Why do beautiful people get away with so much? Is pretty privilege real?

As they say: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But we can’t deny that there’s a generally agreed-upon set of qualities that the majority find beautiful–especially here in the Philippines. You only have to take a look at the billboards towering over EDSA to see what many prefer: Light skin, thin or built, perfectly white smile, straight hair, often Euro-centric features, and all that. It’s not hard to take in what the Philippine definition of beauty is.

But what about those who fall outside of that set of qualities? I myself am curvier, darker-skinned, curly-haired. I was never considered conventionally attractive by many of my peers. And while I was given other safety net adjectives to lean on–smart, kind, empathetic–“pretty” was something reserved for my classmates who fit the EDSA-billboard-standard.

It was a confusing line to tread. Because I was always told that beauty didn’t matter and yet I watched as my beautiful classmates or colleagues were given more things, allowed to do more things, and excelled in more things. I didn’t know if it was just coincidence or if the root cause was their excellent luck in the genetic lottery, but something in me, a girl who was considered “ugly” by many of my classmates (and I was told I was, too) highly believed it was the latter.

I watched as my pretty classmates were immediately deemed more responsible, smarter, kinder–all because of their beauty. And I grew up with them so I knew that they weren’t all responsible, smart, or kind. But for reasons unknown to me at the time, it just followed that they should be. And I watched as they broke the rules, committed petty infractions, and still got away with it whereas if I did any of those things, I would be punished. It was a prepubescent kind of terror–I had to become pretty, too.

I grew obsessed with transformation sequences. From ugly to pretty. In Princess Diaries, Mia’s only a princess when she’s beautiful. In Ugly Betty, one of the highest-googled results is “Ugly Betty transformation.” And millions of other shows and movies where, after they transform, they’re suddenly treated better, find love, and can achieve what they set out to do so that the story plot can finally close. What was most glaringly obvious was that they almost always got away with things. Sometimes it was just coincidental that they were beautiful, other times their getting away with it was definitely rooted in their beauty.

It made me think: Why do beautiful people get away with so much? It launched me into interviews and research, heavily backed by Deborah L. Rhode’s The Beauty Bias (a great read, by the way). If you’re uncomfortable with the word “privilege” when it comes to “pretty privilege,” maybe the term beauty bias will be better for you.

The beauty bias is the societal and personal preference for the beautiful. Notice how in the live-action Alice in Wonderland films how the White Queen who is supposedly the good sister of the evil Red Queen is dressed beautifully, portrayed by Anne Hathaway with ethereal makeup and clothing while her sister, portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter is distorted, warped, given a big head and tiny body. Pretty is good. Ugly is bad. We’ve been conditioned to see this from the start. Evil witches are often ugly or given monstrous features and the sweet princesses are beautiful and soft and innocent.

We’re conditioned to see people this way, too. Someone ugly will be associated with inferiority, with fewer chances to make up for a mistake, all that. While someone beautiful will be seen as good and responsible. This is called the halo effect–we attribute good things to good-looking people because we grew up correlating the two.

I saw this in my peers. Even if I did something similar, they would receive more praise, be more favored, and be given more credit. And while I wanted to chalk it up to coincidence, it was a constant throughout my growing years. I saw it in public, too, how customers who were conventionally more attractive were paid more attention to than others. How beautiful people at restaurants or bars were treated better. It was really, truly, this unconscious preference. And it was a systematic preference for the attractive, too, the troubles of the word “privilege” nonwithstanding.

So is pretty privilege real? I believe so. People can get away with much more, are given much more, and are given more chances if they are societally attractive. And many of us are hardwired with this belief given what we’ve been exposed to growing up in terms of television, media, etc. Pretty privilege is real, but if we’re aware of it, we can be more fair to everyone.

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