Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Beauty Privilege: Can We Talk?

Illustration by Steph Becker

Just like me—in fact, just like pretty much every woman who has ever written about beauty in a public forum—the coauthors of Beauty Redefined have been critiqued as being both A) too pretty to understand the challenges surrounding looks bias, and B) so unpretty that it's no wonder they're writing about body image and self-esteem issues, the poor jealous things. What's that I hear you saying? Something along the lines of: But those statements are totally contradictory? Why yes, they are. That is, they're contradictory in their sentiment, but they're identical in their value, which is: Whatever this woman—or any woman—is saying about appearance must be evaluated by her own beauty, or lack thereof.

Lindsay and Lexie at Beauty Redefined have some excellent talking points at their post on this matter, and if I could cosign the entry, I would. Their entry also got me thinking about one of the more elusive aspects of beauty privilege and looksism, which is: It’s really difficult to talk about.

I mean, we can talk about beauty privilege—or negative beauty bias—in the abstract, and we can talk about things we witness. But you think it's difficult to prove something like the subtler forms of ageism or racism or sexism? Try just discussing looksism. Not only is looksism even more amorphous than plenty of other "isms," but think of how you sound if you talk about it openly: It can seem hopelessly narcissistic to own up to one's "beauty privilege," and hopelessly affirmation-seeking to talk about suffering at the hands of looksism. Unlike privilege that comes from being white, able-bodied, male, thin—and even, to a lesser degree, being heterosexual or middle class—beauty privilege is something that's both physically evident and seemingly impossible to deconstruct from a personal point of view, which is a key way that privilege (and lack thereof) comes to be understood and taken seriously.

I'm guessing that as a woman who is nominally attractive but in no immediate danger of launching a thousand ships, I've received some benefits from looking the way I do but have been spared both the grander forms of beauty privilege (I'm fairly certain I've never been hired as set decoration) and the major drawbacks of beauty (nobody assumes I’ve coasted by on my looks). But here's the thing: I'll never really know to what degree I've experienced beauty bias, in either direction. Few of us do. It could be that the small perks I've been attributing to being a nice-enough-looking lady—say, getting slipped a free cookie now and then at the deli—are just people being kind, and that they'd do the same if I were homely, or a man. I'm sure that is indeed the case sometimes, but I've been smacked down by my own naivete in this regard enough times to know better than to get all Pollyanna here. (One of the free-cookie men suddenly stopped giving me cookies after I stopped by once with a male friend. It was the illusion of availability that he liked—and once that fell to the wayside, so did my supply of white chocolate-macadamia treats.) We can have our hunches, but for the most part that's all we have.

I think of the "click" moments I've heard time and time again of women discovering, without a doubt, that they were feminists; much of the time it's an instant recognition of and reaction to sexism. I'm left wondering what sort of "click" moment it would take for a woman to discover, without a doubt, that she was receiving or being denied a form of beauty privilege. Receiving privilege is particularly difficult to tease out, in part because privilege functions by being unspoken, and unrecognized. (Sitting at the front of the Montgomery city bus in 1954 wasn't what we'd now term "white privilege"; it was the law. Beauty privilege may be encoded in a handful of circumstances, but for the most part it's not.) And since looks are painted as being an ineffable part of a woman's essence—particularly in the case of women considered conventionally beautiful—it becomes even murkier than other forms of privilege. How can you have a "click" moment about something that's supposedly transcendent?

I don't write a lot about beauty privilege, and this isn't the only reason why (mostly I just feel like there are more interesting things to write about). But yes, it's a reason. Not only is there a fear of being called a narcissist if I write about whatever forms of privilege I might have experienced, there's a fear of being called delusional if any given critic doesn't find me...privilege-worthy, shall we say. Maybe this fear is rooted in my personal reality of being an attractive-enough but not stunning woman. Or maybe it's rooted in the reality of being a woman, period. (And, as it happens, I've been called both a narcissist and delusional just for writing about appearance at all, so there you have it.) As much as women are punished for not measuring up to some amorphous beauty standard, we're punished just as much for thinking we're "all that."

“When we dismiss someone’s words due to our assessment of their appearance, we’re minimizing them to their body,” write Lindsay and Lexie at Beauty Redefined. That’s absolutely true, yes. Yet unlike Beauty Redefined, a good portion of The Beheld is expressly written from a first-person perspective. Much as I’d like my words to speak for themselves, I can’t say it’s necessarily wrong to take the looks of people writing personal essays about appearance into account when reading their work. My experience of beauty is undoubtedly different than, say, Charlize Theron's, just as Charlize Theron's experience is beauty is different than it would be if she wore her Monster look 24/7. Readers who assume after looking at a photo of me that they know something unwritten about my perspective might not be entirely wrong—but as the disparate evaluations of my looks from various commenters has shown, they can't all be "right."

We’re so used to viewing women as objects (I include women in this) that we may forget they are subjects too, particularly when discussing looks. Most of the time we talk about beauty, we understandably talk about it in terms of how we look at people, not about the subjective experience of looking beautiful, or plain/cute/weird/misshapen/hot/ whatever. Certainly we don’t usually talk about it in terms of how we believe we’re seen. And if we want to understand the labyrinth of beauty in a richer manner, that might be the most revealing perspective of all.


  1. I hear you on this whole post. I am fairly upfront about the fact that I have a lot of what you term "beauty privilege" and yet I know that owning this also leaves me open to charges of narcissism and being conceited. It's a Catch-22 - do everything you possibly can to be considered beautiful, but don't EVER acknowledge it.

    Anyway, I have been thinking a lot about the response the Kite sisters have gotten, especially in context of bodies/body image. In the past I have admitted to having some anxiety over my body, and it has been greeted with incredulous responses, like how could I, a thin white woman, possibly understand what it's like to have body anxiety? What I try to remember - and I think it's relevant to your post as well - is that the "beauty game" is rigged against everyone who plays it. Even the women held up as exemplars aren't good enough and require photoshop, plastic surgery, tremendous amounts of self-maintenance, etc. No one is good enough. We all fall short. And then if you do manage to extricate yourself from the game, you either lose privileges or you hear about how this makes you suspect as a person. In this environment, it's a wonder that any woman (and increasingly, man) feels good about the way they look.

    Sorry for the long-ass comment...I've just been stewing on this for a while.

  2. Good post, solid points. Earlier in my life this would have depressed me, but now I no longer think of humans as rational beings. We (both genders) are warped in how we view each other and use superficial information to base ostensibly rational thoughts.

  3. Love this post!
    That being said, isn't beauty--the definition of beauty--tied up with sexism, racism, ageism and to an extent classim too?
    I don't know whether the beauty bias helps me or works against me (probably both; I'm tall and people say I have some pretty features, but I'm also fat, hirsute, and frumpy) but most recently, I became acutely aware of the beauty bias when I realized my alabaster-skinned lithe-bodied friend who speaks in an American English accent (raised abroad and educated in a posh school; pretty big thing here in the subcontinent, sounding like an 'angrez') not only got more food at the cafeteria in the same amount of money, but rickshaw drivers would practically fall over themselves for the privilege to drive her anywhere she asked, regardless of the price she was willing to pay.

  4. Great post as always. I came across a post on tumblr this morning about a 12 year old girl with an IQ of 162 that was accepted to Mensa and before I could wonder if there was more info on her besides the blurb below her photo I saw this comment: "but does she have good p***y". Never mind that she is only 12 and smarter than most tumblr users she has to be "put in her place" somehow. Ugh. I know tumblr is populated mostly by teenagers but that comment infuriated me just the same.

    I wish that sites like yours and beauty redefined were more widely read...The world would definitely be a better place.

  5. Beautiful and articulate - if I could cosign this I would :) Thank you for the shout-out to our work and for so clearly speaking to this nebulous beauty privilege we must address now and again. You are amazing!! AMAZING!

  6. I like this post. I don't know how helpful it is to see the apparent distinction between different types of beauty, because it's all so arbitrary? Not quite the right word, but everyone likes different things. Media propagates a certain 'ideal', but there's porn media and clothing industry media, and movie industry, so you can have a thin body and a big rack, no rack, linear frame, or a small body big head, but you'll always not be something that is 'the beauty'.

    Now my story: In the movie theater line, I stood aside an acquaintance of mine who is a certain beauty, blonde, blue eyes, tall, rack of questionable origin. I myself am more elfin, red hair, teal eyes, more striking than beautiful maybe, but still, at times I turn heads. A new line opened, and I stepped up, to get my ticket, to get my popcorn. The man, glared at me, then looked longingly over my head at the blonde, ogling her while he serviced me. I thought it was really quite hilarious because it was so blatant. Does she notice this sort of thing? I'm sure she gets shafted too though because there is no ideal for everyone.

  7. Like most women, I feel like I have features that draw beauty bias in both a negative and positive way. For instance, I have blonde, curly hair. I get a lot of comments like "Oooh! Are those curls natural? How cute! You look like Goldilocks!" which I don't necessarily mind (unless I'm trying to project an aura of authority or power). But I also get a LOT of "Oh, you're just a dumb blonde" if I make any sort of wrong or stupid comment. I get a lot of dumb blonde jokes, and the joke-teller always seems to think I'll find them hilarious. And if I don't, then I just can't take a joke. As a college student, sometimes this can make group projects hard, since I feel people tend not to listen to my opinion as much as they do others in the group. I sort of look like everyone's little sister - you know, cute, short, goofy. And while I do have those traits, I'm also intelligent enough to have made it to my junior year of college with a solid GPA. I dunno.

    This is a bit uncomfortable for me, talking about how seemingly positive aspects of my appearance or demeanor can set me back in certain situations. I never want to come across as insensitive or aloof. :/

  8. Nice blogs..I got more ideas about the beauty privilege..thanks a lot...

  9. Many of us are striving for perfection, where beauty comes in just one snap. Some prefer to manage themselves naturally rather that undergoing into plastic surgery. Well, we can’t blame them for choosing natural treatments over plastic surgery, everybody has a choice anyway. What matters most is, we are aware of the “pros and cons” of what we choose.

  10. A very exciting post! And beautifully articulated as well! Very good!