(There was going to be a pic of me here for evidence of my average-level attractiveness, but then I decided that this is better as just a text post. My blog is full of selfies anyway.)
I think we can all agree that I’m not gorgeous, and I don’t fit the model for a “perfect” face or a “perfect” body: I’m short, I wear glasses, my arms are more muscular than they really ought to be (guys, I can lift my husband who weighs almost exactly twice as much as I do). But on the other hand, I fall within certain normative parameters for appearance: I have all my limbs, I wear a size 6, I don’t have any really obvious moles/warts/whatever (I do have some broken teeth). In our society, I am “okay” - which really just means acceptable.
I know this privilege mostly because of what doesn’t happen to me. I’ve been called fat once in my life, ever - by a four-year-old boy who had a slightly-chubby older sister whom he apparently called fat every time he got mad at her, as it was the worst insult he could imagine. It’s been twenty years and I still remember, which says something about how appallingly damaging that kind of insult would be if it happened to you every day. It does happen to some people every day. I have been called ugly a few times - but only by anons on tumblr. In my daily life, it’s rare for me to leave the house without someone making a positive comment about my appearance. This is privilege.
It can also be a pain, and I mean that not in the “oh my GOD YOU GUYS I just don’t know what to do with all this ATTENTION” kind of way but in the real and sincere, desirability-is-a-liability kind of way. In our society, if a man finds you desirable, you are supposed to find that wildly flattering no matter how he expresses that, and you are supposed to accept his advances unless another man has prior claim, and even if you already “belong” to another dude you are supposed to let the next guy down easy and spare his poor little feelings.
If I sound bitter about this, it’s because I am. I have been backed into literal corners, asked to give PROOF that I already belonged to another man (what, the fact that I told you I was off the market wasn’t enough?), groped, stalked (in the literal, legally-defined way, not the “ahahaha what are you stalking me?” kind of way), and generally harassed. I once escaped an abduction attempt in a foreign country. There are good reasons why I would see physical attractiveness to men as being something of a threat. I’m willing to concede that some of this is probably an unhelpful conjuncture of my limited degree of attractiveness with my general persona, which involves a lot of vacant smiling. I am the Sookie Stackhouse of grad school.
But anyway, being normatively “pretty” is also a privilege. People smile at me a lot, just because. Random guys let me go ahead of them in the grocery store so I don’t have to stand there juggling my purchases. (I want to think it’s because they’re just nice, and sometimes it probably is … but I’m also aware that not everybody gets this treatment this consistently.) I get regular reassurance that I am “okay” - even attractive - whether I solicit it or not.
I think we don’t like to acknowledge this kind of privilege for two reasons. The first is that we like to believe that we earn the good things that happen to us: that we achieve whatever we manage to achieve on merit alone. We don’t like to think that factors we had absolutely no control over determined our chances in this world. We don’t like to think that a genetic throw of the dice made it easier for us. Especially in the cultural conditions of modernity, which emphasize individual struggle and ultimate victory over adverse everything, we like to believe that we are the masters of our own destiny. The second is that women in our society are conditioned never to admit to being pretty. Calling yourself beautiful is the cardinal sin of any woman. You can do all manner of viciously unconscionable things and get away with them, but God help the woman who says “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard …” because she is obviously … vain, conceited, empty-headed (I have never known why these things should go together). Too aware of her own worth to need a man to give her constant reassurance, that’s the truth of it. And in refusing to talk about “pretty privilege” - or relegating it to the frustrations of “ugly girls” against “other girls” - we erase the ways in which we benefit from a flawed system - not because we chose it or because we actively try to oppress others who don’t fit the parameters as well as we do, but because the system gives us things we didn’t ask for and we, for the most part, take them - good and bad.
It would be really cool if I had some kind of a call to action here, a thing that we were all supposed to go out and do once we’ve finished reading this post. But I don’t. I don’t know where we go from here, except that we can’t deal with the conditions of privilege until we acknowledge that it exists, and we can’t un-fix the way it works until we admit that we are part of the system, even if it’s not by choice.
So … there’s that?