In a world that remains highly fixated on outward appearances, the phenomenon of “pretty privilege” awards significant societal advantages to individuals deemed conventionally attractive. While there are clear benefits to such preferential treatment, a deeper examination by researchers reveals there are also certain unwanted consequences to being highly attractive.
Here are two benefits and caveats of the infamous pretty privilege.
1. A “Pretty” Great Personality
A 2021 study examined the stereotype that “beauty is good” and found that attractive individuals were perceived to have more moral traits than unattractive individuals. Research also shows that attractive individuals are thought to be more trustworthy than others.
These assumptions are likely based on the “halo effect,” wherein someone who is perceived positively in one aspect is assumed to possess other positive qualities as well. For instance, highly symmetrical faces are not only seen as attractive, but also positive indicators of health and personality traits such as sociability, intelligence, liveliness, self-confidence and mental health.
Growing up attractive can lend individuals confidence and social skills that make them seem more competent, likable and persuasive. Due to their looks and perceived abilities, social and romantic interactions become more accessible, doors swing open and invitations are readily extended.
However, research shows that attractive individuals can also be perceived as vain. Researchers explain that it is only because of their perceived sociability that moral judgments about them become more balanced.
Additionally, true social connections based on personality and shared interests may be overshadowed by superficial external judgments. Relationships may be initiated for the wrong reasons, leading to a sense of isolation and lack of authentic connection, which is essential for well-being.
On the other hand, a 2022 study also found that if an individual is perceived to be less attractive and less intelligent-looking, they also seem less human to an onlooker. Specifically, less attractive women appeared less human, as did less intelligent men, suggesting a deeper layer of gender bias. These attributions of personality traits become concerning indicators of how individuals with or without pretty privilege might be treated differently, for no fault of their own.
2. A “Pretty” Successful Career
In professional spheres, pretty privilege can be a launchpad for success. Research consistently shows that attractive individuals are more likely to be hired, promoted and receive higher salaries. Their appearance-based confidence also enables them to pursue the wages and opportunities they desire and deserve.
Similarly, a student’s appearance in the classroom can also impact the grades they receive. In a 2017 study, female students earned lower grades in online courses than they did in in-person classes. Similarly, in a 2022 study, the grades of attractive female students declined when offline classes switched to online instruction.
Further, pretty privilege may create an academic or workplace dynamic that fosters discrimination, resentment and discontent. The privileged individual may find success but at the cost of their relationships and, possibly, their mental health.
Research shows that attractive women can experience cognitive dissonance or mental conflict when they benefit from pretty privilege, as they may simultaneously be facing contempt, hostility and a lack of empathy due to their advantages, leading to a decline in their mental health. As much as they may be put on a pedestal, they can be devalued by others for the same reasons.
Pretty privilege may also create an overemphasis on external qualities, leading to the development of an unhealthy relationship with one’s body, based on a pressure to “keep up appearances” or continue receiving validation through beauty. The loss or absence of this privilege altogether fuels inadequacy, social comparison and frustration, highlighting the importance of fostering a more inclusive and diverse definition of beauty as well as emphasizing a person’s true, internal qualities above all else.
At its core, pretty privilege bestows upon individuals a range of social, professional and personal advantages based solely on their physical attractiveness. Research on pretty privilege underscores the need to recognize and value the diversity of human experiences beyond physical appearances. Ultimately, understanding the double-edged nature of pretty privilege is a crucial step towards fostering a society that values individuals for their character and abilities rather than aesthetics.