For a variety of reasons, physical attractiveness is a hard thing to evaluate. For one, it’s subjective. For two, there are all sorts of competing value systems: conventional Euro-centric beauty standards, conventional Asian beauty standards, the counterculture backlash to both of those structures, the counter-counterculture return to traditional femininity, favor-currying approaches intended to differentiate adherents from the mainstream crowd, new waves of “progressive” thinkers proclaiming affection for “mid girls” or “girls with big foreheads” or “flat noses” or whatever feature the TikTok algorithm has decided to appreciate this month. Et cetera.
You would think that the internet would provide good data for assessing attractiveness -- for example, 100 likes signals more desirability than 10, right? -- but really, numbers indicate little more than how much exposure a picture received. Because simply being perceived as attractive is a big part of being attractive, attention on the internet tends to accumulate gradually, then exponentially. A picture of a woman that has 10,000 likes is a clear signal that she is Coveted and thus, Covetable, whereas a selfie with three likes is likely to fly under the radar and go unnoticed, regardless of how attractive/unattractive the person actually is, making the whole metric more or less useless (except at scale). Additionally, particular corners of the internet are far more accepting of certain archetypes of beauty -- body modifications, e-girls, women who dress as clowns, etc. -- that may be less favored offline, making it difficult to rely on online feedback to derive a true sense of how attractive you may or may not be to, say, the normie person giving you a job interview. In short, the kind of beauty that is rewarded by attention is not always the kind of beauty that is rewarded by likability, so you should be careful what you’re optimizing for. Have you ever met a girl at a party who you found unremarkable only to later learn, to your great confusion, that several thousands of men froth over her online? Exactly.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m cheering for anyone who has managed to capitalize on their cuteness in the digital world. May you get rich and stay rich forever. But if you’re like me and remain reliant on factors in the tangible world for well-being (i.e. traditional jobs, irl friendships, general societal acceptance), then we have a different, potentially upsetting but also potentially lucrative task: being honest about how our physical form affects our experience of the real-life world so that we can navigate it more wisely and adeptly.
I wholeheartedly believe that an extraordinary life is possible without ever sparing a second thought to vanities. Too much vanity is indeed a very ugly thing. But I also believe that if being beautiful interests you in the slightest, then it’s an area of life worth investing in -- if not for the inherent joy of feeling your best, then for all the fun goodies that materialize when you use it to your advantage.
My physical appearance has never been one of my top qualities. This has been mostly good, because it taught me what it feels like to be valued, first and foremost, for my personality.
However, due to my limited success performing femininity throughout my formative years, I definitely hardened against the “shallow” endeavor of looking nice -- as well as the insane amounts of time, energy, and skill it takes to become unequivocally good at it. My resulting ignorance surrounding everything beauty-related made me slow to realize its power, and slow to use it.
For the first 20-odd years of my life, my looks didn’t inspire any noticeable preferential treatment, so it took me an embarrassingly long time to learn that was even a possibility. When eventually, despite my paltry efforts at being appealing, I started to receive sexual attention anyway, I didn’t realize why people were suddenly being nice to me. This, strangely, was unintentionally positive. Because I truly was kind of clueless about what people wanted from me, I never got in trouble for “leading people on” or “leveraging my attractiveness unfairly”. I inhabited the sweet spot of projecting sexual availability while remaining completely unaware that I was doing so, freeing me from any consequences. I was just vibing, and happened to be cute-ish while doing it. As sympathetic opposition explains in their blog “how and why to be ladylike (for autistic women),” the trick is to maintain the illusion that something is on the way, as well as your ability to plausibly deny that you ever indicated as much.
I’ve come to learn that my appearance doesn’t need to be outstanding to nonetheless be a surprisingly powerful tool -- and even more so when I intentionally wield it as such. Like all Young Women™, I benefit when I’m perceived as attractive, regardless of whether or not my physical appearance is relevant to whatever I’m doing.
Where I feel conflicted is whether or not I should play into it. On one hand, I realize that the benefits are rooted in sexism and misogyny and fetishization, but on the other, yay free stuff! :3
Some things I will unapologetically accept: free drinks, free food, flattery. But at the same time, the more principled parts of me resist giving all the way in.
When someone tells me “I started reading your blog because I thought you were hot” or “I like talking to you because you’re so pretty,” I do feel a teensy bit diminished. In the best of circumstances, people would engage with my thoughts because they find them interesting, not because they desire me as a romantic partner. However, I’m also aware that we don’t live in the best of circumstances, so I shouldn’t be ashamed to take what I can get where I can get it. Still, I wonder, if I clearly signaled that I wasn’t available -- perhaps, if I even feigned offense at the suggestion -- how much of my “audience” would stop tuning in? How many of my “friends” would stop showing up?
The truth is, whether or not we choose to accept it, the way we look influences the way that people treat us, and that there are often good reasons to get upset over it. I just want to be clear about what those reasons are.
Young women struggling with negative emotions surrounding their looks are often offered sentiments like, “The right person will find you beautiful.” But I think this type of reassurance is gross and unsatisfying for two main reasons. First of all, it reinforces the idea that women upkeep their looks solely for male attention, which, although tinged with the flavor of truth, is icky to think about. Second, I think it fundamentally misunderstands the problem.
My worry isn’t that my appearance is an impediment to love. My worry is that my appearance -- perhaps, the cultural emphasis on appearance in general -- clouds the accurate appraisal of my other skills. My worry is that in order to be appreciated for my wit or ambition or thoughtfulness, I first have to reach a certain threshold of attractiveness.
When I feel bad about how I look, it’s not because I think I’m not going to be able to find a partner. When I feel bad about how I look, it’s because I realize I will be punished if I fail to meet an arbitrary standard. And that feels unfair.
I think women face difficult decisions.
Do we try to be overtly sexy, which may inspire vitriol from other women doing the same, but also the granting of many more advantages - several of which are non-trivial? Do we claim that we’re “doing it for ourselves” all the while realizing that it’s impossible to stop people from feeling entitled to our beauty?
Do we disavow attractiveness as a pursuit, freeing space for more “practical” matters, but also sacrificing the genuine joy that comes from feeling pretty? Do we stop ourselves from partaking in a good, innocent thing -- aesthetic pleasure -- just to avoid being entangled in the unpleasantries of power and pettiness?
Do we showcase our loveliness at risk of being reduced to it?
As it stands, I don’t work excessively hard on the more delicate aspects of my appearance. This is primarily due to laziness, but partially due to lingering insecurity. Truthfully, I’m jealous of attractive women, especially those I perceive as just slightly more attractive than myself, because they represent what I could become if I just strived a little harder, or bent a little more.
As a defense mechanism, I've shaped some aspects of my lax routine into an identity. For example, I’m weirdly proud that I’ve never purchased foundation, and I recently devolved from using 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner to simply not using conditioner at all. I have a few physical abnormalities that a more put-together woman would have forked over the money to get fixed by now.
But I’m not all the way checked out either. I exercise because it’s the easiest way to release endorphins into my bloodstream, but also because I want to maintain a socially acceptable weight. I wear makeup for job interviews and first dates because I know adhering to this norm makes a difference. I take cues from more practiced women: how to be alluring but professional, how to tread carefully around the male ego, how to place a hand on a shoulder in a way that leaves room for suggestion, but also for plausible deniability.
Obviously, I’m torn on the matter. I’m not sure whether leveraging attractiveness is kind or morally correct or even a good return on investment. I’m definitely not making suggestions for what other people should do. I’m just observing a phenomenon, trying to be real about it, and hoping that I don't receive hateful DMs from 1) men who feel bitter that they can’t relate or 2) women who are mad I am revealing insider secrets.
Here’s where I’m at, at least for now. I’m willing to admit that sexual attractiveness has social benefits, that I sometimes receive them, and that it entertains me greatly when I do. Accordingly, I’m going to keep letting it happen.
One of my most-repeated aphorisms is, “The best thing about being a pretty girl is that all it takes is believing you are one.” For the first two decades of my life, I assumed that I was ugly, and that was perfectly fine. But eventually, I decided that I wanted to be pretty, and started to pretend that I was. I found that the supposition was readily accepted, and that life was better for it.
I’ve been pretty ever since.