Have you ever experienced the feeling that you were being judged on your appearance during an interview? Or maybe you’ve noticed that an employer treats their workers differently, based on their attractiveness. If you have, then you’ve likely encountered the phenomenon of pretty privilege.

Why Pretty Privilege Matters

Pretty privilege is defined as ‘the economic, social, and political advantages to both men and women solely based on their physical appearance.’ In short, people who are more conventionally attractive tend to have more opportunities than those deemed less attractive.

Pretty privilege has many faces, yet all of them amount to stereotypically attractive people receiving certain benefits, such as more respect or having better job prospects. While the term has been around for many years, a recent viral video has made pretty privilege a hotly debated topic. A 30-year-old American woman named Melissa Weaver turned to TikTok to express her frustration after a job rejection. She said that a hiring manager had told her that her ‘background was exactly what they were looking for,’ but that she ‘hadn’t put enough effort into her appearance’ because she decided not to wear makeup for the interview. Now, the hashtag ‘#prettypriviledge’ has over 250 million views on TikTok.

Pretty Privilege & Job Prospects

Scottish author and psychotherapist Kamalyn Kaur explains how pretty privilege can affect a candidate’s success during an interview. ‘Research indicates that it takes the brain a tenth of a second to form an impression of someone based on their face,’ she says. Because this is such a short amount of time, ‘the [interviewer’s] brain is basing judgements only on looks.’ During an interview, these first impressions can be hard to shift, regardless of the 30 minutes of conversation that follow. This suggests that adhering to conventional beauty standards (wearing makeup or straightening your hair etc.) can potentially benefit job candidates by ensuring they leave a good first impression. Of course, this is also extremely unfair.

Most job applications have several stages, including a written statement and an interview. This creates a near-impartial selection process and reduces the likelihood that recruitment will be based on superficial factors such as one’s appearance. However, cases like Melissa Weaver show that those who refuse to adhere to certain beauty standards run the risk of being overlooked by employers.

There is, however, a further reason why those who are conventionally good-looking tend to excel during interviews. In addition to making better first impressions, Canadian author and activist Emily Lauren Dick says pretty people are more likely to succeed because their beauty gives them confidence: ‘An attractive person is more likely to be confident because of their socially accepted looks, so they present well in interviews and stand out,’ she says.

As for those who don’t conform to conventional beauty norms, job rejections become a vicious cycle. Rejections reduce self-confidence and lead to poor performance, which in turn increases one’s chances of being turned down again. For a person to miss out on career opportunities ‘because they don’t look a certain way is extremely harmful to a person’s self-esteem and self-worth,’ says Emily. This could lead to prolonged periods of unemployment, which is known to have a scarring effect on individuals and reduce their future job prospects.

Is It That Influential?

Despite its widespread influence, not everyone is convinced that pretty privilege affects career progress. Psychologist and journalist Mark Travers is one such person. He acknowledges that ‘attractive individuals are more likely to be hired, promoted and receive higher salaries,’ but refers to a study from 2018 that rejects the idea that a person’s appearance greatly affects their job prospects. ‘While good-looking people might have an upper hand at the selection stage, staying [in a job] and making an impact is still a matter of hard skill and knowledge,’ argues Travers.

This view isn’t accepted by all academics. Research from the American Economic Association concludes that attractive workers have certain economic advantages. For one, their confidence makes them more likely to ask for pay raises, another, is that employers tend to regard them as being more competent than their less attractive coworkers. So while there’s conflicting research about the extent to which attractiveness improves job prospects, the vast majority of studies acknowledge that pretty privilege does exist within the workplace.

The Role of Internal Biases

It’s important to clarify that pretty privilege doesn’t just take into account someone’s facial features; it’s their whole appearance. This means that whether we deem someone attractive or not can also be based on characteristics that we might not immediately associate with beauty, such as race, weight, age, and physical disabilities. Try typing ‘beautiful’ into Google. The first twenty images are all photos of white women, with slim figures, dead-straight hair and unblemished skin. Scroll further down and the occasional image of a black celebrity like Zendaya or Lupita Nyong’o will appear, whilst older, plus-sized and disabled people are simply nowhere to be seen. The reason is simple: these groups don’t fit the rigid mould of conventional beauty.

Shaped by social media, marketing and Western beauty standards, our opinion of what a ‘perfect’ person should look like is cultivated by internal biases. Employers, being only human, are not immune to these societal biases. Conventionally attractive people are perceived to be ‘more competent, likeable and persuasive,’ and they tend to have better social skills. All this sways employers into believing that they will be productive workers and good representatives for their company. On this basis, candidates are often chosen because they look the part, rather than necessarily being the best fit for the role. Depending on how widespread pretty privilege is within an organisation, this could spell disaster for both employer and employee if the latter is not up to the job’s task.

Pretty privilege may improve the job prospects of those who are conventionally attractive, but it also creates inequality within the workplace and insecurity for employers.

As a society obsessed with appearances, we need to keep talking about pretty privilege to fix our misconceptions and open our eyes to the truth.

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