4 February 2022
Where social media is, toxic beauty trends will follow.
One of those toxic beauty trends is the concept of pretty privilege. “Pretty privilege” is a frequently heard phrase on the Internet. It’s a more focused definition for the psychological term the “Halo Effect.” The Halo Effect is a form of cognitive bias in which a positive initial impression of someone influences one’s overall perception of them. Traits that do not match this biased perception are ignored in favor of the glorified version of the subject that has been created. Pretty privilege is similar to the Halo Effect in that beauty is the initial positive impression, and those considered attractive are afforded more social opportunities than those deemed unattractive.
Since the 1970s, many studies have been conducted that prove the mental link between a person’s attractiveness and their perceived virtue. A Harvard study discovered that attractive workers earn 10-15% more in the workforce than those with below average beauty.
This phenomenon became widely discussed with the rise of intersectional feminism in 2016. In 2021, videos (such as Salem Tovar’s on Youtube, Oh!StephCo’s on Youtube, and the “Tell Me You Have Pretty Privilege Without Telling Me You Have Pretty Privilege” TikTok trend) pertaining to the topic became more popular. As more people discussed pretty privilege, more began to highlight who is considered desirable in society, and why they are in the first place. This relationship between the “pretty” and everyone else is known as desirability politics.
Philosopher Amia Srinivasan proposed a complex metaphor in regards to desirability politics. Lifted from her essay, “Does Anyone Have The Right To Sex?” Srinivasan says:
“Suppose your child came home from primary school and told you that the other children share their sandwiches with each other, but not with her. And suppose further that your child is brown, or fat, or disabled, or doesn’t speak English very well, and that you suspect this is the reason for her exclusion from the sandwich-sharing. Suddenly it hardly seems sufficient to say that none of the other children is obliged to share with your child, true as that might be.”Amia Srinivasan
Using sandwich sharing as a metaphor for being considered beautiful is effective, in this instance, because it’s true. And while modern society has taken many steps towards inclusiveness, the harm that beauty standards have done is almost irreparable because of the wide scale it takes place on.
The effects of colonization, white supremacy, and capitalism have created a common template for beauty in Western and West-influenced countries. The “desirable” (or, the “privileged”) are the winners of a genetic lottery. Their eyes are bright and their lashes are long. They are tall, but not too tall. They are thin, but not too thin. Their hair is shiny and healthy. Their skin is smooth and light. Many times, they have the disposable income to spend hundreds of dollars on skin treatments, silk pillowcases, and custom made clothing. Most importantly, this kind of beauty is unattainable for the average person because it is constantly changing. Despite the knowledge that beauty standards will flip in another decade, people still chase the ideal of physical perfection.
Pursuing beauty is not a recent concept. In the 12th century, a group of beautification texts called the Trotula gained popularity in the Southern Italian town of Salerno. In Victorian England, arsenic and lead were common ingredients in makeup. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the “Gibson Girl” character– the image of a beautiful, classy, educated woman– became an ideal among American women.
These historical figures showcase the beauty industry’s ever-changing nature. In the 17th century, plumper bodies were glorified because they showed that a person was well fed and wealthy. Additionally, curves were valued in women at the time because they were associated with fertility. Throughout history, in nations ranging from Europe to Asia, pale skin was considered beautiful because it meant that a person was not working in sunny fields. In the early 2000s, being as thin as a runway model was the standard for women, but the hourglass figure is coveted today.
‘Portrait of a Lady’ by John Hayls – c.1675
Beauty has always been used as a tool to push discriminatory ideals, but social media has amplified standards that used to be relatively easy to avoid. Online trends like the ‘That Girl’ TikTok trend are “inspirational” posts that more often than not feature a thin, able-bodied, white woman showing you how to diet properly. Glow up culture encourages young people to lose weight and conform to impossible standards of beauty. It encourages young women to receive life threatening surgeries once they turn eighteen. This modern definition of what it means to be desirable– beauty for the front camera– is harmful because it markets permanent changes for a temporary fad. When the beauty standards inevitably shift from the Instagram fit figure to the straight, androgynous look of the 1920’s, will people rush to reverse their lip injections? Will society once again fall for the age old trap: that trendy beauty is within their reach, and they’ll be satisfied once they achieve it?
Despite the unanswered questions, multiple steps have been taken to diversify what “beautiful” means.
Issa Rae, a director and actress known for creating the show Insecure, discussed her push for desirable and darker skinned Black women in television. “I want the portrayal of dark-skinned women to evolve in such a way that you see us as multifaceted,” Rae said during a Teen Vogue interview. “We are more than just the sassy friend or the maid…We can be the leads.” The “Black Is Beautiful” movement of the 1950’s-1970’s, spearheaded by photographer Kwame Brathwaite, encouraged Black Americans to embrace their natural hair and skin.
Billie, an American razor blade company, became the first company to show body hair in a shaving commercial. Its “Project Body Hair” campaign included a diverse cast of actors, all with different skin tones and body types. Fenty Beauty by Rihanna was the first makeup company to release forty shades of foundation in its first release, solving the decades long struggle of Brown and Black people to find makeup that matches their skin.
Fatphobia in the modeling industry has been combated by the increasing popularity of plus-sized models. Christian Siriano’s high fashion looks tailored for plus size people have propelled the fashion industry toward inclusiveness. In addition, the body neutrality movement has gained traction. “Body neutrality,” defined by Byrdie.com, “is the idea that you can exist without having to think too much about your body… Or, feeling good about it one day, and not as good about it the next.” Body neutrality is seen as the more practical and achievable alternative to body positivity.
Credit: Kwame Brathwaite
There are many issues with how people confront beauty standards, but a lot of progress has been made. The heart of the issue, though, lies in a society obsessed with perfection. We open social media and pretend that our lives are perfect, forgoing honesty for a trending image. Beauty standards will only fade when we as a people decide to be honest.