Is ‘pretty privilege’ actually a thing? We're still talking about it—here's why

Pretty privilege or beauty bias is real. But can it be unlearned? Here’s everything you need to know about the topic we seemingly can't get enough of

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 has come back into light recently. Here's why...

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. 

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 exactly is pretty privilege, how does it affect you, and does it actually matter?

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What is pretty privilege?

Pretty privilege works on the principle that people who are deemed more attractive—based on accepted societal beauty standards—have an upper hand in the world and are afforded many opportunities that us 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 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 (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, social environments, and workplaces. 

And when it comes to those with pretty privilege, they are generally treated in a superior way to others because of their good looks.

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A photo posted by on

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. But, there are some commonalities that are shared universally. Most, if not all, are based on European beauty standards—you know, white, tall, thin—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 (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.

“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

But just why are those with pretty privilege favored in society?

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. 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.”

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 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 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 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 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 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.