Is ‘pretty privilege’ actually a thing? This is why the term is trending on TikTok

Pretty privilege or beauty bias is real. But can it be unlearned? Here’s everything you need to know about the hottest topic on TikTok right now...

Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid and Hailey Baldwin are seen backstage ahead of the Bottega Veneta show during Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2018 on September 23, 2017 in Milan, Italy.
(Image credit: Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Bottega Veneta)

Life is far from equal and while the list of evidence for that is endless, one bias many of us might struggle to accept is pretty privilege. The topic has been trending on TikTok recently—alongside the famous TikTok jeans and pesto eggs— with the videos tagged #prettyprivilege getting a total amount of nearly 70M views.

But what is pretty privilege and does it actually matter?

@nadin..ward

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♬ original sound - Nadin Ward

What is pretty privilege?

Pretty privilege is the idea that people who are deemed more attractive based on societal beauty standards have an upper hand in the world. 

Like most other biases, pretty privilege is something we're all aware of—whether we have experienced it first-hand or not. Yet, it's not often that we are willing to admit it, especially if we're on the receiving end of its benefits. Nonetheless, various scholarly studies and surveys have proven that our appearance does in fact have a direct correlation with how well we are received by others, in both social and professional settings. On top of sexism, racism and ageism (all of which influence beauty ideals) where we fall on the physical attractiveness spectrum can determine our quality of life, irrespective of our personality, skills, talents or anything else we may have to offer. 

This bias, also known as lookism, is defined as “Prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person's appearance” and occurs in a variety of settings, including dating, social environments and workplaces. 

How do you know if you benefit from pretty privilege?

Pretty or attractive people are, of course, not all identical. Both terms are subjective and can be entirely down to personal preference. Still, there are commonalities that are shared universally. Most, if not all, are based on European beauty standards and more recently, the ‘Instagram face’.  

Almost as popular as the TikTok yoga pants, the type of face you tend to see on your feed became prominent with the rise of social media and influencer culture. It was once perfectly described by make-up artist Colby Smith in The New Yorker as “an unrealistic sculpture. Volume on volume. A face that looks like it’s made out of clay.” It conforms to traditional cis-gendered, Eurocentric beauty, often centering on youthful caucasian features, a thin, abled body, and white skin, sometimes with a tendency to appear ethnically ambiguous—think Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and the Kardashian/Jenner clan. 

They're all examples of what society deems universally ‘pretty’ and the closer you are to that, the more inclined you are to experience pretty privilege. “Sometimes called ‘Pulchronomics’, it is widely accepted that the more you resemble the beautiful people that we see in adverts, television, or in magazines, the more likely you will be rewarded financially or given a leg up society's ladder,” says Jon Briggs, broadcaster and communications coach.

“The beauty bias means that people who look good (as judged by society as a whole) tend to get an easier ride, even though there is no proof that they are smarter, more capable or intelligent than anyone else. Nor are they healthier or more competent, socially or morally.” 

He continues: ”Economically it's been shown that ‘beautiful’ people are no more productive or creative than us mere mortals, but they do possess bucket loads of confidence in their own skills, and employers find self-confidence a very attractive trait.”

Briggs also explained that pretty privilege can be extremely powerful when it comes to breaking the law and getting away with it. The topic is one that has been highlighted and investigated on the Netflix series 100 Humans. The show, which gathers a group of 100 diverse people to participate in interactive experiments designed to answer questions regarding “age, sex, happiness, and other aspects of being human,” explored whether good looks can keep you out of jail. After conducting a survey and extensive research, they concluded that the answer is yes. “It has been proven that if someone attractive commits a crime they are less likely to be found guilty and get less severe sentences,” says Briggs.

So, what are the roots of beauty bias? Is it something that is effectively part of our brain or do we learn it?  And, if so, can it be unlearned?

Can beauty bias be unlearned? 

Hypnotherapist Andrew Pearson explains that beauty bias is something we are conditioned to from as early as birth. “A baby’s eyes are much larger in relation to the size of their heads and their noses conversely much smaller. The adult brain is conditioned to see this combination of large eyes and small nose and to feel an urge to love and protect. Is it any wonder that the same killer combo should be so effective when we have grown into an adult?

“For many years we have seen that certain groups of people have been largely excluded from the cultural landscape, in low art and high art. In advertising, film, TV, art, photography and even writing, people whose skin color was too dark, whose waistlines were too wide, whose faces were not symmetrical, or whose legs were paralyzed struggled to find representation in mainstream media. But if this social conditioning can be learned, then it follows that it can be unlearned.” 

It's no secret that it’s harder to unlearn something than it is to learn it, hence the saying ”old habits die hard”. However, according to Pearson, it is doable. It would just mean the entire world and its perception of beauty would have to change. 

“The more we see diversity on our TV screens and catwalks, the more we grow to understand and accept that there is no ‘perfect’ and that people can express beauty in many different ways,” he says. “And this, in turn, will lead to a big reward for society as a whole in terms of raised self-esteem, as people realize that they have a voice and are valuable, irrespective of how they look. Which in turn should lead to opportunities opening up for them as they no longer get overshadowed by others who are perceived as being more ‘conventionally’ beautiful.”