What it’s like when your appearance changes suddenly
Like all forms of privilege, if you have pretty privilege, you probably don’t realise it, until it’s gone. Research dating back decades finds that physically attractive people consistently receive preferential treatment, across a wide range of contexts, from preschool to the job market. From fairytales to social media, the world is generally biased to associate clear-skinned, symmetrical faces with goodness, talent, social success, and likeability. Witches and villains have warts, scars, limps, and pockmarks, while heroes and heroines are conventionally attractive.
My first experience with appearance-based bias came when I gained weight in my twenties. Up until then, I had fallen into what is considered a ‘normal weight range’ which meant I enjoyed ‘thin privilege’. People ‘body-checked’ me and found my appearance acceptable, even when I had dreadlocks/shaved head, piercings, and didn’t conform to other appearance conventions. I knew I had the genetics for holding onto excess energy but naively assumed my healthy lifestyle would keep those genes from expressing. However my first pregnancy (which ended in miscarriage) switched those genes on, and although still in a ‘healthy weight category’, I had my first run-ins with other people referencing my weight and being considered ‘a big girl’. My build was taking on the morphology of my ancestors and I was suddenly invisible to the male gaze. What a revelation! I felt both safer from unwanted sexual attention, and more vulnerable to micro-aggressions.
Being fat was one thing. I didn’t want to be fat, yet I had absorbed enough feminism to feel empowered, to take up space, and even to display my body as a yoga teacher. There were challenges along the way from both internal and external anti-fat bias, and from time to time I attempted to restrict or alter my diet and exercise to conform to what I thought were the markers of success in the wellness industry. But mostly I practiced living my life from within, placing greater value on self-development, and shrugging off the judgments of people whose opinions I didn’t care about. I didn’t realise that I was still using my warm, open, smiling face to make connections and find acceptance until my face changed.
Recurring skin cancers meant I needed more and more chunks cut out of my face and neck (and back and arms and legs). In 2018 I had the big surgeries you can see in the pic above – a cervicofacial flap to replace my right cheek with skin from my neck, and the removal of my right eyebrow (twice as the cancers came back). In other surgeries my upper lip was rebuilt, the tip of my nose received a graft from my ear, and the most painful of all, last year a full-depth wedge of lip up to my nostril was removed – ouch. Now I am scarred, my face is asymmetrical, and the last vestiges of pretty privilege, as scanty as it had been, are obviously gone.
In its place was not just invisibility – worse – I receive pity and the illogical assumption that I am intellectually disabled, never mind the recent PhD. Now, in certain social settings, people who seek social status ignore me. Most men seem not to see me at all (yes, I have played ‘patriarchal chicken’ where you don’t get out of men’s way on the street – I have lost!), and certain women seem scared of getting too close. They don’t want to catch the fat but hoo boy, they are afraid of being associated with ugly.
There have been professional consequences although they’d be hard to prove. Less speaking offers come my way, although symmetrical cheeks would not seem to be required. Again, some of my losses have been self-imposed. I dislike most photos taken since 2018 and I hesitate to make videos for social media without doing my hair and makeup, and carefully arranging lighting beforehand. My friends and family seem to see through to my heart, as I do for them. It’s comforting to be ageing together, embracing wrinkles, grey hair, and the changing figures of menopause.
When I lost pretty privilege I lost a lot, most of it immeasurable, but still clearly gone. I lost tolerance for superficiality and fat phobia. I like to think I also lost some of my own internalised biases. In their place, I have found an even richer inner life, greater compassion, and acceptance of difference. I am (like all of us) a work in progress.
Writing this newsletter has brought me up close to my resistance and denial, and while my intention is also to record a video, I am very uncomfortable doing so. I hope that by leaning into my own discomfort I can help others, and it’s that sense of service that motivates me to stay visible, even if some people turn away.