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Pretty Privilege or “Un-Privilege”- A Feminist Conceptualization

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

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). With its patriarchal roots and normative heterosexual contexts, our society places enormous value on women’s physical appeal and “rewards” women for having conventionally attractive bodies and faces. These rewards include “increased popularity, marriage opportunity, economic benefits, etc.” (Buss & Shackelford). Thus, women generally find appearance-based compliments gratifying and sometimes even empowering. It is because of the inducements associated with stereotypically “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, primarily through the male gaze. It 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 “stereotypically 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. 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 puts 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 can strengthen or reinforce the conventional beauty standards that are set by our society, especially for women. It 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 “some 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 evaluate” (Calogero). That is also why women are more likely to invest their resources in “beautifying” themselves, be it financial or mental. A fascinating 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 to 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 the 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 being conventionally attractive is a privilege at the end of the day. 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.” It might invite criticism if they whine about getting too many compliments or flattering remarks.


Everyone indeed likes to be acknowledged. However, at the same time, appearance-based acknowledgement 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.


References


  1. Buss, D. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (2008). Attractive women want it all: Good genes, economic investment, parenting proclivities, and emotional commitment. Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 134–146.

  2. Calogero, R., Herbozo, S., & Thompson, J. K. (2009). Complimentary weightism: The potential costs of appearance-related commentary for women’s self-objectification. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(1), 120-132.

  3. Fea, C., & Brannon, L. (2006). Self-objectification and compliment type: Effects on negative mood. Body Image, 3(2), 183-188.

  4. Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. (1997). Objectification theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173–206.

  5. Kahalon, R., Shnabel, N., & Becker, J. C. (2018). “Don’t Bother Your Pretty Little Head.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 42(2), 136–150.

  6. McLaren, L., Kuh, D., Hardy, R., & Gauvin, L. (2004). Positive and negative body-related comments and their relationship with body dissatisfaction in middle-aged women. Psychology & Health, 19(2), 261-272.

  7. Parisi, C., & Wogan, P. (2006). Compliment topics and gender. Women and Language, 29, 21–29.

  8. Quinn, B. A. (2002). Sexual harassment and masculinity: The power and meaning of “girl watching.” Gender & Society, 16, 386–402

  9. Thompson, J. K., & Heinberg, L. J. (1999). The media’s influence on body image disturbance and eating disorders: We’ve reviled them, now can we rehabilitate them? Journal of Social Issues, 55(2), 339-353.

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