Is ‘pretty privilege’ actually a thing? Here's why we should all be talking about it

Pretty privilege or beauty bias is a real thing, and it can be toxic. But can it be unlearned? Here’s everything you need to know about the intriguing topic

An image of Hailey Bieber, Bella Hadid and Gigi Hadid has been collaged and manipulated with color changes to depict the idea of pretty privilege
(Image credit: Getty Images / Tristan Fewings)

The term 'pretty privilege' has been floating around for a while now, but what actually is it, and why is its existence debated by some? We take a deep dive into the topic...

Whilst we know that life is far from equal and that the list of evidence for that is endless, one bias many of us might struggle to accept or care to admit to—let alone talk about—is pretty privilege. It's hotly debated, that's for sure!

As almost all trends go these days, the topic started life out on TikTok—alongside the Olaplex bun trend, the famous TikTok jeans, baked feta pasta, and pesto eggs—and with the videos tagged #prettyprivilege getting a total amount of nearly 70M views, we decided to delve deeper into the subject. So what is pretty privilege, how does it affect you; and does it actually matter?

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What is pretty privilege?

What is pretty privilege? Pretty privilege works on the principle that people who are deemed more attractive—based on societal beauty standards—have an upper hand in the world, and are afforded many opportunities that regular folks don't have.

"it's not often that we are willing to admit it—or even talk about it—especially if we're on the receiving end of its benefits."

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—or even talk about 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 (however subjective this may seem) 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, according to a 2009 report in the Journal of Industrial Relations (opens in new tab), is defined as “Prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person's appearance” and occurs in a variety of settings, including dating and social environments, and workplaces. 

When it comes to those with pretty privilege, the idea is that, unconsciously or consciously, they are generally treated in a superior way to others, due to their 'good looks'. It may be that they receive preferential treatment for jobs, that they get discounts or upgrades in commercial settings, or that they are generally treated more kindly by strangers.

Over on TikTok, many creators continue to discuss pretty privilege with regards to 'glow-ups', and how they (or others) are treated before or after 'becoming' conventionally attractive—be it through weight loss, a new wardrobe, or a different hairstyle. One creator, @saharrooo, said that people who have experienced this kind of change 'will tell you that pretty privilege is f***ing real'. 

She explained, "Because when you weren't attractive, it was like everything you did was annoying...but when you're stereotypically attractive, you get away with so much more, people are so much nicer to you."

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How do you know if you benefit from pretty privilege?

Pretty or attractive people are, of course, not all identical. And yes, we get that the terms used are purely subjective—and, can be entirely down to personal preference. So how do you know if you benefit from pretty privilege?

We all likely have a general awareness of who, and what features, are deemed to be 'the prettiest'—meaning many of us are likely are of whether we meet these supposed standards or not. There are some universal commonalities amongst those who experience 'pretty privilege'. Most, if not all, will embody European beauty standards—you know, white, tall, thin, perhaps blonde.

And more recently, the ‘Instagram face’ has become a supposed marker of an universally 'attractive' person. 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 (opens in new tab) 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, white skin, symmetrical features, and sometimes with a tendency to appear ethnically ambiguous.

A collage image of different parts of four beautiful women's faces to depict pretty piviledge

(Image credit: Getty images / Alberto Rodriguez / Don Arnold / Jason Mendez / Jamie McCarthy)

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 (opens in new tab).

This idea has come into even keener focus recently, with the mounting popularity of insidious TikTok filters such as the #beautyscanner filter and the #attractivenessfilter—both of which supposedly 'scan' your face and give you a beauty rating. The social media effects, while clearly little more than a game with no basis in fact, have been used millions of times, suggesting how ardently people desire to be deemed conventionally attractive.

There is also the huge rise in filters on TikTok and Instagram that supposedly edit out all your imperfections with the click of a button, giving you the rosy cheeks, sculpted chin and cheekbones, and wide doe eyes of a supposedly 'pretty' person—so much so that it has become almost impossible to tell who is using a filter and who isn't.

Why is pretty privilege a thing?

So just why are those with pretty privilege favored in society? It's one thing to accept that pretty privilege exists, but knowing why it exists is also key to understanding it as a concept.

According to Briggs, it may well be because they tend to exude more confidence than those without the privilege—rather than because we deem them to be more educated, hard-working or nicer to be around.

“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.”

Jon Briggs, broadcaster and coach

Briggs explained: ”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.”

There's also the school of thought that as a society, we tend to reward physical attractiveness over pretty much anything else—something that can be clearly seen when people announce a weight loss success, and are praised hugely and continually for it. In fact, in a 2015 World of Labor report (opens in new tab), economist Eva Sierminska concluded that because of this, pretty people tend to earn 15% more than those without pretty privilege too.

She said, “Our societies reward investments in physical appearance. And contrary to some expectations, men benefit more in the labor market from investing in good looks than women."

Interestingly, Briggs also explained that pretty privilege can extend outside of social and financial rewards—it even 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 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", and explores 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 pretty privilege and beauty bias? Is it something that is effectively part of our brain, or do we learn it as we grow up? And, if so, can it be unlearned?

Can beauty bias be unlearned? 

Among experts, the notion of whether we learn beauty bias from birth, or that it is something we grow to learn, is debated.

Hypnotherapist Andrew Pearson explains that he believes 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?"

And, he says, this continues into our adult lives, as the media plays a larger part into our lives.

“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," Andrew said. "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 is doable. It would just mean the entire world and its perception of beauty would have to change."

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's perception of beauty would have to change—which is no mean feat.

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“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. 

"This 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'.”

Ultimately, widespread change in our thoughts, values and actions is needed for the arguably pretty toxic idea of pretty privilege to be dismantled. And while that's not an easy task, it begins with acknowledging the idea, and doing what we can in any small way to challenge it. 

Sagal Mohammed

Sagal is a journalist, specialising in lifestyle, pop culture, fashion and beauty.  She has written for a number of publications including Vogue, Glamour, Stylist, Evening Standard, Bustle, You Magazine, Dazed and Wonderland to name a few.