Opinion | Reflecting on pretty privilege

By Anna Fischer, Senior Staff Columnist

My mother is going to kill me for saying this, but I was an ugly child. Well, maybe not an ugly child so much as an ugly pre-teen and early teenager. 

Picture this — a chubby, ginger, gremlin-looking thing with neither eyebrows nor eyelashes, a large gap between my two front teeth and, for a very short and very dark period of my life, the tips of my scraggly hair dyed green with Kool-Aid. Not to mention the braces and glasses. In short, not objectively pretty.

I was made aware of my ugliness. Now, no one ever came up to me pointing fingers and jeering, “Why, isn’t this the most grotesque little girl you’ve ever seen in your life?” No, nothing quite so traumatizing. But in middle school, I happened to make friends with one of the “pretty” girls — I put pretty in quotations because she was considered pretty by our peers, but no grown adult should believe a seventh grader is pretty… that’s weird, y’all. By proxy, I knew I was ugly. It wasn’t some big revelation or a single moment when I came to reckon with my lack of culturally valued beauty. It was implicitly taught to me through social conditioning.

No one was mean to me, per se, but they were so much nicer to her. Though subtle, the message was clear. I was the ugly friend. But, at that point in my life, I had never felt that privilege for myself, so I never really realized what I was missing out on. 

The strange thing about pretty privilege, unlike white privilege or male privilege, is that it’s constantly in flux. Those other privileges are static and will remain so without large systemic changes. Pretty privilege, however, is at the whims of our cultural interpretation of beauty — an understanding that shifts more quickly than the winds.

I remember the moment I realized that I was no longer “ugly.” I was 17, and for the first time in my life I received romantic attention. Looking in the mirror, I wasn’t quite sure what changed. Yes, my eyebrows grew in, my teeth now straight and bracesless, but I was still a pale ginger with acne and thighs that rubbed together when I walked. But I was determined not to let this newfound feeling of worthiness slip through my fingers.

I started working out, eating healthy, developing a skincare routine and doing everything I could to “stay pretty.” And it worked. I somehow managed to win the beauty standards game — I had the right body type, the right skin, the right style. People were so nice to me, strangers asked me out, and I had to learn how to reject people. I finally felt that glow of pretty privilege. But I still found myself asking, “What’s changed?”

I showed pictures of my past self to my friends, hoping to hear them say that yes, I was an ugly pre-teen, but I was so much prettier now. Instead, they said, “You weren’t ugly! You haven’t even changed that much!” So why do people treat me so differently than when I was a gremlin-looking child? It took me a long time to realize that they were right, I didn’t change that much. But the world around me and its interpretation of beauty did.

I grew up in the early 2000s and 2010s, a time when skinny was beautiful. A time when celebrities in low-rise jeans, like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, reigned supreme. A time when my Tumblr feed was filled with  “How to get a thigh gap” posts. A time when dieting and fatphobia was rampant, and something we still haven’t quite escaped today. No matter how hard I tried, I would never be skinny. I simply wasn’t built that way. I’ve always had large thighs and — how do I say this? — a voluptuous derriere, and no amount of dieting will change that. My mama gave me this ass — it’s genetics, people! My diet and exercise are to keep me feeling healthy and happy, but even if I abused them to get that early aughts look, it would never work. I’m just not built like that.

But, luckily for me and my curves, the Kardashians’ rise to fame changed the beauty expectations that made society believe I wasn’t conventionally attractive. I no longer had to be skinny to be beautiful. My body shape was, and continues to be, in style. My full lower body became sexy, desirable and above all, pretty. It had nothing to do with any of the changes that I made to myself at all. And it took me a long time to realize that.

But once I came to that realization, I was in constant fear of losing what I had worked so hard to gain. One morning I could wake up and the world could suddenly decide that I am no longer beautiful. And that terrified me. But it wasn’t simply because the beauty standards could change. If it wasn’t beaten into me that beauty is everything for women and femme-presenting people, then it wouldn’t matter if the standards changed. The immense value placed on “being pretty” is what made changes in what constitutes “pretty” so terrifying.

My insecurities tripled, my gym routine became rigid, I denied myself certain foods, and I scrutinized every part of myself in the mirror every day. God forbid I gain back any of the weight I lost. God forbid I wake up one morning and my eyebrows are gone. God forbid I regress to that gremlin little girl who always knew she was ugly because no one ever told her she was pretty. Except my mom — I love you, Mom.

It took a wake-up call of self-acceptance, therapy and even writing this column for me to become okay with the idea that one day, most likely, the world will no longer consider me pretty. One day my skin will wrinkle and peel away from my bones, my hair and teeth will fall out, and when I die, I’ll just be a meat sack for my organs that people used to call pretty.

But who gives a damn? Right now, I exist in a liminal time where my beauty is contingent upon the cultural moment. And that’s okay. I’m kind, I’m intelligent and I’m a good friend. And I will still be all of those things when I’m ugly. I’ve accepted that, unfortunately, beauty standards will not go away any time soon. Nor will they stop changing. But it is exactly that inconsistency that proves that beauty is subjective. So whether society believes I’m beautiful or not, I know that I am. I am my own standard, and I can always live up to myself.

So here I am, acknowledging my privilege as we all should, and finally being okay with it going away. That being said, if you see me around, I’d prefer it if you didn’t shout “Hey, uggo!” at me. I’m not quite at that stage of acceptance yet. No need to mention my appearance at all. Maybe just, “Hey, Anna, I really liked your column,” because I truly hope you did.

Anna Fischer writes about female empowerment, literature and art. She’s really into bagels. Write to her at [email protected].