The Pretty: Thoughts on appearance-based privilege

By | September 7, 2010

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I expect being beautiful is not easy. No, really. I expect people’s assumptions about traditionally-pretty female-presenting humans get tiresome — if you are good-looking you must be stupid, or dull, or self-centered, or ridiculous. Certainly, it is possible to be attractive and intelligent at the same time, but it seems as though no one expects that to happen, nor do they care when it does. Whatever else you are, the pretty will tend to override it.

The pretty get bonus points, in life. Don’t argue. It’s inarguably, indubitably true. You can dislike it; you can find it unfair; you can try not to take advantage of it. But it will continue to happen. There are aspects of my own being that give me privilege — being white, for example, or presently able-bodied, or cisgendered — and as much as I disdain the system that imposes those privileges by valuing whiteness or able-bodiedness or non-diverse representations of gender, and as hard as I may work at maintaining a keen awareness of the advantages and recognitions I get as a result of these factors, I can never wipe them away, I can never burn them off; they are inescapable. Likewise, the pretty may be uncomfortable with the upsides of their appearance, but their discomfort does not mean the advantages do not exist.

On an individual basis, pretty is in the eye of the beholder, so when I talk about the pretty here, I am using a generalized aggregate of standardized characteristics of beauty, at least as they exist in my own local American culture. Pretty bodies are slender and having a feminine proportion from bust to waist to hips: not too deeply curved, as that is intimidating, and not curved in the wrong direction, or not curved at all, as that is terrifying. Pretty faces are symmetrical, delicate, and charming. An appropriately narrow nose, carefully-tended brows, a mouth that is plump without being overlarge. By the law of averages there will always be a certain number of individuals who possess a majority, if not all, of these attributes, and who then gain the benefits and advantages thereof. Even if said individual does not desire those benefits and advantages, and even if said individual does not believe herself worthy of them.

See, culture does not give a damn about whether you think of yourself as pretty. Culture’s interest is in your adherence to beauty standards from a quantitative perspective. Certainly there are many good reasons to see your own beauty — and none of that “inner” shit either, rather beauty in its more philosophical capacity as representative of both art and truth, neither of which need to be “pretty” to be compelling and indomitable — but merely thinking of yourself as pretty does not make you so in the lidless eye of broad cultural assessment. Given the oppressiveness of exacting beauty standards — in which I would counsel against making too deep an investment — this is not a bad arrangement.

Earlier this summer, Olivia Munn, currently of The Daily Show and formerly of G4’s Attack of the Show, took umbrage at the idea that her appearance — which, according to the highly-unscientific but extremely emphatic endorsements of many heterosexual men, qualifies as “hot” — had anything whatsoever to do with her success as an entertainer. This is just plain insulting and arrogant. Of course being conventionally-attractive plays a role in the success of women in media. Munn leapt dramatically to the conclusion that being pretty was somehow incompatible with being talented, and defended herself against an attack that no one had made: “I never tried to use anything besides my own sweat and blood and talent to get somewhere.” Which may well be true, but “pretty” does not have to be consciously unleashed in order to have an effect. Pretty can be a passive influence, regardless of the intention of the person being labeled as such. Munn may not think of herself as particularly pretty, but it’s difficult to mount a coherent argument that the legions of men who find her hot had no effect whatsoever on her success. Of course they did. Munn can dislike this. She can even be disgusted by it. But her individual, personal feeling on the matter does not change reality.

More recently, the TV drama and personal obsession Huge has provided a deep and nuanced context for analysis of the pretty in the character of Amber. Amber, blonde, blue-eyed, “the thinnest girl at camp”, borders on the otherworldly, the angelic. In the heavy heat of summer, her hair is effortlessly coiffed at all times, her eyelashes impossibly curled. She does not seem to sweat, in keeping with the poreless ideal that photo retouching has created for us to aspire to. She is naturally, unfailingly beautiful and is much admired by the straight boys, who find her appearance just intimidating enough to be appealing, but not so intimidating as to find the situation hopeless. This is compounded by Amber’s seeming unawareness of her effect on them — she is quiet, her face “innocent”, dubious in the face of compliments. Amber can steal without being suspected, because how could a face so beatific belong to a dishonest person? Amber’s pretty is so overwhelming, it intoxicates the viewer; there cannot be darkness in something so vivid and bright.

Amber — and possibly Munn — may not be able to see herself objectively. She may not know that her appearance opens doors that would remain closed and bolted against women with faces and bodies less conventionally attractive. When overthinkers like myself get angry about the advantages of the pretty, the anger explodes outward in two directions: one, in the direction of the faceless cultural expectations that value certain physical characteristics over others, and rewards women for being conventionally-pretty even against their will; and two, in the direction of the women themselves, for refusing to notice or acknowledge the up-sides to looking like they do. It is the obliviousness of Ambers and Olivias, it is the cavalier disbelief — even disregard — for the advantages their looks get them that enrages. It is their willing, if ignorant, participation in that system that sets our heads aflame. They may believe their personal perception rates higher than cultural assessment, and this would not be surprising, given the American focus on the individual, but it is false. Olivia Munn may think she is the ugliest woman in the world, and still she will succeed because men enjoy looking at her regardless of how she feels about herself. Amber may believe she is unforgivably unattractive, but so long as boys see her through the lens of conventional beauty, her own feelings are irrelevant.

This is a problem.

The Ambers and Olivias are reaping benefits from a system that rewards some women at the expense of others — the pretty over the unpretty — and tempting though it is to attack them individually for individual stupidity or ignorance, it is that system that needs dismantling, and not the women who benefit by it. The anger at individual women is a convenient diversion from the real problem, that when appearance is a factor — and for women, when isn’t appearance a factor? — women continue to succeed based as much on their ability to be pretty as their ability to be talented or intelligent. You can have pretty without the talent and intelligence, or you can have all of the above at the same time, but women who are talented or intelligent without being pretty are climbing a much steeper hill to mainstream measurements of success.

The last time I wrote about being over the idea of my own beauty, it was linked on a feminist-themed forum elsewhere, and a few of the comments observed that not finding oneself beautiful was sad to them. I won’t argue with that assessment — people are entitled find it sad, if it’s not an approach that works for them. But for me, there was tremendous freedom in surrendering the idea that subjectively feeling — if not objectively being –beautiful was a requirement of a happy and fulfilling life. This is not to suggest that people shouldn’t feel good about themselves, or even “pretty”, as the occasion warrants — my point is that this feeling should not be the necessity and the compulsion that it is, and that when it occurs, it should neither be underscored nor negated by the response of the majority, according to what masculine doctrine finds most valuable. Wanting to feel pretty, to appreciate and value oneself as a beautiful person, is a fine notion. Confronting, deconstructing, and redefining what counts as beauty is a valiant effort. But we should also be vigilant: is it personal gratification and self-love we’re after, or the advantages that being beautiful to others would afford us?

No one should feel forced to play the pretty game, though most of us born female spend our lives learning the rules and trying to get ahead, if only because we are not allowed to consider removing ourselves from the playing field. There are many Ambers and Olivias in the world — women whose pretty has the backing of cultural approval, who gain attention by it, and who still cannot see themselves as attractive, because an intrinsic part of the pretty game is constantly feeling inferior, imperfect, and incomplete. All the players can do is struggle to stay afloat; ultimately, it is not a game anyone can win.

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