We should have known from a young age that appearance would influence the way we would be perceived and treated in the world. The clue was in the way adults would cup our faces and tilt them towards the sun, wanting to get a proper look at us. They made it seem as though there was a message reflected in the positioning of our facial features.
I remember a time when the arrival of guests would have my cousins and I assembled before them. The excuse was that they wanted to see how much we had grown. The first few comments usually revolved around our similarities and the striking resemblance we had to our parents. Inevitably, the conversation would drift into a comparison, until they decided on who looked better than the other. They passed it off as innocent fun, ranking us according to their preference. Yet, it eventually influenced how we would be treated thereafter.
It was from those moments that we figured who the favourite among us was. This person would often be doted on or was more likely to be given something if they asked the adults for it. On the other hand, the rest of us would be turned down. As children, we believed this worked to our advantage and we resorted to sending the favoured person to relay our requests. However, without realising it, we grew discouraged and it knocked down our confidence. Being young and naïve kept us peacefully oblivious to the reality of being treated unequally because of the way we look. Eventually, it allowed us to excuse such memories as being silly and worth forgetting.
Our appearance is the first thing people acknowledge when they first lay eyes on us. Hence, the impression and attitudes they develop towards us, heavily rely on how we appear to them. Our appearance as well as the responses we receive from others, can further inform the self-image we develop about ourselves. Although, it is not something anyone would readily admit, we are all guilty of categorizing others (even ourselves) along the physical attractiveness spectrum.
It easily stretches from those we consider to be beautiful, pleasing to the eye, pretty, or cute, to the opposite extreme of ugly. It is an instinctive human habit that I have also done, without always realising it. However, we do have complete control over the reaction and treatment we offer others according to what we think of them.
Some may claim to be impartial but there is no denying that humanity is sometimes overly obsessed with appearance. It is evident in the way appearance (or beauty) ideals are captured in everyday literature, music, movies and many other aspects of life. The continued concern over whether people look appealing, acceptable or plain bad, contributes to inequality in social acceptance. One implication of that inequality was identified in a 2021 article by Olivia Simon, as the beauty bias. It was explained as favour and advantage given to people who are considered to be attractive or fit social beauty standards. It is a phenomenon recently termed by social media enthusiasts as ‘pretty privilege’.
This new-age term came in the wake of spreading awareness and advocacy against the issue on internet platforms. The alternative implication is a side-lining of those who do not fit into the beauty standards. I believe the majority can testify to having witnessed, experienced or benefited from the inequality. Either way, there is no denying its existence.
Personally, I grew up being treated and told that I had an average physical appearance. This was irrespective of how I felt because I believed I looked amazing. I have had my fair share of compliments thrown my way but the best treatment I’ve received, is a door held open for me on several occasions. However, I had a friend who fit the beauty standard well enough to be considered extremely ‘attractive’. She benefited to the fullest extent, being showered with gifts, opportunities and had the luck of landing the best romantic relationships.
Once, one of her admirers convinced her to invite us (a few of a friends) to a big lunch in an effort to impress. After the meal, he raised a glass to toast ‘beautiful people deserve only the best’ in her honour. She and her admirer laughed carelessly. However, the rest of us fell into an uncomfortable silence, suddenly feeling side-lined. The reality is that we all bared witness to the promotion of the beauty bias (pretty privilege) around that table. Personally, it brought the memories of childhood flooding back.
I have come to understand the people will use the smallest distinctions or unique aspects between each other as a basis for promoting inequality, appearance has been no exception. We need to understand that beauty bias (pretty privilege) and marginalisation of others, is maintained by the society. It is because people have the power to determine beauty standards and social acceptability. A power that we have abused by setting and chasing fluctuating beauty norms. Resulting, in almost impossible expectations and standards that most cannot adhere to or reach. Also, people are just as easily responsible for the comparisons, judgements and treatment afforded to others around them. As complicated as life is, this form of inequity is a conundrum we have created ourselves.
It unsettles me to think that the way I will continue to be perceived, treated or accepted through all the days of my existence, is effected by a factor as insignificant as the way I look.
Read another writer’s opinion on our beauty obsession here.
Tell us: Do you agree that society’s beauty standards are unrealistic? Why or why not?