Beauty standards may be subjective, but research has found that attractive people earn more because of “pretty privilege”.
In a 2017 article, author and trans activist Janet Mock wrote “being pretty is a privilege, but we refuse to acknowledge it”. She highlighted how ‘pretty’ was synonymous with being thin, white, able-bodied and cis, and the closer you are to those ideals, the more often you will be labelled pretty – and benefit from that prettiness across society.
Indeed, in 2015, a report found that physically attractive workers earn up to 15% more than those considered less attractive or unattractive. It summarised that good-looking employees actually benefit their employer, especially if their job demands interaction with customers or clients because people prefer to interact with attractive people.
Eva Sierminska, the economist behind the report said, “Our societies reward investments in physical appearance. Less attractive people must work harder and be more productive in order to achieve the same wage, whereas attractive people receive far more call-backs for interviews, indicating employers judge that plainer applicants will be less capable in their jobs.”
What is pretty privilege?
Pulchronomics – the study of the economics of physical attractiveness – is an increasingly studied field. Reports such as the above have theorised that being beautiful can make getting a job easier, make you more popular (thus giving you more social capital), and earn you a lighter sentence if you are convicted of a crime. Even as early on as the classroom, teachers have higher expectations for better-looking children, and attractive students get higher grades.
While the Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation, “attractiveness” exists as a bit of a loophole.
While it is against the law to discriminate against employees because they don’t fit the ‘image’ of the company, there is no law against employers setting minimum criteria about appearance, such as wanting someone to be smartly dressed or presentable, and recruiting on this basis.
“There is a psychosocial phenomenon that being more physically attractive gets you more opportunities in life,” agrees Imani Benberry of Columbia University. “This ‘pretty privilege’ encapsulates our bias in favour of those that are considered beautiful, and because beauty is socially constructed, it can thrive off of existing beauty standards that devalue individuals from marginalised groups,” she wrote in 2020.
But what is the reality of appearance-based discrimination in the workplace, and can it be a force for both good and bad?
“I definitely think pretty privilege exists in my industry,” Alisha*, 24, who works in finance, tells Stylist.
“In my experience, people are nicer and more attentive to the people they consider pretty or attractive, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. I think it exists with all people, but especially with men towards women.
“In these situations there are of course benefits, but there’s also always a downside. In finance, there’s a degree of people assuming that you know less before you even start talking just because of what you look like.”
“People are always very nice, understanding and helpful, but the catch is that I often feel like they tread carefully around me as though there are things I’m not able to ‘handle’ in the way that they don’t with my other colleagues,” she explains.
“Even outside of the office, when I talk about my work I often feel patronised or not taken as seriously.”
Because she recognises the capital of having pretty privilege, Alisha admits that she finds herself playing up to the expectation. “If I don’t look or dress how I know my job expects me to, especially when dealing with clients, I know I’d be deemed “unprofessional”. But the standards of beauty for men and women are so vastly different, even though I think attractive men do hold pretty privileges too. For men, they have to make almost no effort, save shaving, keeping their hair tidy and wearing a suit. And their clothes are so much more standardised, which makes it easier.
“For me, I’m in heels, a skirt or a nice dress. If I do wear trousers, I make sure that they’re tailored and as smart as possible. The same goes for wearing make-up – even though I rarely wear it in my day-to-day personal life, I’ll always do a full face for work because that’s the done thing for women.”
While Alisha recognises the privilege she holds and the benefits she reaps by being considered conventionally attractive in the workplace, she also finds it hard to navigate.
“It makes me feel defensive about the way I look. I almost have to remind myself that not everyone is trying to challenge me or make me prove anything. It’s hard to call out even if you know it’s happening, because what can you really say? It makes you sound vain and self-important. But being complimented or judged on your looks before your intellect or ability just feels so uncomfortable.”
*Name and some details have been changed