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.