It’s widely understood that privilege, whether it comes from race, gender, or sexuality, can impact a person’s access to opportunities. But one form of privilege that can be difficult to talk about is pretty privilege. As the name suggests, pretty privilege is when someone has a leg up because they’re pretty. At a basic level, it can mean people giving you things, being nice to you, or just not having to try as hard because you’re physically attractive. Creator Eve Donnelly, known as evefingdonnelly on TikTok, summed it up pretty well in this video:
But pretty privilege can have way more benefits than people treating you well. Studies show that attractive people are more likely to be interviewed, hired, and more likely to receive promotions. This can get kind of fuzzy, though. What does physically attractive even mean? On first thought, it would be easy to say that people who benefit from pretty privilege are physically attractive by Western standards—white, blonde, thin or muscular. But to parse it out that way can be reductive. It places an American or Eurocentric standard on beauty, that while is pervasive, doesn’t account for how pretty privilege is found among marginalized groups. With that being said, we should think about pretty privilege as more than just physical appearance, but as the ability to capitalize on your desirability, which can vary depending on the audience. This means not only being attractive but also having the tools to market your attractiveness. For example, if you’re extroverted or charismatic, coupled with conventional good looks, you are able to market your own desirability to your audience.
That’s pretty privilege; it’s not just about being pretty. While you don’t have to be conventionally pretty to have traits such as extraversion or charisma, the combination of the two allows you to move far beyond individual benefits that come from being pretty to being able to meaningfully capitalize on your appearance for some sort of professional or financial gain, which on a larger scale can have broader systemic implications, such as access to wealth and financial mobility.
What happens when the success of your career is contingent on how many people you can get to watch, interact with, and follow your content? If you asked most people whether pretty privilege boosts social media influencers and content creators, the obvious answer would seem to be yes. These are people that make a living off of being highly visible. So it would only make sense that a content creator whose growth hinges on people looking at them and liking what they see would benefit if they were good-looking.
However, even though it’s a very visual medium, how someone looks doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their content. The internet is a source of knowledge and education and comedy and community and much more. This means that, in theory, you should be able to have a successful career on the internet if you’re able to meaningfully tap into any of those niches.
There are certainly creators out there that don’t seem to be capitalizing on their looks. Take the Green brothers, Hank and John, for example. While they have since branched out in diverse endeavors, the platform that the Green brothers created originated on the internet. They put out well-made, educational, and fascinating content, and their audience has rewarded them by supporting them for years, providing them with the launchpad to expand their careers.
But for some creators, even if their content has little to do with their physical appearance, it still seems to play a role in their online persona. Ben Awad, a 24-year-old software engineer who makes coding videos on TikTok, has built some of his success from being unassumingly hot. That’s the more realistic application of pretty privilege. More often, it’s not a glamorous model receiving perks (although it’s that too). Pretty privilege is the leg up you get from being attractive on the internet.
Gabrielle Smith, a digital content creator who provides educational content on non-monogamy, primarily on Instagram, told the Daily Dot that being pretty has always been a tool that she’s used in her life. Growing up lower income, she said that her mother taught her to use her looks to advantage. Rather than getting regular serving jobs, she would work as a bottle girl. While these jobs were higher-paying, they also forced her to constantly be thinking of her physical appearance when it came to making money (Smith said that her job had a rule that she had to maintain a body weight within 7% of when she was hired). When Smith made the pivot to writing and creating content online, she was aware that how she looked physically was opening doors that some of her counterparts weren’t able to access.
Part of Smith’s social media strategy involves posting her face alongside her content. So, while her Instagram grid includes valuable information about communicating with multiple partners and how to navigate polyamory in an ethical way, it also includes selfies and pictures of herself, which is intentional. And that strategy has paid off. In April 2021, popular Facebook Watch show Red Table Talk released an episode on polyamory, featuring Gabrielle Smith. Smith said that this opportunity came fairly early in her career, especially compared to other non-monogamy educators.
This isn’t to say that Smith hasn’t put a ton of work into building her career. She, like most fast-growing creators, produces great content that has tons of shareability. But Smith admits that how she looks makes her work more approachable. And more importantly (when it comes to making content creation a career), it makes her more marketable.
Aisha Johnson, a digital content creator who works across multiple platforms, produces content that focuses on lifestyle and self-care. She also attests to her pretty privilege being a part of her career. “I obviously work very hard, I’m very creative. … However, I do feel that my looks have gotten me in certain rooms that others may not have gotten into. From there, I’m able to showcase that I’m much more than my physical appearance but I’m completely aware that [my appearance] has helped me out in a number of instances” Johnson told the Daily Dot.
As a lifestyle creator, Johnson is the exact type of creator that advertisers and sponsors love to work with. Brands often like to work with creators because they have a more intimate relationship with their followers than celebrities do. But brands often prefer that the creators they work with have a certain look. As mentioned, pretty privilege is often correlated to Eurocentric beauty ideals. But as Smith and Johnson show, Black people can benefit from pretty privilege as well, it’s just more complicated. “Specifically when it comes to Black influencers and content creators, I feel like there’s a certain look that a lot of brands go for. Whether that is complexion, hair, certain physical features … that’s something brands are looking for first,” Johnson said. “If they’re going to go with someone Black, it’s me or someone who’s lighter than I am. If it’s a hair campaign … my hair type is what they stop at [when it comes to texture].”
What are the consequences of pretty privilege being such a prevalent part of the creator economy? Well, for some it erects yet another barrier to success. One of the biggest draws to starting a career online is that, in theory, it seems like anyone with access to the internet and an idea can “make it.” But that idea becomes a lot less attainable when looks can give some a leg up over others. Yara El-Soueidi, a freelance journalist and writer, told the Daily Dot that people who are more good-looking and charismatic are not only given more opportunities but given more of a voice. Ever since she started a career that requires her to be online, she’s thought a lot about her physical appearance. She’s even gone as far as to wonder if plastic surgery might be a boon to her career.
I myself think a lot about my physical appearance when I think about the trajectory of my career. One of the highlights of being a writer is not having to think about what I look like on a regular basis. But whenever I’m planning more visual content, how I look is on the top of my mind. Even just thinking about who I follow, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the people I follow aren’t attractive. I’ve been interested in sexuality and intimacy education for as long as I can remember. I’ve read and watched the materials of countless educators. But it wasn’t until discovering Shannon Boodram on YouTube, and later on Instagram, did I actually take the step of actively following someone in that field. Boodram, an intimacy educator and content creator has a following of 524,000 on Instagram alone, with another 674,000 on YouTube. Boodram runs a tight content creation machine; high-quality audio/visual products. But the thing that attracted me to her content can be best described in the bio of her Instagram; she’s “Dr Ruth meets Rihanna.”
Boodram provides dating and relationship advice, and in the past, her audience has questioned whether her advice works because she’s objectively beautiful by most societal guidelines. But Boodram points out that while it is easier for her to embrace her own attractiveness and reap its benefits because society tells her that she’s already attractive, it’s not a lost cause for those who don’t receive those messages from society. Successful people, whether content creators or in any other field, succeed in some parts because of their inherent or learned talent, but also because of their ability to flex and market themselves. That’s easier to do if you’re conventionally attractive because people are more likely to be open to what you’re trying to sell. But just think about the people in our own lives. We all know that one person who may not win any beauty pageants but has a hard-to-describe, magnetic energy to them. People gravitate toward them and want to be around them, want to listen to what they have to say. That goes to show that while it can be difficult to navigate physical expectations in the creator space, looks aren’t everything. Pretty privilege is similar to other forms of privilege in that while it’s easier to get ahead because of privilege, it’s not impossible to be successful without it.