Most people would not rate me highly on physical attractiveness. In fact, throughout my life I’ve been made fun of and put down about my appearance many times.
When I was in my early 20s, a group of guys were talking about me loudly on public transport and one said that I had been “bashed with the ugly stick”. Another time a passer by simply said “Oh my god you are so ugly”.
Sometimes the comments seem… accidental. I was once telling a colleague about how, while on my way home from performing in a bellydance show, I was asked out on a date at the bus stop. She seemed amazed that something like this could happen and asked “Were you still wearing your costume??”. I told her no, of course not, but I still had all my stage make-up on. And she said “Oh, then I can see why!”.
It has long been established by scientific research that physically attractive people are judged more positively and treated more favourably than those who are less attractive. These studies even show that physically unattractive children are treated more poorly by adults.
A group of guys were talking about me loudly on public transport and one said that I had been “bashed with the ugly stick”.
This unfair treatment of physically unattractive people, or “lookism”, is in many ways similar to other forms of discrimination, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, and ableism. It is perhaps even more closely related to discrimination based on weight.
Size discrimination is frequently challenged in mainstream culture, particularly from feminist perspectives that oppose patriarchal pressures on women to be thin. But challenging prejudice towards physical unattractiveness hasn’t had the same movement behind it.
This may be because people are less likely to think that there isn’t anything wrong with this prejudice. They might just figure that the solution is cosmetic surgery.
Another reason why there isn’t a social justice movement challenging this discrimination may be due to a lack of group identity or sense of solidarity among physically unattractive people. It may also be because people find it hard to find a sense of pride in being physically unattractive.
It takes a lot more than having a pretty face to earn my respect.
But I’m not suggesting we need a pride movement. I don’t even think the solution is to encourage people to “learn to love” how they look.
I was once abruptly brushed aside during a conversation, where one of the women I was talking to stood in closely to other and told her that she was beautiful. Really, really beautiful. And that she needs to know how much of a gift her beauty is.
Standing there being excluded in this way was a stark reminder of my low rank on the social hierarchy built on the prettiness of people’s faces. But this woman’s obsequious fawning also highlighted the absurdity of it all.
Maybe what makes being physically attractiveness such a gift is not any inherent value of having a nice-looking face, but the adoration given by those who put attractive people on a pedestal. We might not be able to help noticing differences in attractiveness, but the superiority of the beautiful is in the eyes of the beholder. The beautiful people hierarchy doesn’t stand if there is no one holding it up.
Watching others confer high status on others (and themselves) based on their good looks only makes me realise how much an attractive face fails to elicit my deference or my admiration. I don’t look up to people who are more attractive than me, and I certainly don’t look down on those, if any, who are less attractive. It takes a lot more than having a pretty face to earn my respect.
If I find myself strapped to a rung on a ladder that is raising people up while others are being tread on, I’ll shake it as hard as I can.
And that’s something to take pride in.
Beatrice Alba is a freelance writer.