Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On Beauty Privilege

There's a couple discussions of beauty privilege in the comments at Pandagon here and here, as folks (myself included) take Amanda to task for comments like these:

Thanks to reader Winnifred who sent me this story about men who feel entitled to date out of their league, physical attractiveness-wise.

I think most reasonable people can agree that intelligence, good looks, and hand-eye coordination fit into this category---inborn traits that vary from person to person. Irrefutably privileges, but trying to take them away in the name of equality would make the human race poorer and violate the holders’ human rights.

The sentiments implicit in these kinds of statements bother me to no end. The dating one, I suspect, is relatively well-intentioned, and is most likely aimed at the folks who believe that they are owed a supermodel girlfriend. (The accompanying picture of Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl seems to confirm this.) However, the ambiguity of the verb "date" evokes another common complaint, where unattractive people are bashed for having the audacity to hit on someone who is "out of their league," absent other factors. (In other words, not being creepy or boorish, but just being ugly, or fat, or old.) If you're not pretty, know your place - it's of primary importance that you not inconvenience the actually attractive by thinking you have the right to be sexual too.

With respect to the second statement, putting "good looks" in a general category of privilege that we won't do anything about because it just wouldn't be fair to take it away seems to miss the point. Looks privilege isn't simply about people's reactions, but about how they act on those reactions. Nobody's advocating something out of "Harrison Bergeron," or "Eye of the Beholder," or Uglies. But it is possible to think about this privilege, about attractiveness bias, etc., rather than just write it off as something too unconscious to do anything about.

Some further thoughts, in convenient (i.e., lazy) bullet-point form:
  • Looks are a spectrum, not either-or. It's not just supermodels that have looks privilege, and sometimes folks will enjoy privilege in one context but not another.
  • Almost everyone thinks of themselves as "ordinary looking," the same way almost everyone thinks of themselves as "middle class." This may be especially true for straight folk, or for men; we don't get taught how to evaluate our own attractiveness very well, and so we think that aside from whoever is generally acknowledged as attractive, there's no attractiveness difference among men.
  • If you're talking to someone on the internet that you haven't seen, it's really condescending to (1) diagnose them with Body Dysmorphic Disorder; (2) tell them that you're sure they're just making it up; or (3) tell them that their real problem is their attitude.
  • "Everybody is beautiful in their own way" is a nice fluffy sentiment, but when you're saying it in a discussion about beauty privilege what you're saying is that such privilege doesn't exist. Sure, everyone may be beautiful, but some folks are more beautiful than others.  And that's the point, not whether the glass is half empty or half full.
  • If you're going to posit some standard of oppression that underprivileged folks must meet for privilege to exist, be aware that there are folks who want to do the same for those forms of privilege you accept. This is the "women are oppressed in Saudi Arabia, so you 'Western' feminists don't have anything to complain about!" argument.
And some things I'm not saying (because some folks seem unclear on the concept:
  • I'm not saying that attractive women "have it easier" than unattractive men. Beauty privilege doesn't trump other forms of privilege.
  • I'm not saying that attractive people don't get some flak for being attractive. Similarly, thin people often get snide comments made about their size. It doesn't negate the fact that most of the privilege goes the other direction, though.
  • I'm not saying that it's on a par with any other form of privilege. What not having it has meant for me was teasing as a child and adolescent, and being ignored in favor of better-looking people in situations where looks are paramount. It's not horrible in an absolute sense, even if it can sure feel that way at times.
  • I'm not saying anyone has to be attracted to someone they're not attracted to (though personally, I think a lot of people would be better off being more open-minded about such things).
For a less infuriating look at beauty privilege, see these posts from Feminist Gal and Jaded Hippy from a couple months back.


whatsername said...

Yay! I'm less infuriating! :D

Hugo Schwyzer said...

Great post, and inspires me to (eventually) do one of my own.

Renegade Evolution said...

the whole deal is a double edged sword, that is for certain.