Pretty Privilege: Why Bias Is Real and What We Can Do About It

What is pretty privilege?

In a world where we are constantly told what products to buy, what clothes are the most flattering, and what foods not to eat, it becomes clear that we are expected to be nothing short of beautiful. Beauty is of course subjective, however, it manifests itself in varying ways through societal beauty standards. Beauty standards are fluctuating ideals with extremely narrow criteria, ensuring that only a few can actually attain them (Saltzberg & Chrisler, 2006).

Those who happen to meet these standards often experience social advantages and better treatment by those who perceive them as attractive. These unearned benefits were defined by psychology researchers as “beauty premium”, but are more commonly referred to today as “pretty privilege” (Mobius &  Rosenblat,  2006). Essentially, unattractive people experience significant disadvantages in comparison to attractive people. In fact, they describe these disparities as comparable to the income gap between genders or ethnicities (Mobius &  Rosenblat,  2006). In the end, someone is receiving unearned benefits as a result of their physical appearance. 


But what exactly does this skin-deep path to success look like? Here are 3 ways pretty privilege produces greater successes in life:


1. Pretty privilege can mean being seen as a better employee

Attractive people are seen as better workers by their employers. In the same research that defined the term “beauty premium”, a study was conducted to determine the effects of beauty on the hiring process. Within it, employers viewing photographs of potential employees were inclined to increase salaries by nearly 10.5% to attractive people (Mobius &  Rosenblat,  2006).


Similarly,  the Halo Effect implies that we subconsciously assume people’s appearances are a reflection of their overall characters (Nisbett & Wilson). With this in mind, it is unsurprising that physically attractive individuals are perceived as more “sociable, dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy, intelligent, and socially skilled” (Feingold, 1992). Attractive people often benefit from this bias from an early age, resulting in greater confidence as adults. Researchers suggest confidence translates into successes as self-assured individuals are more likely to step out of their comfort zones (Mobius &  Rosenblat,  2006).) Asking for higher wages or even a greater willingness to take on job opportunities are some ways in which confidence can translate to professional success.


2. Pretty privilege can mean earning higher grades

Pretty privilege doesn’t just translate to work success- it also produces many academic advantages. As mentioned previously, attractive people are seen as more intelligent in addition to many other positive traits (Feingold, 1992). That being said, research has also shown that pretty privilege can also give way to better grades.

A study was conducted to test whether or not physical attractiveness plays a role in unobserved productivity by comparing attractiveness to grades in college courses (Hernández & Peters, 2017). Variables were manipulated through two groups: groups of students whose appearances were directly observed by instructors and groups of students whose appearances were not. The study found that appearances did indeed matter, as attractive female students earned higher grades than unattractive ones (Hernández & Peters, 2017).


3. Pretty privilege can mean romantic success

A study from Chapman University discovered that out of desirable traits for a long term partner, 84% of female participants and 92% of male participants reported “good-looking” as an essential quality (Chapman University, 2015). While other factors such as personality are bound to play a role in who we find attractive, it is impossible to ignore the influence of physical attractiveness within the realm of dating and romance. 


Research also shows that attractive people are seen as more sociable which in turn fosters better communication skills and more potential relationships both platonically and romantically (Heckman & Rubinstein, 2001). Essentially, pretty people are granted more opportunities for romantic success through others’ perceptions of specific positive traits. Social skills might just be the best predictor of lifetime success.


Beauty standards and self-esteem

Mental health impact of upward comparisons

Comparing yourself to others who you perceive to be better than you, or upward comparisons, can be extremely detrimental to your mental health. Research has shown that the amount of benefits we grant to attractive people can leave those left out desperately comparing themselves to others (Li, 2019). Upward comparisons can cause other negative feelings including shame, inferiority, and depression. With the abundant social comparison opportunities today via social media platforms, it is crucial to understand ways to alleviate these negative effects. 


What can we do about pretty privilege?

While we have established that pretty privilege exists, it’s time we talk about ways to manage it and prevent some of its negative consequences like upward comparisons. 


Untraining pretty privilege bias

 Pretty privilege may be something that is seemingly engraved into our society. At this cultural level, researchers have suggested that the main way to combat these privileges is to untrain the bias we have towards physically attractive people. Studies have been conducted to show the effects of counter-stereotype training. In one such study, researchers found counter-stereotyping significantly reduced implicit bias (Burns, Monteith & Parker, 2017). They also found that when participants became aware of their own biases, they began feeling motivated to self-regulated. Untraining your biases not only makes you more aware of yourself, but this new awareness creates well-being. We have also discussed the ways self-awareness can cultivate work-related well-being as well. 


The body positivity movement

Feeling comfortable in your own skin is also a huge step in combatting the effects of pretty privilege and upward comparisons. The recent rise of the body positivity movement has been proven by researchers to increase female confidence and better their mental well-being. Defined by researchers as “referring to social media content that challenges status-quo beauty ideals by portraying and promoting diverse physical appearances, are suggestive of mental health benefits, the movement has been associated with significantly more positive effects than negative ones (Stevens & Griffiths, 2020).  


In a study of female undergraduate students, participants were asked to complete a week-long assessment on their level of body satisfaction in comparison to body positivity exposure (Stevens & Griffiths, 2020). They were then asked to report what social media platform they experienced the most body positivity content. The results showed Instagram accounting for 46.1% of body positivity exposure, with participants feeling the most positive feelings there. Likewise, viewing body positive content was associated with greater body satisfaction. Researchers concluded that viewing body positivity content daily can benefit psychological well-being as it protects and enhances one’s body image.


Scrolling through Instagram might not solve pretty privilege, but this new wave of positive images is heading in the right direction towards combating socially engrained stereotypes of beauty. 

Building self esteem with self awareness app LIFE Intelligence

LIFE Intelligence is a DIY therapist, career coach, and relationship counselor in one. Its goal is to help you self-manage your self, career, and relationships through scientific studies, in order to cultivate your confidence and self-awareness. The app is comprised of a 9-step program, a journey that begins with managing your mind and emotions, walks through goals, decisions, communication, and conflict resolution, and finally, ends with leadership.

Mission (topic) 4.6 addresses the pros and cons and social media, and in particular, how upward comparisons lower self-esteem. With 86% of people on social media experiencing upward comparisons, chances are you have felt negatively at one point or another on social media.

In Mission 5, learn to manage your biases toward those with or without pretty privilege in Mission 5, so you don't judge a book by its cover. Then, learn to support friends through body image in Mission 6. You can even manage your anxiety, insecurity, or frustration through immediate mood management exercises. This toolkit makes LIFE Intelligence a useful self therapy app. So you can develop and radiate real confidence, from the inside out.

Olivia Simon
January 15, 2021

References

Hernández-Julián, R., & Peters, C. (2017). Student appearance and academic performance. Journal of Human Capital, 11(2), 247-262.

Saltzberg, E. A., & Chrisler, J. C. (2006). Beauty is the beast: Psychological effects of the pursuit of the perfect female body. Moral Issues in Global Perspective, 2(2), 142.

Mobius, M. M., & Rosenblat, T. S. (2006). Why beauty matters. American Economic Review, 96(1), 222-235.

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). The halo effect: evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 35(4), 250.

Feingold, A. (1992). Good-looking people are not what we think. Psychological Bulletin, 111(2), 304–341.

Chapman University. (2015, September 16). New research on attractiveness and mating: What people find 'desirable' and 'essential' in a long-term partner. ScienceDaily.

Burns, M. D., Monteith, M. J., & Parker, L. R. (2017). Training away bias: The differential effects of counterstereotype training and self-regulation on stereotype activation and application. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 73, 97-110.

Heckman, J., & Rubinstein, Y. (2001). The Importance of Noncognitive Skills: Lessons from the GED Testing Program. The American Economic Review, 91(2), 145-149.

Li, Y. (2019). Upward social comparison and depression in social network settings. Internet Research.

Stevens, A., & Griffiths, S. (2020). Body Positivity (# BoPo) in everyday life: An ecological momentary assessment study showing potential benefits to individuals’ body image and emotional wellbeing. Body Image, 35, 181-191.

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