There’s sexism, objectification, and misogyny that’s ubiquitous but laced ever so subtly to go unnoticed by the majority of people. Even the things that are obvious are accepted as just a part of “human nature” – one of my least favourite phrases for its meaningless, lazy resort as an answer for anything that people (typically white heterosexual men) want to justify.
Women face certain types of discrimination on a spectrum. One of those types of discrimination is different treatment on the basis of looks. This is why restaurant servers are disproportionately young and attractive – while the youthful element can be partly explained by the physical demands of the job, the attractiveness is the money maker. Restaurants will be more likely to hire young attractive women as servers because they bring in more repeat customers, and attractive women are more inclined to work in restaurants because they get higher tips – or so goes the logic in a sociological thought experiment, and I would imagine there has been scholarly inquiry that provides quantitative analysis in this area.
But because their repeat customers come for the ogling, they’re likely to face customers who range from benignly flirtatious to outright pigs. Very attractive women in other professions can be deemed, consciously or subconsciously, as either a distraction to heterosexual men or an envied threat to other women in the workplace. While they reap so many benefits of higher earning potential in some fields, and more options in selecting a mate (god, I sound like the kind of person who uses “human nature” as the panacea), there are barriers attractive women can face because of their appearance. (The same does not apply in the same magnitude, if at all, to attractive men.)
Women who range from “plain” looking to an outright unfortunate mix of features won’t get the same tips in the hospitality sector as the pretty ones. They may not be taken seriously enough for the more educated or prestigious professions, and likely have grown up with unfortunately stunted confidence that impeded their ambitions anyway. (I know this to an extent from personal experience, although as I will explain shortly I’m lucky to have escaped these circumstances.) The women you will see in occupations of lower prestige, if you take the time to look as they are largely invisible because of these factors, may be less attractive in a variety of ways – size, facial features, some skin differences like scars or birthmarks that are unfortunately placed, or any other conceivable trait that removes the objectifying appeal of that person. As a woman, without any attractiveness, standard patriarchal objectifications do not apply and these women are often ignored.
There’s a range in the middle, whether one is blonde or not, with a Goldilocks advantage. Women who look feminine enough to be accepted as women, yet not so attractive to throw out all rational evaluation of character, are going to be treated with more dignity in career and other sectors of life in this state of society. The strides towards equality benefit women who maintain a polished appearance but can maintain eye contact instead of being ignored or subjected to the wandering gaze away from the face that represents their personhood. While I have let myself be taken down by the dehumanization of less attractive features in the past, I have overcome that with the overall “normalness” of my appearance and I now fall in this category. It saved me from getting suffocated by the wooing of men, or from a lasting impression being made at a formative age that my looks define me. It’s allowed me to confidently pursue things because I can look people in the eye without fear of the consequences for being looked back at.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is ugliness, so subjective judgements keep me mildly vulnerable to the consequences faced by either side. More importantly, it doesn’t matter which of these problems I’m safe from – which of these problems “aren’t mine”. They’re “ours”, the burden of all of women and men who believe other women should be taken seriously and acknowledge our collective best interests of realizing the potential of every person. Men who experience similar discrimination – which will be less often and less severe, but real nonetheless – are suffering from the same problem of patriarchy that treats integrated gender interactions as sexualized battles for glory and prize.
Most women fall somewhere in between, but rather than dodging these disadvantages entirely there is a risk of encountering either at any time. Any interaction with a new person creates a new subjective interpretation of appearance, and reaction thereto. There is, despite the Goldilocks nature of this middle ground, no “juuuuust right”. There never is when the imbalance of power remains so great.