Demystifying Pretty Privilege

My favorite painting, “Lady Lilith” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, shows a beautiful woman watching herself in the mirror as she combs her long red hair. The same beauty that makes her worthy of a portrait is also what makes her literally demonic: in Jewish folklore, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, a female demon who was banished from the Garden of Eden after refusing to be subservient to him.

Rossetti said of his painting, “Lady Lilith… represents a Modern Lilith combing out her abundant hair and gazing on herself in the glass with that self-absorption by whose strange fascination such natures draw others within their own circle.”

To me, this painting and the way it ties beauty, vanity, and danger together exemplifies the strange experience of existing as a beautiful woman in a society that sends us juxtaposing messages. You must be beautiful to be valued, but even if you are beautiful, you must never be completely satisfied with your appearance, because women are conditioned to always find faults with themselves. If someone says that you’re pretty, you must respond not with “thank you,” but with “oh, but…[insert complaint about a body part here].” Otherwise you will be viewed, like Lady Lilith, as “self-absorbed,” “abundant,” and vain.” Being pretty is a privilege, but what does that privilege look like in a society that overvalues beauty while coaching women to hate themselves?

Being pretty is a privilege, but what does that privilege look like in a society that overvalues beauty while coaching women to hate themselves?

We often talk about many forms of societal privileges, or unearned benefits granted to a group of people, such as white privilege, straight privilege, and able-bodied privilege. Pretty privilege is unique because it represents the intersections of a wide array of privileges. Being a beautiful woman usually means being white, thin, young, not visibly disabled, and cisgender/gender-conforming. Possessing the traits that make you “beautiful” gives you advantages over those who do not, and these traits are directly linked to white supremacy, ageism, cissexism, and ableism.

82 percent of non-black men on OKCupid show some bias against black women, and research has shown that attractive female students earn higher grades than “unattractive” ones, with “evidence that this return to appearance is significantly smaller for both male and female students in online course environments.” In a must-read piece on pretty privilege, Janet Mock wrote, “People who are considered pretty are more likely to be hired, have higher salaries, and are less likely to be found guilty and are sentenced less harshly.” If, like whiteness, beauty opens doors for those of us deemed to possess it, then how come we never discuss pretty privilege?

I personally think the silence around pretty privilege is tied to the belief that beauty is dangerous—not only because, like in Lilith’s story, society believes it makes women wanton sexpots, but also because many women are not allowed to openly love themselves without being told, “you think you’re all that.” Mock wrote, “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.”

If, like whiteness, beauty opens doors for those of us deemed to possess it, then how come we never discuss pretty privilege?

But no matter how often we shyly brush off compliments, pretty women still live in a society that grants us advantages. It’s time to recognize this more openly in order to open a wider conversation on how interlocking forms of privilege and oppression create beauty standards that impact our lives, and how these standards impact us in sometimes unexpected ways.

I’ll start by being honest about my own experience: I am pretty, and being pretty is really fucking weird. Writing those words is scarier for me than writing that I am queer or that I have a chronic illness, both of which are also true, because saying “I am pretty” invites criticism of my looks to dispute my claim, and criticism of my personality for being “full of it.” But after being treated differently from others in both positive and negative ways since childhood based on my looks, I find it irresponsible and ignorant not to acknowledge that my attractiveness, and the social norms that make me “attractive,” profoundly shape the way in which myself and other pretty women experience the world.

Far from the cliché of the popular pretty girl, I was bullied and socially isolated from first grade onwards. Although I was approached by modeling scouts on the street growing up and was regularly called “beautiful” by most adults I knew (and by random strangers), I didn’t feel my pretty privilege at work because I was a loner who wore all-black in the era of Juicy Couture sweatsuits, and who buried herself in books while eating lunch alone most days. I first learned what the word “intimidating” meant in second grade, after my mother told me that one of my classmates’ mother described me this way. “It means you scare people,” my mom said. When I asked why, she replied: “Because you’re pretty and smart.”

My mother always told me that other girls were cruel to me because they were jealous of my looks, but I found this absurd. How and why would jealousy make you mistreat someone? But in retrospect, I understand. When I see a beautiful woman, I must admit that I start to feel jealous and competitive, and I begin to realize that my mother might have been onto something. Unfortunately, society pits women against one another, and even I, a feminist who majored in Women’s Studies and should know better, start to feel tense when I encounter women who I find more beautiful than myself. It’s a disgusting impulse, but one that we need to stop denying is real in order to acknowledge how deeply patriarchal norms have shaped us.

Knowing I possess pretty privilege also makes me terrified of losing it.

As an adult, my pretty privilege has helped me leave an impression that gives me an edge in getting jobs, in making others remember me, and that, in Mock’s words, “made the road a bit smoother.” But, as I said earlier, it’s also really fucking weird to be pretty. I’ve often felt misperceived because of my looks, which are paid more attention than my friendly personality. I am almost never approached by others interested in dating me, and receive very few messages on dating apps; when I approach or message people, they usually say they didn’t reach out because they were (that word again!) “intimidated” or assumed I didn’t need to be approached because I “must get so many messages,” or that I “had to already have been taken.” While in a therapy group during college for people experiencing loneliness, the other group members agreed that they “never thought you’d be lonely because you’re so pretty and carry yourself confidently.”

Friends of mine have told me that they initially assumed I was a snob before we even spoke, just from looking at me. Knowing I possess pretty privilege also makes me terrified of losing it. I am petrified of aging—I’ve never been a happy person, but I am happy with my appearance, and feel overwhelming anxiety when I think about losing the one thing I’m satisfied with in my life.

But overall, I feel so lucky to be happy with the image I see in the mirror. This feeling fluctuates—a bad breakout has me feeling pretty gross at the moment, and one reason I quit ballet classes in middle school is because I felt fat in the leotards. However, I realize this is pure luck—I’ve done nothing to deserve the advantages my pretty privilege gives me, and want to combat the ideas that being white, thin, able-bodied (I do have a chronic illness, but it isn’t visible), young, and cisgender are what make women beautiful.

The first step is to acknowledge that these standards exist, and, for those of us who fit the criteria, to acknowledge our privilege and use it to speak out against these standards instead of playing “the modesty game.”