Pretty Privilege or “Un-Privilege”- A Feminist Conceptualization
Have you ever wondered what getting constant compliments and attention from others for your physical appearance feels like? Do “pretty” people ever get tired of all the flattering remarks they receive under the comment section of their Instagram posts? Are conventional attractiveness and physical beauty all sunshine and rainbows?
Most research on appearance-related commentary, both negative and positive, has focused on women. This is because it is a fact that “women receive many more appearance compliments than do men, who typically receive skill compliments related to their abilities and competence” (Parisi; Wogan). Our society, with its patriarchal roots and normative heterosexual contexts, places enormous value on women’s physical appeal, and also “rewards” women for having conventionally attractive bodies and faces. These rewards include “increased popularity, marriage opportunity, economic benefits, etc.” (Buss; Shackelford). Thus, women generally tend to find appearance-based compliments gratifying, and sometimes even empowering because of the inducements associated with conventionally “good” looks. Drawing on this idea, a study found that “appearance compliments may serve as a subtle social mechanism that perpetuates gender inequality because they ultimately undermine women’s achievements” (Kahalon et al.). Additionally, women are more likely to be subjected to comments by others, especially through the male gaze. This is also rooted in one of the bi-products of patriarchy, i.e., objectification and sexualization of women, which is used as a strategy by men to assert dominance. Hence, the consequence of placing too much emphasis on a woman’s appearance and complimenting them on the same is trait self-objectification. This can be conceptualized as a woman’s preoccupation with their external characteristics from the perspective of a third person. According to objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts), a woman’s trait self-objectification reflects their internalization of the dehumanizing cultural message that her value is determined by how attractive men find them (i.e., “the male gaze”). While engaging in a casual conversation about this topic with one of my “conventionally attractive” friends, I was told that “it’s extremely sickening to be called pretty after a point, especially by men. All these compliments make me feel like I am nothing more than a pretty face, and my worth is solely determined by my looks. I feel like an object.”
Research has found that positive commentary from a romantic partner has a significant
impact on body satisfaction for women with low self-esteem” (McLaren). This finding
corresponds with a statement made by another woman who was interviewed by me to write this article. She said, “Being called pretty would only mean something to me if I am the prettiest to someone, and that usually happens when someone is romantically interested in you. Otherwise, such compliments mean nothing to me.” Another woman added,
“Compliments on my appearance were held in high regard by me when I did not feel good about how I looked. Then, I did want to be complimented on my looks only to know how it would feel. Eventually, I started feeling more confident and comfortable in my skin, and that need for external validation started to diminish.” However, in the context of non-romantic or professional relationships, appearance-based compliments showcase a type of “subtle social policing, i.e., representing men’s ‘right’ to evaluate women physically (Quinn).
A research study by Fea and Brannon suggests that positive appearance commentary
decreases feelings of distress and sadness in women. They further added that in women who experience high anxiety about their appearance, receiving compliments put them at ease and alleviates some appearance anxiety. However, women’s good feelings about receiving appearance compliments are associated with heightened body surveillance and body dissatisfaction (Calogero).
Appearance-based compliments have the potential of strengthening or reinforcing the
conventional beauty standards that are set by our society, especially for women. This is
because, “after receiving a positive appearance-related comment, the receiver may believe that they are meeting societal standards of appearance, and may feel greater pressure to continue conforming to society’s standards for appearance. This additional pressure could lead to a heightened sense of internalization, thereby increasing the risk for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders” (Thompson ; Heinberg).
The phenomenon of 'complimentary weightism' comes into play here. It is the notion that women may feel worse about themselves after receiving a compliment because the
compliment serves as a reminder that their bodies are on display for others to judge and (Calogero). That is also the reason why women are more likely to invest their
resources in 'beautifying' themselves, be it financial, or mental. A very interesting analogy
can be applied here. Appearance compliments, especially the ones received on public
platforms like Instagram, can be seen as a drug of sorts. The compliments are addictive
because they provide validation that can considerably boost a woman’s morale and self-
esteem. However, as the number of eyes on them increase, the social pressure to meet
people’s expectations and the desire to ensure that these compliments are consistently
received, also grows. Eventually, just like addicts develop a tolerance for the substance they are consuming, “pretty” women might also feel the need to receive more and more flattering remarks to feel validated. The result of this can be paradoxical. On one hand, they might not get tired of the compliments because they are addictive. However, on the other hand, due to the immense social pressure that comes with maintaining a certain physical appeal, they might feel exhausted by the compliments. That is just a hypothesis that is yet to get tested scientifically.
The psychology underlying appearance commentary is particularly fascinating because not many people talk about it. One potential reason for the same is that “pretty” people might acknowledge that, at the end of the day, being conventionally attractive is a privilege, and, they would not want to lose this privilege under any circumstances. They might find it ridiculous to complain about such “first world problems” because, if given a chance, they would never choose to be “unattractive.” If they whine about getting too many compliments or flattering remarks, it might invite criticism.
Everyone indeed likes to be acknowledged. However, at the same time, appearance-based acknowledgment is superficial and somewhat demeaning, and its effect is unlikely to last long. On the surface, appearance-based remarks of flattery, especially ones given by men to women, seem harmless and polite. However, from a psychological and sociological lens, they underlie deep-rooted products of patriarchy.
By- Gurman Kaur Chawla