You Can Keep The Pretty

I have been pretty all my life.

If you ignore that one dreadful experiment with blunt bangs in 7th grade, I never had a truly awkward phase. Mine was not an adolescence plagued by glasses or braces. It’s not like I was drop dead gorgeous or anything, but old women always greeted me with cries of “Oh, aren’t you a pretty thing!” and relatives declared I’d break hearts when I grew older.

All this is to say, I have a love/hate relationship with the word pretty. If you grow up being told you’re physically attractive, it becomes an expectation. Despite my zealous feminist views, I religiously wear make-up, get regular highlights, and dress with a strong retro, girly vibe. I love a good floral dress and red lipstick. I love leaving the house with a bounce in my step, because – damn! –  these shoes look awesome. However, I am starting to hate pretty.

There’s something those old women don’t warn you about and your well-meaning aunt doesn’t prepare you for. Pretty is a double-edged (s)word. As a woman in this country and in this age, my looks are constantly up for discussion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this sentence starter: “Yeah, I guess she’s pretty, but…” Fill in the blank as you like. The specimen in question may have thighs just a bit too big or hair that curls when it should straighten. For every woman, there is someone, somewhere who thinks she’s just not pretty enough…and, worse, that it makes her less valuable as a person.

Despite the various children’s books and encouraging Mom maxims I grew up with, this hit me hard in high school. Suddenly, pretty became a debate prompt. The boy I’d laughed with in my TAG English classes now felt the need to inform others that he didn’t see what the big deal was about me, because my boobs were just fat that I pushed out too far. Now, of course, I find this somewhat hilarious because A – all boobs are fat and B – why, yes, I have always had excellent posture, thank you for noticing. But as a 14 year-old? I wanted to hide under a sumo-sized sweatshirt for the rest of my life, so that nobody could ever again notice that my boobs had somehow been deemed sub-par. All it took was one comment about my ranking on the great spectrum of pretty to completely change my relationship with what had, up until then, been two perfectly fine mammary lumps.

Over the years, I compensated. I wore a dress or skirt almost every day of high school and diligently curled my hair each morning. Since the age of 14, the number of times I’ve left the house without make-up can be counted on one hand. I shave my legs every other day. I rip extra hair out of my eyebrows. It’s all become part of the routine. I’d like to blame it on that one too-immature boy, but it’s not him at all. It’s society. Society expects me to do these things. To be a woman, one must primp, one must pluck, and never ever ever let on that she actually uses the restroom!

And now, at the ripe old age of 26, I’m fucking sick of it. Why do I have to do all this again? Why, when I have three degrees under my belt and the ability to save a human life, do I care if you think I could stand to lose 10 pounds? It’s just all too much. The amount of time spent on how I look is just exhausting and I’m not even doing all I supposedly should. If I prescribed to every beauty recommendation, whole hours of my day would be devoted to deep conditioning and matching my nail polish to my handbag. Here’s the thing: I just don’t give a crap about any of it.

I see the point in deodorant, regular showers, and well-fitting clothes. The rest of it seems like utter nonsense. Why was my makeupless face pretty at 12, but something so repulsive it must be hidden from society at 26? Why exactly do I have to remove all of my body hair? Last time I checked, we didn’t even start shaving our legs until the 1920s, so how can it now be A Mandatory Facet of Womanhood? Don’t even get me started on the Hair Down There. If you’re lucky enough to ever see Down There, what gives you the right to judge its trimmings?

I understand that physical attraction is a big deal in dating. I get that attractive people can get ahead, thanks to their looks. I’ve read the research. It makes the whole human race sound like the cast of Mean Girls. Because, let’s be honest, it doesn’t last. The picture of young Hollywood loveliness today is going to grow old. She’s going to get wrinkles, she’s going to fluctuate in weight, her magnificent breasts will someday – horror of horrors! – sag. Because that is what we humans do. It’s how Mother Nature rolls.

The older I get, the more pretty begins to seem worthless. I’m never going to win this game. There will forever be someone on the sidelines suggesting that I whiten my teeth or shrink a few inches or magically stop aging. No one is universally pretty. It’s unattainable, like passing the Kobayashi Maru without cheating. If my guy friends can seriously pro/con the attractiveness of Natalie Portman, then we’re all screwed. This ship is sinking, no matter how often I curl my eyelashes. Pretty isn’t a good adjective to identify with. It’s just too transient. Give me smart; give me funny. Give me excellent at board games.

You can keep the pretty. I don’t want it anymore.

– Grace

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54 thoughts on “You Can Keep The Pretty

  1. Well said. Thanks for the reminder of what pretty is: a subjective notion impossible and even dangerous to be obsessed about. Plus the more you care about how pretty you appear to others, the less confident you become. And I think self-confidence is a big part of being attractive.

    • Cecile, I completely agree – confidence is a huge part of attraction. Knowing who you are and what you’re worth is always impressive to others.

  2. *shrug* I was told I was pretty a lot as a child /teen, all that meant was that I never bothered trying to be more pretty because, well, I’m already pretty right? So, let’s focus on other things then. I have never worn makeup more than a handful of times a year, if that. I really don’t think you can blame this on people saying you’re pretty and therefore you had to live up to that expectation. You wanted to be pretty (for whatever reason) and so that’s what you focused on – would it really have made a difference if those aunts had said “you’re so clever” instead of “you’re so pretty”? You wouldn’t have started your shaving habit then?

    • It’s not actually the comments that are at the root of the pretty problem, it’s society at large. We place so much value on how women look, from a very young age. It’s that which enrages me. It’s that which shapes the kind of compliments little girls receive, the messages we see about girls in media, and the way we as a culture talk about women. That’s what I blame.

      • I agree – the value based on how women look is disgusting. It angers me to see intelligent, funny, kind women weighed down by some stupid misconception they have about themselves caused by society’s view on “beautiful”. I feel that to really start to reverse this, women need to be kinder to themselves and to other women – stop reading gossip magazines that almost wholly judge others appearances, stop watching shows that rate what women are wearing. If women want society to change, we must remember we are a part of it and therefore must do our part – every change of focus and attitude counts.

  3. Thanx for the post! I can totally realate to it! I understand the complex workings of people in this world and their thinking about attractiveness. But, when I was in high school, I was one of those “weird” girls who never wore make up. I never really thought it as weird and I had loads of friends what where guys. Personally I don’t really think they really care if a girl wears make-up; well at least in my experinces. So far i’ve racked up a total of 18 past boyfriends in my whole 21 years without make-up so I’m feeling pretty good about myself.

    • Thanks for the great comment! You know, it’s funny – I really think you’re right about guys in specific cases. Most guys, when you get down to it, have different expectations of us than what we’re told. It’s when we go along with the “this is what women should look like” and “this is what guys want” that it gets ridiculous. We really tend to pigeonhole the roles and desires of both sexes, when people are people, not stereotypes. Excellent points!

  4. I am just like you. No, people never told me how pretty I was, but I have always wanted to be, so I primp and shave and pluck and color. I have left the house without makeup only two or three times. Anyway, I am sick of it, too. Yet, I am lucky. My husband doesn’t like me for my attractiveness. He likes my smarts. I think it is high time that I like myself for my smarts and stop chasing something that IS starting to wrinkle and sag! Great post! Thanks.

    • I love that your husband values the important parts of you, Emily! If more relationships had that in common, with both parties in it for who the people are underneath, we’d all be so much happier. Thanks for the great comment!

    • PS Emily, I bet your husband appreciates your looks more than you realize, and your smarts, and your humor and your compassion and your resourcefulness. He’s going to be physically attractive to you even when you don’t primp, and pluck and color because he sees the whole REAL package of you (not just the artifice) and that is attractive to him. Remember that as the wrinkles get a little deeper and the hair a little grayer. You are more attractive as you are than you know. 🙂

  5. Thank you for saying this! We’re forced to accept this as an inevitability from such a young age, it really is a factor in how we see ourselves. Even when we’re taught to go against it (that was the case for me), we have to adjust at some point… I started wearing make up regularly at 22! Before that, either I thought I “wasn’t pretty enough to try and be prettier” or I was scared my family would see me as vain if I spent so much as a minute on my looks. I agree with Cécile: confidence is key!
    (Hello, btw, I’m Gathou, and I spent like ALL weekend reading your blog. You girls rock!)

    • Hello, Gathou! I’m so glad you found us…and that we filled a bit of your weekend fun time. Incidentally, I perused your blog today and it was wonderful. (And a great workout of my increasingly flimsy French skills!)

      I absolutely love your point about girls not trying because they consider themselves not pretty enough to even try. This is another side of the pretty conundrum. Pretty can also keep girls from feeling confident in themselves, because they’ve been taught it’s a word best applied to other people. It’s all just a crappy, horrid cycle that does start way too young. Even when we’re taught to go against it, we don’t understand what exactly we’re going against.

  6. I agree with Cecile, and how attractive self confidence is, to men, women and children. And especially patients who are coming to you to help them stay alive – pretty won’t cut it. Confidence – that’s the ticket!

    When I hit 30, I decided the most important beauty element was good skin, anyway. If you hydrate, moisturize and excercise, and your skin glows, you can toss those sickening beige-pink foundations away. And the older I’ve gotten, there is a stronger disdain for all of that time-consuming appearance enhancement. Hair color, every 8 weeks. Shave legs only when a dress or shorts will be happening. Screw the rest, unless it’s a Wedding. And then that’s just because my looking good is part of your wedding gift. The rest is this card I faked up on my computer that says “I donated $500 in your name to the ‘Save The Pandas Foundation’.”

    Or was is the ‘Bring Sight to Blind Moles International’? either-or.

    • Spectra, that’s exactly the kind of routine I could get behind. I’m sick of the high-maintenance expectations. I shall continue to shave my legs, but a couple of days of stubble is not a value statement about me…it just means I have better things to do. Though, no one will be able to part me from my La Mer moisturizer, it’s true. 😉

      Also, I’m such a big supporter of Bright Sight to the Blind Moles! Another personal pet project is Trapper-Keepers for Killer Whales, which gives economically disadvantaged orka the chance to own Lisa Frank originals. Such a good cause.

      • I do believe my next wedding gift will involve:
        1. My giving the lucky couple the benefit of seeing my new Hair cut
        2. A donation in their name to Trapper-Keepers for Killer Whales. The gift card, when opened, may include a soundtrack of Killer Whales moaning in agony. They’ll be so pleased with me for helping them help the cause.

  7. Excellent article – well said! Oh, the judgments. I hate how people automatically think pretty women are bitches and thin people are narcissistic, joyless people. Who says?

    • Yes! Any value judgment based on appearance is ridiculous, whether it’s about someone conventionally attractive or now. We are more than our looks, no matter what those looks convey.

  8. Right now I’m reading this book about the beauty of a woman’s soul. I consider myself someone who gets those “You’re a pretty thing!”, and “You’ll be fighting guys off with a stick” comments and I’m currently recovering after a break up with my best friend of 22 years. I’m wanting to put pieces of me back together. I’m reading ‘Captivating’ by Stasi and John Eldredge. Pretty good so far. Its enlightening and so far, its helping. Just thought the reader’s would be interested.

    • Thank you so much for the recommendation! I will be checking it on Amazon immediately. We could all use a little enlightenment right now. And, incidentally, I’m glad it’s helping you. There’s no break up so difficult as the one with someone who was a best friend first – it’s so much more than just a relationship. I’ve been there myself, unfortunately. I’m glad you found something help get through it!

  9. Any girl who can so wonderfully allude to the final frontier gets 62 extra attractiveness points in my book… if not, there’s no hope for me at all 🙂

    Great post.

    • Ha! Thanks, Kathryn! Not going to lie, I was hoping that allusion would make someone happy. I had a moment of pure geek joy when writing it. 😀

  10. if enough women decided that “society” and “marketing campaigns” were full of shit and rejected this ridiculous standards for what makes a woman valuable, maybe we could all overcome the obsession with manufactured beauty.

    • Yes. Yes, yes, yes. For even if a girl is raised in a household where standards of beauty are not emphasized or discussed, she is exposed to it all the time. The images and depictions of women in our damned society are abhorrent and irresponsible, when it comes to what it places value upon. How can we avoid the pretty problem, when we’re bombarded with what it means to pretty on TV and how to best achieve that with creams and clothes and magazine articles brimming with flirtation tips? People call it a cop out to blame the media, but we can’t fix anything without fixing the biggest source of this skewed vision of femininity.

  11. Try the “pretty” comment’s evil stepsister, the “You have such a pretty face…” which means you’re fat as hell, and really should go into hiding until you can come out at the right weight and match the pretty face that you are unworthy to have…I’ve never been called pretty, but I had “such a pretty face, if only…” my entire childhood up until I was 29 or so…and it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve started to primp and never leave the house without makeup – because now that I’m “acceptable” to society, I still have plenty to improve and need to keep working on it…ugh! Very frustrating and a vicious cycle that I’ll never win…but it doesn’t stop me from trying…

    • Oh, Michaela, I have unfortunately been there as well. I broke my shoulder halfway through my freshman year of college and subsequently gained 20 pounds, because I couldn’t move for three months. Once the cast came off and the rehab started, even my own father was kindly suggesting that perhaps I “get healthy again,” because I was still pretty, but no longer in every acceptable way. You’re precisely right – it is a vicious cycle. No matter how hard we try or how much we change ourselves to fit into the ridiculously tiny mold, we won’t win. There is always another mountain of beauty to aspire to, like some never-ending Sisyphean trip through the Alps.

  12. I’m recommending a book that might make you consider the fun side of feeling gorgeous for your own pleasure, not for everyone else’s. I’ll post it as my website.

    But that aside, I was too lazy to read everyone else’s comments but..I shave my legs like..maybe twice a year. I never wear makeup. Because OPPOSITE. I get anxiety because when I -DO- do it, people notice it and have to comment on it. Maybe we should try a freaky friday thing for a week and see how it goes.

    (Also, creepy, I put in my email address and wordpress..found me. Weird trick.)

  13. I think it’s great that you didn’t grow up depending on your prettiness, and that you have three degrees and the ability to save a human life.

    Girls like Lindsay Lohan depended on their prettiness and neglected to take proper precautions with their lifestyles and career… and look at her now! She’s 25, but looks 35!

    And go out without makeup more often! Like you said, screw the pretty!

  14. Pretty can go jump off a cliff! I think it’s important to do thing that make YOU feel good and not how others perceive you. If YOU feel pretty, that is what’s important.

  15. This is BRILLIANT! You can add being witty to your list of personality traits! If ever i’m told I’m pretty (which is not all that often I must confess) I always reply with ‘and I’m smart too’. The idea that pretty is the most important compliment you can receive ultimately sets us women up for a fall, because 1) all our looks will fade and 2) there will always be someone there to tell you you’re not. LOVE this blog!

  16. Huh, funny, I have never been one of the pretty girls in school. And I accepted that, although it did give me some grief when, as a teenager, I didn’t attract the boys I would have liked to attract. On the bright side, I never really got into the whole artificial beautification mold. Sure, I did perm my hair and tried make-up. I also had highlights for a while and a bellybutton piercing. But nothing that takes a lot of time (like make-up) or costs a lot of money (like buying fancy clothes) ever lasted long. I am just too stingy and lazy I guess.

    At some stage it stopped shocking me that guys still found me attractive. I suppose not all of society places such an inordinate importance on superficial beauty as commercials have us believe. Or maybe I am just just lucky when it comes to men 😉

  17. I overheard two men talking on the bus the other day about a woman they worked with:
    Man A: ‘insert woman’s name here’ is really funny. Cool chick.’
    Man B: ‘Yeah, I worked with her a few years back. Really took the project to the next level. Stakeholders would do anything for her.’
    Man A: ‘Definitely want her in my team next time.’
    Man B: ‘It’s a pity she’s kinda chubby.’
    Man A: ‘Yeah, I can’t stand fat chicks.’
    So the woman was funny, smart and excellent at her job, but all of that was for s**t because she didn’t meet their ideal for beauty? I wanted to hit them both over the head and then hold up a mirror. Unfortunately none of us are perfect and cool people come in all different types of packages. Best to make peace with your package realise it’s kinda nifty without the plucking, curlers, hair dye and lasers. There will always be some tosser who judges you by some arbitrary standard, best that you’re not one of them.

    • It’s sad that guys are just as conditioned to place inflated value on a woman’s looks as we are. I believe guys learn that just like we do. Their acting that lesson out in day to day life just reinforces it with culture as well as us women. A sad sad cycle.

  18. Being told you’re pretty is a curse.

    Being told you’re butt ass ugly is a gift. When someone is told they’re ugly, they have something to work for. When someone is told they’re pretty, that means they have to work to obtain that every stinking day. If you have an off day? Everyone says “You don’t look like you feel well”. No. I just didn’t feel like going through the kajillion steps to making you think I was perfect. Honestly.. I’m perfect the way I am.

    Shut the hell up.

    I hate people.

    Screw pretty. I want to be ugly.

    With a snaggle tooth.

    And a wart.

  19. Pingback: A Girl After My Own Heart « My One Precious Life

  20. I LOVE THIS POST! And I can definitely relate; people tell me that makeup is not a necessity, and that my natural face looks better without it. This post just gave me more confident to leave the house sans makeup. 🙂

  21. It is a great post! I found myself totally in this situation, but then I decided that all I have to be is me and voila! However not so prim I am, I can always use my brains as my make up!

  22. This is one of the best blog i have ever read so far , i related so much , as i myself always dont feel comfortable with make-up . the society demand such high standards from women just to get us accepted into a certain league , this actually causes a great pressure on some poor women . Instead of encouraging then use their brains , modern society forces them just to use their make-up brush.

  23. That was so well put! I know my self image has suffered a lot in the hands of society’s ridiculous standards for beauty over the years. We all really have so much more to offer than wearing the perfect shade of lipstick or doing our hair perfectly or being the “perfect” weight. Thanks for saying it so well! Your blog is fantastic 🙂

  24. What would a world be like that honestly, deeply let go of the competition for feminine beauty to the proper degree? And just what is that proper degree, completely, a little, or a lot? You are talking *quantitative* change aren’t you?

  25. “Pretty?” Oh, please, don’t even get me started. While I, too, can count the number of times i’ve left the house without makeup on on one hand (starting at age twelve), I’m starting to get sick of it. I’M FOURTEEN, FOR GOD’S SAKE!!!!!! Stop expecting me to look Iike i’m eighteen. Have you ever thought that I like being a kid? Maybe I like being pretty, but the work and the expectations are far too high. Plus, every time I go out to the mall or something like that, (when I REALLY put effort into my appearance) guys look me up and down. I hate it. I’m too young for any of this stuff. Why should I try to impress people, when I really don’t give a horse’s butt about their opinions?

  26. This has given me so much to think about. I have been wanting to write about this for a while, but unlike you I have never *really* been considered pretty. But I still mostly go through this routine of cleansing, toning, straightening, shaving even when I’m weary of it and I possibly don’t look any different.

    I need to find a way of writing about it without being all woe-is-me ! Brilliant post! Girl power. Will be thinking about this and linking back x

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  28. Beautifully said. I agree on so many levels. I got to this point where I kept changing little parts of myself and hoping that somehow it would change my life. I got contacts, I started wearing eye makeup more, I lost ten pounds, and none of it actually got me a boyfriend or something ridiculous like that. It is better to cast off pretty as much as you feel you can and live happily where you are, regardless of relationship status or social status. Thanks for the good read!

  29. Being a 14 year old boy, I can tell you with certainty that most of my friends talk about female bodies. I would, however, like to point out that almost all of the girls my age talk about male muscular structure (if you know what I mean!). As a moderately “normal” adolescent male I can say that I am not fat nor muscular. In fact, I’m kind of lank. In any case, I am constantly fighting the world of young girls “doing themselves up” at the age of 12 or so. I even tell my ~50yr old mother that she looks prettier without makeup. Well sure, even I like dressing up in a suit once in awhile just to tell myself that for once, I look respectable, but the obsession is too much. I tell the girl I love (who is one of those beautiful women that post pictures of themselves in all their glory of Facebook) that she doesn’t have to do that for me. I love her for who age is, not how she looks. And even so, she’s beautiful without. People need to stop being so obsessive about this kind of thing. While it is society’s fault, people don’t realize that they make up society. Fight against this oppression of your real self and others will join you.

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