Pretty Privilege

A think piece on beauty, brands, and the aesthetics of privilege.

Key Takeaways

  1. When it comes to aesthetic socialization, Wendy Steiner in Venus in Exile asks the question: “Are we taught to identify certain traits—in people, nature, art—as beautiful, or do we come into the world wired to admire?"
  2. How much of a person’s reputation, success, or business is connected to—what speaks to the most abstract of status symbols—pretty privilege?
  3. What is beauty? What is an ugly truth or inherent value in a world that’s now become so digitally detracted?

This past Valentine’s Day during New York Fashion Week, I worked on an installation for a high-profile food artist and her event with Maison Kitsune. We assembled a mise en place of mortadella ribbons, cherry-topped castella, mochi sculpted in the shape of boobs—all cascading across the table in pretty shades of pink and purple. While you might look at a lavish spread and say “that looks good enough to eat,” for the first hour of the night no one dared to approach the table to make themselves a plate. I’ve come to learn that beauty can be so intimidating (even in the form of hors d'oeuvres), that we’re socialized not to disturb or scrutinize it. We can assess the situation from afar, but get close enough and we’ll feel inadequate in its power hungry presence.

When it comes to aesthetic socialization, Wendy Steiner in Venus in Exile asks the question: “Are we taught to identify certain traits—in people, nature, art—as beautiful, or do we come into the world wired to admire? If the response to beauty is learned, then how should we react to the fact of this acculturation?” She declares we start treating beauty as a form of communication in place of commodity. But in the image-making landscapes of our times, is it possible to divorce beauty from currency? Attention from attraction? How much of a person’s reputation, success, or business is connected to—what speaks to the most abstract of status symbols—pretty privilege? As we accept our algorithmic fate with every generation’s new brand face, socialite and spokesmodel fed to us, will fashion be forever gridlocked into an economic affair dominated by luck and looks? 

I think aesthetic socialization is maybe the most proper way to go about describing the world of fashion. Yes, yes, it’s an autonomous arena of self-expression. While America’s reached milestones since the Black is Beautiful movement of the ‘70s—or even the body positive and fat-acceptance movements of our yesterdays, western imperialism and toxic patriarchy still finds ways to proclaim its power… it’s subtle, silent, and it seeps through polyester. Or paper. The most quiet headline I’ve read all year was when South Korean model and actress of Squid Games, Jung Ho-Yeon, made history as the first East Asian woman to be featured solo on the front cover of Vogue. Not one single mainstream western outlet harped on this topic or her interview (except for Hypebeast and…. What? CNN?). Bloop. No one cares. But a headline about Julia Fox and… something about… her accent going viral? How does everyone and their mothers know about a story on that? We constantly demand more from our brands and institutions to do better to confront the ugly truths of racism, classism, ableism, transphobia… and those causes for celebration seem a long ways ahead. What is beauty? What is an ugly truth or inherent value in a world that’s now become so digitally detracted?