Beauty Bias, And The Creation Of Pretty Privilege


Let’s be frank: the more attractive society perceives you to be, the more social and economic opportunities you will have. There are many names for this: the beauty premium, beauty bias or just pretty privilege. Conversations around privilege aren’t new. We all know of white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, cis privilege, straight privilege. The Daily Vox breaks down pretty privilege. 

What is pretty privilege?

While intellect, talent and merit still count for something, looks can create opportunities for some that isn’t as easily attainable for others. People who are considered attractive, have a certain currency that affords them more social and economic opportunities. Being considered attractive can make finding work easier and help with career advancement, and attractive people also earn more money on average. Attractiveness can make you more popular in real life and on social media. Attractive people often get treated better in social interactions. It’s even easier for attractive people to get away with crimes. This is pretty privilege. The tricky thing about pretty privilege is that it isn’t easy to measure attractiveness. 

Who decides what is pretty?

We don’t have to tell you that looks are subjective. This is why it’s difficult to understand how something like pretty privilege can be a thing. White privilege or male privilege, for example, is easier to understand because it relates to the way certain elements of the identity that seem to be more easily “measured”. But it’s not as simple to quantify or define “pretty”. Who even gets to decide who and what pretty is anyway? 

In broader speak, it’s society. Beauty standards are set and maintained by the faces we see splashed on the covers of magazines, on television, and billboards. For the longest time beauty was white, skinny, and cisgendered. The people we choose to celebrate often reflect who we see as beautiful. And those who possess celebrated physical characteristics benefit from pretty privilege. 

What’s the science behind pretty privilege?

A study titled Why Beauty Matters published in March 2006 by the American Economic Review presented findings on the beauty premium. The paper says “if someone is easy on the eyes, the enjoyment we derive from looking at them colours our perceptions of other attributes.” The research shows that we’re more likely to view them as intelligent, healthy, and socially capable because they look good.

The study also says these perceptions could start during pre-school and primary school, where ‘cuter’ children are unconsciously given more attention by their teachers. But both children and adults both unconsciously favour cuter children in general. This extra attention could go on to yield better academic performances and confidence in the future.

In economics, there’s even a whole field dedicated to the study of beauty. It’s called pulchronomics: the study of the economics of physical attractiveness. 

Pulchronomics: beauty cashes in

Economists have long acknowledged that physical beauty affects wages, even in occupations where appearance does not seem relevant to job performance. It seems that attractive men and women are paid more than ordinary people for the same work.

In jobs where attractivness would seem to matter like sex work, entertainment, and retail, beauty is naturally rewarded. But beauty is also rewarded in unexpected fields. For example, American footballers who are ‘less attractive’ earn less than their more attractive counterparts, despite identical skills and experience in the league.

The Social Science Research Network published a paper in 2016 titled CEO Pulchronomics and Appearance Discrimination which studied whether the beauty premium affected how much CEOs were paid. The research found that attractive CEOs earn higher salaries than unattractive CEOs. But there is no evidence to suggest that attractive CEOs are more productive.

Economist Daniel Hamermesh also wrote in his book Beauty Pays that more attractive employees enjoy more perks and higher pay. But this is because, according to Hamermesh, there is evidence that attractive workers bring in more business, so it makes sense for employers to hire them. Less attractive workers, on the other hand, are often overlooked and can often be victims of discrimination. 

In the broader labour market (barring, for example, astrophysics), looks have a bigger impact on earnings than education. Fortunately enough, society still values intelligence more than looks. This could be because looks impact self-confidence. 

Looks linked to self-confidence

Economists have found that ‘attractive’ people are no more productive or capable than ordinary people. But what attractive people do possess is a whole lot more confidence about their own abilities. Self-confidence is a trait that employers apparently find attractive.

The research in Why Beauty Matters shows that employers considered attractive people more productive than less attractive people, even when their only interaction was telephonically. In the research controlled for self-confidence, economists found that employers tended to overestimate the productivity of beautiful people. “Employers (wrongly) expect good-looking workers to perform better than their less attractive counterparts under both visual and oral interaction, even after controlling for individual worker characteristics and worker confidence,” the researchers wrote.

But, of course, it isn’t that simple. Sexism and misogyny never sleeps. Attractive women who seek work in particularly male-dominated fields are often thwarted by what’s called the “bimbo effect” where they are underestimated because of their looks. These women have to work harder to prove their competence and commitment. 

Attractiveness can also help you get away with murder… 

Being pretty statistically helps when it comes to crime as well. Research shows that attractive people are less likely to be convicted and more likely to get lighter sentences when they are. It seems that a jury would be more likely to positively evaluate attractive defendants despite that physical attractiveness is seemingly irrelevant to judicial decisions.

Some experts say we should outlaw pretty privilege

In her book The Beauty Bias, Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode criticises how women consider their looks as a key part of their self-image. Rhode argues that the more women focus on improving their looks, the less they think about others.

The law should ban discrimination against people based on looks because it limits the right to equal opportunity, she argues. It reinforces the subordination of groups where ‘unappealing’ characteristics, like obesity, are concentrated (like among the poor, some ethnic minorities), and limits self-expression. Looks matter in some careers like modelling. But, in others, attitudes towards an employee’s effectiveness often reflect the biases of employers, not customers. In her book, Rhode says laws influence attitudes over time by denying those with prejudices the opportunity to revel in them. But because ‘attractiveness’ is more difficult to define than race or sex, these anti-discrimination laws could prove impossible to maintain. 

Other experts say we should harness it

Interestingly, in her book Honey Money, London School of Economics academic Catherine Hakim writes that we should be harnessing and honing our erotic capital. Erotic capital is not just physical appearance and sex appeal, but also charm, sociability and sexual expertise. Hakim argues that “erotic capital” can be an underrated class of personal asset, to combine with economic capital (what you have), human capital (what you know) and social capital (who you know). Largely independent of birth and class, Hakim says erotic capital is especially valuable for poor people, and young people. In heterosexual settings, erotic capital belongs mainly to women.  

But while attractive men often flourish, it isn’t the same for women. Hakim refers to the “the male sex-deficit”: both the commonality of female sexual imagery and the persistent unwillingness of society at large to validate women’s good looks. It just isn’t in the interests of patriarchs to allow women to actualise their erotic capital, because this would shake the balance of power between the sexes. Hakim calls on women to use their erotic power against men at home and work.

These are both opposing takes on pretty privilege and what to do with it. But however you feel about pretty privilege, it’s important to recognise it to understand it. 

What’s the big deal about pretty privilege?

Attractiveness is a currency and that it gives some an unfair advantage over others. When privileges intersect then male, class, or race privileges counts more in power distribution when compared to pretty privilege. Being a rich, white man confers is far more socially and economically advantageous than being an attractive woman. But still, attractiveness clearly matters.

The value we place on attractiveness can also explain the copious amounts of money that people spend on their looks. The beauty industry is multi-billion dollar industry and it continues to thrive. As superficial as it sounds to be concerned with outward appearance, it clearly influences how society treats you. 

Pretty privilege also highlights the importance of representation. We need to continue to represent diverse groups, especially those from groups who are marginalised, in the media. The premium we place on looks needs to include more people in who we call beautiful.

In the long term… well, we would like to live in a utopia where we are judged by the contents of our person and not the colour of our skin, our genders, genitalia, how much money we have in the bank, who we choose to love and how society perceives our attractiveness. 

Featured image via Flickr