This post is one that has been brewing in mind for a while. After I watched Brene Brown’s recent TED talk on approaching shame, I was settled on writing it. And then I read Gala Darling’s amazing post on whether she’s a radical self-love hypocrite for wearing five-inch heels.
What both of these inspiring women talk about is the concept of privilege. Brown claims that we cannot talk about race relations in this country without talking about shame, the link being the acknowledgement of white privilege. I whole-heartedly agree. To really address race, we have to address privilege, and we have to address shame.
Gala Darling points outs the fact that just as those of us who are white are granted certain privileges in our society, so are those of us who are attractive, or who ascribe to the norms laid out like inalienable laws in our culture.
Think about it. I’m sure that you’ve had the experience of being decked out in a pretty dress, high heels, and a face full of make-up, and been treated oh so slightly better than when you showed up in your hoodie and flannel shorts. One example that I can think of is running into a grocery store to pick something up before a party and being asked by several different staff if they could help me find what I was looking for. Wow, I thought, what service! Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same experience when I walked in a week later after a sweaty run and no shower. Granted, the first time it could have been my hurried expression and the second time my smell to blame, but I’d put money on the beauty privilege idea.
This type of treatment isn’t relegated to grocery stores, unfortunately. Watching The Voice recently, my husband and I were commenting that the judges seem to place a value on physical attractiveness in selecting the winner of the “battle-round” (when two contestants face off in a singing duel). This is particularly ironic because the show is based around the idea that one should be advanced and selected based on the quality of their performance. In fact, it’s what makes the show so engaging is that individuals with non-stereotyped body sizes, physical appearances, or styles, are actually given a chance to shine. In the beginning, it eliminates beauty privilege. But as soon as the judges can use visual information to help them make a decision, we start to see the insidious pull of attraction. Just think of Susan Boyle’s rise to fame.
It’s not just the judges that are engaging in this. Just wait until the live shows when the American public can vote. I feel quite certain we’ll see more beauty bias at play. And to be honest, there’s good, biologically speaking, reason for this.
Back in the 1970’s, some social psychology researchers identified the “what is beautiful is good” bias. What they and subsequent researchers found was that attractive people are assumed to be better employees, smarter, happier, and have more positive personality traits. These same biases operate for lower versus higher weight individuals as well.
What’s interesting is that, while these ideas are not necessarily founded, when they are true it could also be due the cycle of privilege. When someone is born attractive, they are treated differently from the get-go. They are regarded well by peers and possibly interact more frequently, thereby developing more charisma and confidence. They are favored by teachers and might end up enjoying school more for this reason, so suddenly they are excelling in their courses.
The point is, the idea of beauty privilege is complex, and the solution is unfortunately complex as well. It’s not as easy as just stopping giving pretty people all the good stuff. Our evolution-driven wiring to seek out what is attractive is not going anywhere. So what we are left with is the task of recognizing and talking about the idea of beauty privilege.
Just as with any form of privilege, we hold back from discussing it because it can bring about shame. But we know that approaching shame and sitting with it in all its discomfort is part of the work of becoming more authentic and happier human beings. If we want to live in a world where our politicians are the best people to run the government, our singers are actually talented, and our children don’t feel they have to wear make-up in pre-school, then we have to acknowledge and start dialoguing about what is hard to talk about.
How have you seen beauty privilege?