Fading Beauty: The Passing Of Pretty Privilege

There are lots of different kinds of privilege in the world and despite how people often think about them, many of them are not guaranteed to last a lifetime. People with money can fall on hard times, anyone can become disabled, and social status can disappear with the shifting winds of popularity and politics.

This article about the privilege that some women accrue based on their looks is a fascinating look at some of the ways that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to see how often it happens.For example:

It could be that the small perks I’ve been attributing to being a nice-enough-looking lady—say, getting slipped a free cookie now and then at the deli—are just people being kind, and that they’d do the same if I were homely, or a man. I’m sure that is indeed the case sometimes, but I’ve been smacked down by my own naivete in this regard enough times to know better than to get all Pollyanna here. (One of the free-cookie men suddenly stopped giving me cookies after I stopped by once with a male friend. It was the illusion of availability that he liked—and once that fell to the wayside, so did my supply of white chocolate-macadamia treats.) We can have our hunches, but for the most part that’s all we have.

I suspect that it has everything to do with her being a “nice-enough-looking lady.” I’ve never been given a free cookie at the deli. But what this article reminds me of is a scene from the novel Frederica (yes, I read historical romance novels) in which one sister is compared to her far more beautiful, but much less intelligent sister:

She possessed, moreover, the indefinable gift of charm, which, unlike [her sister’s] more fragile beauty, would remain with her to the end.

In a world which privileges a fairly small range of “beauty,” it’s no wonder that so many people devote incredible amounts of time, money, and energy into “staying young looking.” After all, if you’re used to being treated a certain way because of your looks, that can be hard to give up. But the problem is that sooner or later, those efforts simply stop working.

Personally, I’d much rather be with someone who cultivates charm. Not only does it last longer, but it makes them far more interesting and a lot more fun. I’ve also noticed that while charming people might not get as many immediate perks, they tend to have deeper connections with folks, which leads to more benefits in the long run. That even applies in casual contexts, like the interaction between a customer and a server in a restaurant. Beauty without charm might get you a treat on your first visit, but charm will get you personal recommendations, a birthday dessert, or a table without a reservation. Charm is a much better foundation and it’s a lot less likely to disappear over time. Besides, in my experience, charming people make excellent lovers. Just saying.

This is something I’ve seen in my work as a sexologist, too. A lot of older folks get stuck because they don’t think that they or their partners are attractive. I get that- there are few examples in the media of anyone over 30 being sexy and it takes some practice to swim against the tide. The payoff, however, is well worth it.

In any case, the thing I find most fascinating about this conversation is the question of how much of our societal phobias around aging are the result of the privilege people (especially women) get for being pretty. It saddens me that so many people are convinced that they peaked before they were 20 or 25, and then it’s all downhill from there. I’d really like to live in a world in which we saw beauty not just in the first rose on the bush, but in each successive one, as well. In which we treated everyone kindly, whether we found them attractive or not. In which nobody had to worry about whether their appearance limited how seriously people took them. And in which no one felt compelled to look as young as possible in order to hold onto a rather tenuous privilege.

In the end, no matter how hard you try, any pretty privilege you receive is going to fade. It seems to be that it’s worth cultivating charm, instead. After all, it’s a much better investment in the long run.

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7 Responses so far.

  1. The two worst things about this are that it only works for women (even if you happen to be a beautiful man, women won’t give you cookies) and that beautiful women rarely fully realize or acknowledge that it’s their beauty that is paving their way through life. Some part of them still thinks that it’s their charm or skill set that is getting them those cookies.

  2. No, the worst part about this, is that men perpetuate this need in women to stay beautiful and young. This is a lovely post, thank you, but — despite of what we want to think — attraction for men is, too often, mostly physical, and what can one do if the body of one’s partner no longer physically attracts them? I think for heterosexual women, as their men age, their physical looks often get replaced by other attributes that are just as sexually arousing — after all, how many women long for daddy figures, older, wiser, more patient and experienced men in their lives? But these same women, as they grow older and lose their looks, their experience, wisdom, kindness, and even charm can keep them valuable and loved, but their male partners will continue looking at porn that features young, hot and not necessarily charming chicks. And if they choose to cheat, it will, most likely, be with someone younger….. So, yes, changing out minds about what we value in our partners is important, but how then to link our minds with our bodies and the ways our bodies respond? And while I continue to hold that this is more of an issue for men to consider, women can too lose attraction for their male partners, though I would guess that more often than  not, they do so for different reasons than age — perhaps, their partners’ loss of sexual interest for them, or loss of self esteem, or even simple lack of time and energy to stay intimately connected….. 

  3. thequeerinsideme, I think you’re right about a lot of it and there are most certainly ways in which men perpetuate this cycle. And I also think you’re leaving out the ways in which women perpetuate it among each other, as well. A lot of women shame each other around physical presentation and beauty much more profoundly than is often acknowledged and that also reinforces these patterns.

  4. Charlie, You’re totally right about women perpetuating this cycle as well — we do it through competition, and often through becoming those younger mistresses to men looking for young bodies to replace their aging partners. We also do it through raising our kids with certain values based upon physical looks, and that’s how society continues to uphold its hegemonic practices. But I guess my question is — how do we (as men, women, society) stop this cycle? Because we can SAY all we want about caring for what’s on the inside, but that just shrouds with silence what we really feel and do, and doesn’t change one bit how we behave towards each other and ourselves…..

  5. thequeerinsideme, I think one place to start that process is to move away from shaming women for not being “perfect,” especially with respect to physical appearance. Letting go of shame isn’t easy, and it’s the only way I know of to stop these cycles.

  6. Rowan says:

    From my female perspective, I can say that yes, some women do perpetuate certain standards, though what I’ve seen is more about promoting norms, i.e. shaving body hair, dressing in a feminine manner, etc. than it is about attaining a high standard. Women put in the effort to compete. If you are not a 10 naturally then you will try to raise your status with makeup and other means. The ones who do put the most effort into their looks are often aware of their power (golddiggers certainly know they can use their pretty power to connect with men who have money power) however for many it comes from their insecurity that they lack that power. If you are female and less attractive to men, you do notice that you are more often ignored, and lack the privileges you witness in prettier women. You may see a more attractive woman get promoted at work even though you are the better worker, and decide to put more effort into your looks. However those that are naturally very attractive often don’t realise their power. They are so used to their treatment they don’t notice that others aren’t getting it. Nobody wants to believe they only got their job for their looks and not their intelligence or skills. In the past I think women knew it more. Until recently, attractiveness was one of the only forms of power a woman had. Men could gain power through their success at work, intelligence, humour, but women could only hope to be as pretty as possible and get their power through aquiring a powerful man before their looks make them lose value to society. Now there are laws that allow women to compete with men in the workforce and women are less dependent on men, but that doesn’t change the fact that men treat attractive women better and give them more value and power. It is men after all who came up with giving women a value number from 1-10 which only refers to their looks. As long as men treat attractive women as if they have more value than less attractive women, pretty privilege will continue.

  7. Lei says:

    Well, I know a few ‘pretty’ men who get free things from women. They get free haircuts from female friends who would have me pay. Free meals. Free mobile phones. Free cleaning/decorating/shopping help. This isn’t because they are in a loving relationship (because they aren’t). It is really because of the women swooning over them. Seriously. This is how a gigolo works. These aren’t older women either. Plenty of them are young and blinded. Just be a good looking bloke in a place which doesn’t have many. Then the balance is in your favour.

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