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Desirability Politics (AKA pretty privilege)

Have you ever thought about how differently you would experience the world if your appearance changed? We are all aware of our own race, class, sexuality, gender and ability, however...

A few years ago I stood in front of a mirror, plucking my eyebrows and had a lightbulb moment. Why the F!#* am I actually doing this? Why am I consistently carrying out invasive, expensive, time-consuming and at times painful beauty routines?! Who is this for and when the heck did I learn that this is something I am required to do to be noticed and appreciated..

I didn’t have the answer to these questions, but what I did know was that I wanted to be ‘pretty’, which in my eyes was a prerequisite for being seen and heard. What I was unaware of at that time was the unearned privilege that I was already afforded because of my ‘prettiness.’

Have you ever thought about how differently you would experience the world if your appearance changed? If you cut off all your hair, if you stopped wearing make-up - would it make you feel invisible? Take a moment to reflect on what privileges you walk around with. If your life has always been a certain way, these privileges may be subconscious to you. Being blind to our own privilege reinforces negative implications by creating more separation between the privileged and the oppressed. 

Justin Garcia suggests that privilege “refers to certain social advantages, benefits, or degrees of prestige and respect that an individual has by virtue of belongings to certain society identity groups.” We are all aware of our own  race, class, sexuality, gender, ability and education, however are you aware of the innate advances your entitlements create?

It is also very possible to be both oppressed and privileged at the same time. For example a queer women faces oppression from homophobia and sexism but is also white, thin and non-disabled so they are afforded more opportunities at the expense of people who don’t have these privileges. We are far more likely to be aware of the negative experiences of oppression rather than ways in which we are privileged, because our privileges are actually just fair treatment that everyone should be entitled to. 

To gain insight into our own pretty privilege we must examine the kinds of standards against which someone’s prettiness is measured, and what ‘pretty constitutes’. Florence Given suggest that “our collective idea of what makes someone pretty in society is based on their proximity to whiteness, thinness, being non-disabled and cis-gender.” 

This helped me to see how my own ‘prettiness’ and has enabled me opportunities that women who fall out of what society deems as pretty have to work harder for. Whether or not you think you are attractive, you need to acknowledge the objective fact that you sit high on the society scale of desirability. 

As women we don’t want to admit that we have ‘pretty privilege’ because we have been taught that we should be unaware of our beauty and respond to it with comments of self-deprecation and remarks such as “no I’m not, look at my..[points to flaws].” In order to acknowledge that we have this privilege, we must first call ourselves pretty. Which due to our insecurity is near impossible for most women. This is how desirability privilege is silently maintained. 

The concept of ‘prettiness’ has become a currency for acceptance and respect. From a young age, we are taught that it is more important to be an object of desire, than it is to have our own needs met as a person. These harmful belief systems and low-self esteem land women in toxic relationships, friendships and endless cycles of attaching their body to their worth. 

There is a discussion about whether desirability politics is really a privilege, since its benefits are rooted in the objectification of our bodies. For example is having big boobs a privilege? It may mean you are treated better in some scenarios but it could also be the reason you are objectified, not taken seriously and judged by other women appearing as ‘too sexy’ (hello internalised misogyny). Neither scenario is ideal. It all comes down to our society basing worth on appearance. Men don’t look at pretty women with fuller busts and think, she’s pretty I won’t follow her home, it’s the complete opposite. The cost of prettiness is not just physical, but deeply psychological. 

If you’re reading this article and feeling like this information is overwhelming, that’s okay, gaining insight on the systems we’ve been abiding for years can be quite uncomfortable. However acknowledging that discomfort and making a shift has potential to be liberating. That’s why we have these types of conversation, so that we can share our understanding, experiences and interpretations of the society that all live in. Or maybe you read this and have resistance to the idea, that’s okay too, of course we’re going to be reluctant to believe narratives that challenge our whole identity. 

We live in a patriarchy that prioritizes our desirability above anything and everything else. Which means, life is easier when we dress up, when we wear makeup to work, when we shave, life is easier when we reflect society's idea of beauty. Have you ever shamed a woman for partaking in these rituals? Because another important piece of this conversation is the shaming of women (by women) for caring about their appearance, this is textbook internalised misogyny and it’s not useful. 

In a world that emphasises appearance over everything else in women, and affords you undeserved privileges once you reflect its ideal standards of beauty, who are we to judge people to pay for aesthetic procedures to look this way? When they are promised a better life and treatment? The answer is no one, we are no one to judge, our role is to show up with compassion and understanding.

We are all on our own path of awareness and healing and we have all been born with different privileges that create the framework for our existence on this earth. “While you cannot get rid of your privilege, you can acknowledge it. When we force privilege into view and discuss it openly, we engage in solidarity with those who do not share in certain privileges with us.” - Cate Harpool

*** I would like to recognise that my experience is different from someone of another race, sexual orientation, nationality, religion or physical/mental ability. I acknowledge that I write this article as a white, cis female and with that comes a level of privilege but also a limited level of lived experiences. We value all voices and experiences.***

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