My weekly column at Role/Reboot runs a day earlier than normal. How Much Do Good Looks Help People in Our Culture? examines “appearance privilege,” riffing off a superb piece from America’s best writer on beauty, Autumn Whitefield-Medrano. In my post, I look at why it’s so much harder to cop to the advantages bestowed by being good-looking than it is to those unmerited benefits that come with race and class. Excerpt:
Does “looks privilege” function in similar ways in men’s lives as it does in women’s? How much do striking (or merely conventional and modest) good looks help men in our culture? These are two of the questions that jumped to mind after reading Autumn Whitefield-Medrano’s latest essay at The New Inquiry on Beauty Privilege. One of our best contemporary commenters on beauty culture, Whitefield-Medrano notes that this benefit functions as an elephant in the room, a presence everyone feels but few dare name: “…think of how you sound if you talk about it openly: It can seem hopelessly narcissistic to own up to one’s ‘beauty privilege,’ and hopelessly affirmation-seeking to talk about suffering at the hands of looksism.”
As she points out, we live in a culture where responsible people are expected to acknowledge their privileges, often with an almost confessional zeal. If you’ve got white skin, if you’re male, if you come from a middle-class (or more affluent) background, if you’re heterosexual or able-bodied or Christian or well-educated, then you do well to note the myriad ways that those attributes can ease your way in life. If I say, for example, that growing up a middle-class white male has eased my way in life, that my background and family connections have cushioned me from the repercussions of my own poor decisions, few will argue. No serious person could deny that race, class, education, and sex all impact how one is treated in the world. In and of themselves, they may not be determinative, but it is evident that unmerited privileges like color and wealth shape our worldview and ease our passage through public space.
Looks are different, exponentially more difficult to talk about. It shouldn’t necessarily be so. Most of us learned about the power of being pretty (or cute, or handsome) in elementary school. Long before we could spell a word like privilege (OK, fine, I still have trouble with it), we figured out that kids who were conventionally good-looking got more attention and enjoyed higher status among their peers—and, sadly, often among parents and teachers as well. Looksism is arguably the first unjust bias many of us encounter in life, particularly those of us who are privileged in the “other” ways like class and race. By the time we’re done with junior high school, we’re keenly, often heartbreakingly aware of how looks open doors for some and not for others.