Saying your looks have opened doors for you sounds narcissistic, but not acknowledging the privilege your looks provide you is unfair and foolish. So what do you do?
I’m a good-looking man.
Those are dangerous, provocative, stupefyingly narcissistic words with which to begin an essay. They open me up to ridicule, to the mocking accusation that I am both deeply conceited and profoundly mistaken. I considered other, safer ways to begin this column. Yet the truth is that how I look has, to an extent I’m still trying to discern, helped ease my path through life. The “appearance advantage” is real, no matter how embarrassed we are to discuss it.
Does “looks privilege” function in similar ways in men’s lives as it does in women’s? How much do striking (or merely conventional and modest) good looks help men in our culture? These are two of the questions that jumped to mind after reading Autumn Whitefield-Medrano’s latest essay at The New Inquiry on Beauty Privilege. One of our best contemporary commenters on beauty culture, Whitefield-Medrano notes that this benefit functions as an elephant in the room, a presence everyone feels but few dare name: “…think of how you sound if you talk about it openly: It can seem hopelessly narcissistic to own up to one’s ‘beauty privilege,’ and hopelessly affirmation-seeking to talk about suffering at the hands of looksism.”
As she points out, we live in a culture where responsible people are expected to acknowledge their privileges, often with an almost confessional zeal. If you’ve got white skin, if you’re male, if you come from a middle-class (or more affluent) background, if you’re heterosexual or able-bodied or Christian or well-educated, then you do well to note the myriad ways that those attributes can ease your way in life. If I say, for example, that growing up a middle-class white male has eased my way in life, that my background and family connections have cushioned me from the repercussions of my own poor decisions, few will argue. No serious person could deny that race, class, education, and sex all impact how one is treated in the world. In and of themselves, they may not be determinative, but it is evident that unmerited privileges like color and wealth shape our worldview and ease our passage through public space.
Looks are different, exponentially more difficult to talk about. It shouldn’t necessarily be so. Most of us learned about the power of being pretty (or cute, or handsome) in elementary school. Long before we could spell a word like privilege (OK, fine, I still have trouble with it), we figured out that kids who were conventionally good-looking got more attention and enjoyed higher status among their peers—and, sadly, often among parents and teachers as well. Looksism is arguably the first unjust bias many of us encounter in life, particularly those of us who are privileged in the “other” ways like class and race. By the time we’re done with junior high school, we’re keenly, often heartbreakingly aware of how looks open doors for some and not for others.
I was a late bloomer. I was not a good-looking boy: my body too soft; my face too round; my glasses too nerdy to meet the conventional standards of male attractiveness that dominated in my high school. I was called the familiar names we throw at awkward geeky guys; though I could tell my female friends who “fell short of the mark” had it exponentially worse, the pain was real.
What was also real was the way people’s reactions changed when I lost the weight, when my cheekbones and jawline emerged from beneath their fleshy padding, when I—in ways that I don’t fully understand even now—transitioned from ugly duckling to, if not beautiful swan, at least a pleasant-looking water fowl. It wasn’t just the change in how women or gay men assessed me; it was discernible even in the ways in which straight men treated me. There was no other change that could account for the sudden increase in my popularity. At times, I was almost giddy with surprise and gratitude, as if I’d suddenly won some sort of lottery; at other times, I was filled with anxiety, fearing that I’d lose this unexpected but most welcome gift that seemed to open so many doors. Part of what drove my exercise addiction was the terror of slipping back into the body of the awkward, chubby, homely child and teen I’d been.
To be clear, I’m not claiming to be Brad Pitt or Ryan Reynolds. My looks are hardly so distracting that I could be justifiably accused of skating by on them alone. I don’t exactly stand out on the streets of West L.A., where the conventionally gorgeous roam free in their unnatural habitat. Yet I’ve also seen less attractive but equally talented male friends and colleagues fail to get opportunities that I’ve been given. I’d like to believe that looks aren’t a factor in terms of who gets booked to do television talk shows or public speaking gigs, but such a claim beggars belief.
In the entertainment industry that dominates my city, the word “talent” is regularly used in a way to deliberately erase the distinction between appearance and ability. Good looks themselves are never enough to secure a role, but their absence can absolutely derail a career in film and television.
We prefer to imagine that this obvious looksism is confined either to a few niche industries or to high school hallways. Especially for those of us who are not models or actors, acknowledging that looks have in any way played a part in our success is simultaneously self-deprecating (how can you sell yourself short that way?) and narcissistic (do you really think you’re all that hot?). Best to ignore it altogether, accepting whatever compliments one may get with modesty and gratitude, taking pains to hide one’s pleasure in the praise.
In 2008, when I won the admittedly arbitrary “Hottest Professor in America” award from Ratemyprofessors.com, I was tickled. I wasn’t hugely flattered; I knew how easily manipulated the ratings could be by a few determined students. At the same time, I was pleased—less because I thought for a moment that I was genuinely the most attractive professor in the United States, and more because I wanted to believe that for my students, “hotness” was a consequence of the passion I brought to teaching. I was embarrassed by how much I realized I enjoyed the award, and also by how much I both did and didn’t want it to be about my looks.
I wasn’t prepared for what followed. An avalanche of mocking hate mail; my image unflatteringly photo-shopped around the Internet; a daily litany of suggestions that the ratings must have been rigged, because how could someone as plain as I have won the award? I felt as if I were back in high school, as if the “hottest professor” title was just an ingenious modern way to set a vain middle-aged man up for very public humiliation. The venom was stunning, and I felt as if I’d brought it on myself by taking the bait and allowing myself to react with at least some delight to the award. If nothing else, the reaction showed me that talking about one’s looks was the proverbial “third rail” of blogging, best left alone. Whitefield-Medrano describes the dilemma perfectly: “Not only is there a fear of being called a narcissist if I write about whatever forms of privilege I might have experienced, there’s a fear of being called delusional if any given critic doesn’t find me…privilege-worthy, shall we say.”
There’s no question that “looks privilege” remains more influential in women’s lives than in men’s. Youth and beauty have an unfair determinative power in women’s lives than they do in men’s; the rise in male vanity and body anxiety hasn’t yet brought full parity. At the same time, the reality is that good-looking men and women alike enjoy known and demonstrable advantages in everything from dating to hiring. If we’re willing—as most reasonable people are—to acknowledge how our race, class, and sex give us unmerited advantages, it’s untenable for those of us who enjoy the unearned genetic bonus of good bone structure to pretend that our appearance has nothing whatsoever to do with our success.
I am not an unduly handsome man. Yet in a rather familiar way, I look good, perhaps especially on camera. My looks will never be my meal ticket, and I’d be rightly mocked if I claimed otherwise. At the same time, my features—like my white skin and my middle-class upbringing—have opened doors for me that might otherwise have stayed shut. It may be narcissistic to acknowledge it so openly, but it would be foolishly obstinate to deny it.
It’s time for more serious conversation about how looksism impacts our lives, for good or ill.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.