The Beauty Bias

Yesterday was my birthday, and I got to celebrate it here in Hawaii with my mom, where I am right now (more on that another time).

In order to stay present, I’ve decided to share a deleted chapter from my book with you today!

The Beauty Bias

Beauty standards for women are extremely complex, nuanced, and subjective, but women who occupy the top tier of “hotness” walk through life with a high level of privilege in the forms of attention, acceptance, belonging, income, kindness, access to high status partners, access to opportunities, and more.

The interesting thing to me about female hotness is that while there certainly are women who are considered “natural beauties,” a huge percentage of female beauty is earned, created, and bought, not inborn.

This performance includes everything from makeup to high heels to shape-wear to waxing to eye cream to pedicures to blowouts to implants. This means that there is an enormous amount of pressure on women to learn how to “improve” upon their natural beauty, to spend their time and money and energy on “working to improve themselves,” which really means working to elevate their beauty status.

This pressure changes based on what the women around you are doing, because it’s about competition and status. There is always the hidden threat of being left behind or left out.

If all the women around you get their nails done and hair blown out in NYC, the pressure is much greater to do the same. If all the women around you wear tevas and no makeup in Denver, the pressure might be entirely focused on looking effortlessly beautiful while bare-faced.

It’s all about playing to your local market, and staying up to date with the competition– unless of course you happen to spend a lot of time on social media. Then the “local market” changes, and you may feel pressure to maintain standards that are much higher than your bare-faced neighbors.

This human desire for improved social status via beauty and desirability has been exploited fruitfully.

So many multi-billion dollar industries have capitalized upon and consciously created insecurity and self-hatred over the last fifty years, so that they can sell us the “cure.” They remind us over and over that the bar for hotness has been raised, so that we must buy more and work harder to meet this new standard. They also reinforce the idea that we must at least look like we’re doing everything we can to climb the social mobility ladder, otherwise we’re just lazy and don’t deserve good things anyway.

Sleep with your eye makeup on? Unforgivable. Don’t have a seven-step skin care routine? No willpower. Can’t stick to your diet? You obviously just don’t care if you’re successful in life.

A woman who is not naturally considered pretty or beautiful can create an image of beauty with enough money, time, effort, and skill put into her hair, makeup, and clothing, therefore earning herself access to the special treatment afforded to conventionally attractive women.

Men generally earn their high status through financial success, but they too have beauty standards. While they have less opportunity to earn or fake access to the top tier of this hierarchy through products and clothing, they can put in work to come off as extremely muscular, strong, powerful, and masculine if they want a spot at the top.

You may feel uncomfortable viewing this as a hierarchy, but that’s how it is.

The closer a person comes to the culturally accepted beauty ideal for their gender, the more they are perceived as likeable, powerful, and worthy of attention, belonging, respect, power, kindness, and happiness. The further a person is from this ideal (either naturally or due to decisions they make in how to present themselves) the less likeable, powerful, and worthy they are perceived to be.

The truth is that we have all been conditioned with a beauty bias, and misled to believe that things we find attractive are better, so people at the top of this hierarchy live in a completely different world than the people at the bottom.

Personally I can attest to the fact that I am treated very differently when I go out into the world all dolled up, versus when I roll out in gym clothes and no makeup. People are significantly friendlier when I’m dressed in a feminine-beauty kind of way, and when my hair is long, and when I’m wearing a face full of makeup. People of all genders smile at me, hold doors, compliment me and engage in chit-chat, and generally make me feel like I am liked, accepted, and belong. None of these things occur when my hair is buzzed, or I’m dressed like a tomboy. It’s like I suddenly become invisible, despite still being the same exact amount of “natural” prettiness and still being the same person.

This beauty bias is well documented.

Strangers smile more at “beautiful” babies. Teachers call more often on cuter kids, and give them better grades. People are willing to do more favors for people they find attractive, everything from holding the door to calling in a favor for a job opportunity.

The enjoyment we derive from looking at people we find attractive makes us unconsciously perceive them in a variety of ways, like viewing them as kinder, more helpful, and overall better at what they do. They’re hired for jobs that interface with customers (think: servers, hostesses, customer service people), and make significantly more money overall than people who are considered unattractive.

Remember how important it is for our mental and physical health to feel like we belong, and are seen, accepted, and valued? There are practically zero representations in tv, movies, marketing, or popular culture of “ugly people.” We almost never see leg or armpit hair, moustache hair or sideburns, acne, scars, bloated bellies, crooked/yellow teeth, saggy boobs, or bags under the eyes of women in the public eye. We almost never see a woman anywhere close to her natural state in fact, because the cultural narrative is that “nobody wants to see that.”

Beauty standards and ideals disproportionately affect women because while men can certainly experience pressure to be sexy, there is an assumption that a woman’s worth is based more closely on her appearance than a man’s. This is in part due to some sexist ideas about women having less to offer in general, and to some structural inequity created by the patriarchy.

Remember, women were only relatively recently allowed to have jobs or play sports or participate in government, because until not even a century ago, it was still assumed that women were too unintelligent and fragile and emotional to do anything but cook and clean and raise children. A woman’s social power had to come directly from being desirable enough for some successful man to snatch her up and take care of her, because there was no other way to get it.

While women have thankfully moved past explicit financial dependence in the last fifty years, we are still not identified by or valued for our other qualities, skills, and gifts nearly as much as men are, and are still identified by and valued for our appearance significantly more. It’s no wonder we come to see our appearance as fundamentally important to our quality of life.

It’s worth noting that the type of oppression facing people at the bottom of this particular hierarchy is sometimes called “lookism,” which is to say that people unconsciously discriminate against, marginalize, undervalue, disrespect, and ignore people who aren’t attractive to them. This oppression is every bit as real (and completely linked to) racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and homophobia.

It is therefore important to acknowledge that people who feel insecure for the way they look are in many ways just dealing with the reality of this hierarchy. Often what’s happening is that a person craves visibility, respect, belonging, and a feeling that they are valued. They look around notice that those people considered in the top-tier of attractiveness have what they want, so then they attempt to change their appearance with dieting, exercise, makeup, feminizing or masculinizing themselves, or otherwise trying to get closer to the beauty ideals appropriate for them.

Sometimes this works and they feel “confident” because they get more attention, like when someone gets a haircut or loses weight and everyone compliments them, although that confidence tends to be fleeting.

Other times it doesn’t work or isn’t sustainable, which can lead to resentment, shame, guilt, and hatred of one’s appearance, as well as obsession and anxiety, body monitoring, and insecurity. Such behavior and fixations can be seen as vain and superficial to someone on the outside, but in practice it represents a desire for an improved social status, access to the privileges afforded to those at the top of the hierarchy, and a desire to be seen as doing everything in their power to climb the social mobility ladder.

So much love,

<3
Jessi

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