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Pretty privilege isn’t real — but its benefits are

By Roog Kubur, March 16 2022—

The world is a cruel, cruel place. There are dozens of different “-isms” and “phobias” that exist just to explain the different types of cruelty human beings are capable of, and even more guides to help combat them. Unfortunately, as the majority of people’s first impression of another individual will come from what they first see, the need to present in a manner that is both representative of who you are and how you want people to think of you is a skill. 

With a simple change in colour palette or fabric texture, you can change how the world perceives you. But, what if — on top of all of this — there was a system used to value certain desirable traits and devalue others, thus encouraging people to be more mindful of their presentation and internal value system? Wouldn’t that be a brilliant idea to foster well-rounded, functioning members of society? Perhaps in the form of something familiar, like the credit system? A kind of social credit system?

While the notion of social credit seems to be something straight out of any generic dystopian young-adult novel, it is something that already exists in our modern day society. Social credit refers to the idea that there are certain traits that allow individuals to reap the most benefits in society, or even excel in comparison to those without them. However, the caveat for a high social credit score is that it is dependent on looks alone. This means that you must present as an individual with high social credit to be considered as one. But, what does it mean to look like you have high social credit?

The most obvious answer comes under the guise of professionalism. Perhaps you’re imagining a woman wearing a pair of slacks and a blouse — complete with natural, manicured nails and natural-coloured hair that is kept away from her face. Or maybe you’re imagining a clean-shaven man — also in slacks, with short hair and an Apple Watch. Both of these are images of someone who should theoretically have a high social credit, but it neglects to consider how social credit works outside of the workplace. In this case, we run into another, more universal form of social credit — pretty privilege. 

What does it mean to be pretty in our western society? The idea of such a concept is quite difficult to pinpoint. While it can be just one of those things that you know when you see, society has also already clearly defined what constitutes as “pretty” and what kind of social credit is offered based on which of the traits you possess. For women — being fair skinned is the highest priority, followed by being thin and having delicate and feminine facial features. And just like that, the notion of “pretty” has been clearly defined, albeit in a much more sinister way than initially intended.

When broken down, pretty privilege is instead an amalgamation of racism, colourism, fatphobia, ableism and even fetishism — if you want to get creative. What makes pretty privilege such a nonsensical form of social credit is that it is an excuse to uphold several of the aforementioned -isms and -phobias. The concept of prettiness in western societies is a direct successor of white supremacy in every sense of the word. It values features that resemble white femininity —- such as thin noses and high cheekbones — as innocent and beautiful while devaluing the natural features of other ethnicities. It perpetuates colourism by insisting light skin is more valuable than darker skin, perpetuates fatphobia by consistently promoting a thinner frame and ableism because it doesn’t even consider those with disabilities. Effectively, pretty privilege doesn’t exist. It’s simply a way to claim benefits from the prejudice of man without directly stating as such. 

There is also a clear difference between being conventionally attractive and not as such. Not only in the school crush type of way but in the sense that there are real-world consequences to not being viewed as attractive. But, if pretty privilege is synonymous with white supremacy, doesn’t that mean that the benefits of pretty privilege and white supremacy are the same? 

To which I say — yes and no. A young woman may find herself to be perceived as being more valuable because she upholds the standards of white supremacy or is pretty because it seems like she is more hard-working, smarter or healthier — without ever needing to prove herself. The crucial difference between the benefits of white supremacy and pretty privilege is that the latter allows women of colour to reap these benefits.

Pretty privilege for women of colour manifests itself mostly in the form of colourism and fatphobia. While these aren’t too far off from the standards for white women, what makes pretty privilege infuriating for women of colour is that it may result in some immunity from other forms of cruelty. To be a pretty girl for women of colour means you are impacted less by racism from those both inside and outside of your community. The further one deviates from the social standard of pretty, the more one is likely to be a victim of racial profiling. The progression is quite logical – being pretty means being closer to white supremacist standards and distances you from racial stereotypes. By deviating from these standards, you are instead aligned with these stereotypes.  It seems like a dream — to be taken seriously in most spaces and not have your race be the cause of strife. However, as mentioned prior, it is never that easy. One cannot simply change their appearance and benefit from pretty privilege because pretty privilege lies outside of your control. It relies on facial features, not how well your makeup is done. It relies on bone structure, not how well you’re able to dress. 

Many women of colour have been deluded into thinking that by adhering to these so-called easy fixes, they too are able to be “pretty.” As the reality stands, this is a system based on the one thing they will never be able to change — race. So, what happens if your features don’t conform to a Eurocentric beauty standard? 

The best thing that can happen is social negligence with potential self-esteem issues, and the worst thing is violence. It sounds absurd, for violence to be the result of someone not meeting conventional beauty standards but it is the reality.

Remember, as “prettiness” is defined in social credit, possessing low social credit means that you have qualities assigned to you as well. It is not uncommon for so-called unpretty people to be victims of relentless verbal harassment — which can range from juvenile playground insults to genuine threats on personhood. A common form of this cruelty comes in the form of “hogging,” wherein men will actively seek out larger women for sexual encounters, but for amusement rather than attraction. This highlights that pretty privilege is a two-way street – uplifting those with high social credit and punishing those without it. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with being pretty, nor are you a white supremacist for reaping the benefits. There isn’t some kind of psychological conditioning that can be done to a whole population to try and reverse the effects of pretty privilege, and there’s only so much self-love that can be practised to combat it. 

The issue with pretty privilege is that the reality of what it is must be understood before any judgements can be made. And my judgement is that — while pretty privilege isn’t real — its benefits are very much evident. 

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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