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What's the price of pretty privilege?


By Associate Professor of Communication Dr Donna Henson, Bond University

Research dating back decades finds that physically attractive people consistently receive preferential treatment, across a wide range of contexts, from pre-school to the job market. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘beauty premium.’ While we live in a world that might like to claim ‘beauty is only skin deep,’ the clear reality is physical attractiveness is a social commodity, with personal and professional value attached to it. 

Explanations for the beauty premium vary, but it’s likely implicit biases play a significant role in that we tend to believe “what is beautiful is good.” As the ‘Halo Effect’ suggests, we often conclude certain characteristics go with other characteristics. If Jane is deemed attractive, then she is also likely to be perceived as more likeable and intelligent. It may be a hard truth to accept, but the beautiful amongst us benefit from a kind of discrimination that privileges physical attractiveness. Life simply seems to be kinder to the physically blessed. It’s perhaps no wonder that beauty is a multi-billion dollar global industry.

 To add to the injustice, research further finds that beauty actually improves productivity. The physically attractive evidently are more successful, socially skilled, and more popular. If Jack is handsome, he is likely to be more influential, more persistent and self-confident. 

 So, it’s really not surprising that a recent study out of Sweden has highlighted the effects of attractiveness in higher education, finding that when instruction is in-person and involves significant teacher-student interaction, attractive students receive higher grades. Teachers are human too, and just as susceptible to the cultural norms and automatic processes that shape thought and behaviour as the rest of us. What is particularly interesting in this study, however, is the finding that the grades of attractive female students dropped when classes moved online during the pandemic. In the absence of physical interaction, attractive females no longer benefited from the beauty premium. In contrast, attractive males suffered no such consequence. 


 As the author of the study himself suggests, the female beauty premium observed during in-person education seems to be largely a function of discrimination – given it disappeared in the absence of physical cues. For men, it’s a prettier picture. The male beauty premium may be more a consequence of the behavioural impacts of attractiveness, in that it remained unaffected even after the switch to online learning. 

 These findings likely reflect society’s expectations that value attractiveness more in women. That is, although societal stereotypes promote unrealistic images of physical attractiveness generally, for both men and women, these norms reflect cultural standards that disproportionately attach value to beauty for women. The cultural ideal for conventional femininity is one that effectively prescribes beauty. And beauty, as we’ve established, is good. 

All of this likely begs the question as to how we address pretty privilege? Given some of this may be explained by biological imperatives, it is a bit of hard ask to undo the consequences of aeons of evolutionary adaptation. Nevertheless, there is evidence that we may mitigate our unconscious biases through counter-stereotype training. 

On a more practical level, that might mean simply recognising our own appearance biases toward the attractive amongst us. Self-awareness in turn motivates self-regulation. That is, ultimately knowledge is power, and making the unconscious conscious leaves us better able to combat the consequences of our own prejudice. It would likely serve us all to better remember beauty actually is as beauty does. 

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