential. The studies demonstrating those deemed attractive are favored and rewarded in certain social and professional settings was overwhelming, but also inconsistent.  In some studies, there was quantifiable evidence that beauty operates as currency for women in the workforce. That is, in certain professional settings being considered attractive does have a direct correlation with employability and higher income.

In other studies, it revealed a woman’s beauty does, in some instances, function derisively. These studies essentially found that in certain fields or industries, typically those that are male-dominated, the greater a woman’s attractiveness, the greater likelihood she would face discrimination in hiring and on the job. These studies also showed that these same women in these same fields were viewed as less trustworthy, disloyal, and incapable of leadership.[1]

Although I’d like to put on my feminist cape and blame sexism for the ways in which beauty limits or advances women in society, that argument could not entirely withstand scrutiny. While it is true that the consequences of beauty are greater for women than they are for men, a man’s attractiveness also determines his success in certain settings as well.  It seems in modern-day culture, no one escapes the superficiality of beauty bias. 

There are several theories regarding why physically attractive people have an advantage in the workplace and in society in general. One of the seminal theories in this field of study is the “What is Beautiful is Good” theory. The “What is Beautiful is Good” theory was coined in 1972, and suggests that beauty does not trump other personal traits, but that it converges so that all those other traits are viewed in the same vein.  In essence, when one is perceived as beautiful, it influences whether the person’s other traits are perceived as good or favorable characteristics as well—and usually they are. [2] So if a person is perceived as beautiful, it typically follows that they will be perceived as intelligent, kind, personally and socially engaging and so forth. [3]

Limiting a person’s success, or conversely boosting their success, based on a factor they cannot outright control- their appearance-seems patently unfair; however, there is not much that can be done to combat it from an institutional perspective. Currently, there are very few municipalities that enforce laws which ban discrimination based on personal appearance:

  • 2-1402.11 of the D.C. Human Rights Act (Washington D.C.) prohibits discrimination based on “personal appearance“

  • Santa Cruz, California has an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on “physical characteristics”

  • Madison, Wisconsin has an ordinance making appearance-based discrimination unlawful

  • Michigan’santidiscriminationstatuteincludesheight and weight as protected categories, as does a San Francisco ordinance

Even with these laws in place in these limited places, proving discrimination because of unattractiveness is still very difficult, as “beauty” is such a difficult thing to qualify.

More concerning, even more so than the inequalities that might result from beauty bias, are the ways that beauty bias can work to undermine how we feel about ourselves. Genetics naturally endow each of us with certain physical characteristics. Whether these characteristics are deemed “beautiful” is a very subjective, variable thing.   Even though beauty ideals are ever-changing, they are dangerous nonetheless.

In America beauty has typically been euro-centric and rebutted blackness and other types of beauty that are non-white. For instance, in 2011, evolutionary psychologist Satoashi Kanazawa published “A Look at the Hard Truths About Human Nature” in Psychology Today arguing that black women were scientifically proven less attractive than other groups of women.[4] Of course, Kanazawa’s post kindled a heated debate, not only because his theories were of questionable scientific proof, but also because his theories reinforced many historical views about American beauty ideals being anti-black.

For those born with certain immutable characteristics (i.e. skin color, hair texture, height, facial features) that are viewed as unattractive on the beauty continuum, it could very well cause them to feel inadequate and force them to change themselves so that they can fit the mold.

In order to lessen the mental and emotional effects of beauty bias, it is important that we continually affirm that we are more than our physical appearance; more than the sum of our body parts and our physical features.  We are a composite of many traits-several of which have nothing to do with outward appearance.

I’m not suggesting that we all become indifferent to our physical appearance and the appearance of others.  That would be an impossible ask. However, we can work on reprogramming how we view ourselves from the inside out.  In essence, we do not have control over what other people deem beautiful, and therefore good, but we do have control over our own beliefs and our own expectations.
Society attempts to influence us each and every day by telling us what is valuable.   Ultimately, we decide for ourselves what is valuable.  In determining our own worth, we can determine that not only our appearance, but our skills, personality and a myriad of other traits are also worthy components of who we are.

The human law of attraction tells us that every positive or negative event that happens to us, was in some way attracted by us. If we make an effort to first experience ourselves as beautiful, others will do the same, despite society’s beauty standards telling us otherwise.


Kimberlee Joi is currently a part-time blogger/freelance writer and litigation attorney with more than 12 years of experience in the field of labor and employment law.  Her blog, scrivenista, is her passion made visible through writing.  Kimberlee Joi is a political enthusiast, passionate foodie, and recovering coffee-addict.  In her free time she enjoys traveling, reading, and binge-watching “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.”

References :

[1] http://fortune.com/2014/11/05/women-workplace-studies/

[2]“What is Beautiful is Good,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972, Volume 24, No. 3, 285-290 (Elaine Walster, University of Wisconsin; Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, University of Minnesota) OR http://faculty.uncfsu.edu/tvancantfort/Syllabi/Gresearch/Readings/17Dion.pdf

[3] [3]“What is Beautiful is Good,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972, Volume 24, No. 3, page 289 (Elaine Walster, University of Wisconsin; Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, University of Minnesota) page 289.

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/17/satoshi-kanazawa-black-women-less-attractive_n_863327.html

[1] http://fortune.com/2014/11/05/women-workplace-studies/

[2]“What is Beautiful is Good,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972, Volume 24, No. 3, 285-290 (Elaine Walster, University of Wisconsin; Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, University of Minnesota) OR http://faculty.uncfsu.edu/tvancantfort/Syllabi/Gresearch/Readings/17Dion.pdf

[3] [3]“What is Beautiful is Good,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972, Volume 24, No. 3, page 289 (Elaine Walster, University of Wisconsin; Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, University of Minnesota) page 289.

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/17/satoshi-kanazawa-black-women-less-attractive_n_863327.html

[1] http://fortune.com/2014/11/05/women-workplace-studies/

[2]“What is Beautiful is Good,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972, Volume 24, No. 3, 285-290 (Elaine Walster, University of Wisconsin; Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, University of Minnesota) OR http://faculty.uncfsu.edu/tvancantfort/Syllabi/Gresearch/Readings/17Dion.pdf

[3] [3]“What is Beautiful is Good,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972, Volume 24, No. 3, page 289 (Elaine Walster, University of Wisconsin; Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, University of Minnesota) page 289.

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/17/satoshi-kanazawa-black-women-less-attractive_n_863327.html