There are lots of different kinds of privilege in the world and despite how people often think about them, many of them are not guaranteed to last a lifetime. People with money can fall on hard times, anyone can become disabled, and social status can disappear with the shifting winds of popularity and politics.
This article about the privilege that some women accrue based on their looks is a fascinating look at some of the ways that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to see how often it happens.For example:
It could be that the small perks I’ve been attributing to being a nice-enough-looking lady—say, getting slipped a free cookie now and then at the deli—are just people being kind, and that they’d do the same if I were homely, or a man. I’m sure that is indeed the case sometimes, but I’ve been smacked down by my own naivete in this regard enough times to know better than to get all Pollyanna here. (One of the free-cookie men suddenly stopped giving me cookies after I stopped by once with a male friend. It was the illusion of availability that he liked—and once that fell to the wayside, so did my supply of white chocolate-macadamia treats.) We can have our hunches, but for the most part that’s all we have.
I suspect that it has everything to do with her being a “nice-enough-looking lady.” I’ve never been given a free cookie at the deli. But what this article reminds me of is a scene from the novel Frederica (yes, I read historical romance novels) in which one sister is compared to her far more beautiful, but much less intelligent sister:
She possessed, moreover, the indefinable gift of charm, which, unlike [her sister's] more fragile beauty, would remain with her to the end.
In a world which privileges a fairly small range of “beauty,” it’s no wonder that so many people devote incredible amounts of time, money, and energy into “staying young looking.” After all, if you’re used to being treated a certain way because of your looks, that can be hard to give up. But the problem is that sooner or later, those efforts simply stop working.
Personally, I’d much rather be with someone who cultivates charm. Not only does it last longer, but it makes them far more interesting and a lot more fun. I’ve also noticed that while charming people might not get as many immediate perks, they tend to have deeper connections with folks, which leads to more benefits in the long run. That even applies in casual contexts, like the interaction between a customer and a server in a restaurant. Beauty without charm might get you a treat on your first visit, but charm will get you personal recommendations, a birthday dessert, or a table without a reservation. Charm is a much better foundation and it’s a lot less likely to disappear over time. Besides, in my experience, charming people make excellent lovers. Just saying.
This is something I’ve seen in my work as a sexologist, too. A lot of older folks get stuck because they don’t think that they or their partners are attractive. I get that- there are few examples in the media of anyone over 30 being sexy and it takes some practice to swim against the tide. The payoff, however, is well worth it.
In any case, the thing I find most fascinating about this conversation is the question of how much of our societal phobias around aging are the result of the privilege people (especially women) get for being pretty. It saddens me that so many people are convinced that they peaked before they were 20 or 25, and then it’s all downhill from there. I’d really like to live in a world in which we saw beauty not just in the first rose on the bush, but in each successive one, as well. In which we treated everyone kindly, whether we found them attractive or not. In which nobody had to worry about whether their appearance limited how seriously people took them. And in which no one felt compelled to look as young as possible in order to hold onto a rather tenuous privilege.
In the end, no matter how hard you try, any pretty privilege you receive is going to fade. It seems to be that it’s worth cultivating charm, instead. After all, it’s a much better investment in the long run.