There’s a really bad ass Ani DiFranco, GenX angst-y song I grew up with that has this title. This song was my personal anthem for probably the entire decade after I learned of its existence. If you’ve not read my piece called It’s Rex Manning Day, or any of the dozens I’ve written about my relationship with my family growing up or about how awkward dating was for me before I met J, this song made me feel validated.
Not only because I agree with all of its lyrics, but actually because I’d never been called a pretty girl. Not once. Ever. Not from my family (because they don’t dole out praise in general, at least not to me, and never have at any age I was). Not from friends. Not from boys/men I dated. Ever. Even the boys/men I dated that I knew truly liked me. Even the friends I know were and still are real and sincere. That’s because I am not a pretty girl. I’m not a troll or anything (I think). But physical attractiveness is never the first thing people notice about me. Which is okay. I’m a feminist and a humanist and I don’t think a person’s inherent worth has anything to do with what they can offer other people or any other arbitrary trait they possess, particularly one as obviously subjective as physical appearance. Like Ms. DiFranco says, ‘I wanna be MORE than a pretty girl.’
Never ever hearing that word has oddly set me up with the same insecurities as women who do nakedly value ‘pretty’ because they’ve been socialized to think ‘pretty’ is an important part of being a woman. (I have too…we got the same socialization. Even Ani DiFranco did. That’s why she wrote a song called Not a Pretty Girl…saying what you’re not is just as focused on the same descriptor as saying what you are.)
And it’s not just ‘pretty.’ That word has a lot of variants…
Easy on the eyes
And there are a whole lot more. But I’ve noticed that ‘pretty’ (and its synonyms and derivatives) is used a lot in praising girls and women, but used less often with boys and men. Almost never ‘pretty.’ Or ‘beautiful.’ Or ‘lovely.’ These are ‘feminine’ words. I know men who get upset at being called ‘cute’ too, so that’s kind of on the feminine fence too. I notice how often and how early we start pouring these words onto girls. From birth, really. ‘She’s so pretty…Oh, she’s beautiful…What a pretty girl…you’re so pretty…you look so pretty in <whatever>…’
This sounds great. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear they’re pretty/attractive/whatever? We shouldn’t stop telling girls and women this; we should start ALSO telling boys and men this. Right?
But when physical appearance is the main focus (or the only focus) of praise for girls and women, it creeps into the subconscious in ways that are hard to combat and almost impossible to eradicate. For nearly all women. Women start believing that being pretty is the most important thing (or even the only important thing) they can be. They start being really insecure about being pretty and maintaining whatever societal or community or personal standards of beauty become a leading concern for them. This insecurity drives a lot of industry, at least here in the US where I live. Diets. Fitness. Make-up. Fashion. Hairstyling. Media like magazines and television shows centered around all of that. (The Biggest Loser…Say Yes To the Dress…Extreme Makeover…there are so many…)
And I have friends (my best friend, in fact) who have some serious insecurity about being pretty and all the requirements that hangs on women, because of how often and seriously their beauty was focused upon in their youth, and is an ongoing focus. (My best friend is GORGEOUS, by the way. Seriously. She is one of the most physically beautiful people I’ve ever met in person. But that doesn’t stop her anxiety about beauty standards. In fact, it might exacerbate it.)
Women have to actively work against using physical beauty as a measure for their own worth. Even someone like me, who never got called pretty. Because by NEVER being told I was pretty (or any of those related words), I believed I wasn’t feminine…I wasn’t worthy…something was wrong with me. And maybe I needed to change my whole entire self to get to ‘pretty.’ So I could be seen and valued the way I wanted to be.
Little did I know that the girls and women who got praised with ‘pretty’ were suffering a different strain of the same disease. Theirs was just more like, ‘OK. I’m pretty. How do I stay pretty? What happens if I’m not pretty anymore?…’
And all of this shit isn’t fair. So I wouldn’t want to start putting that on men too.
J tells me I’m pretty sometimes, in other words and ways. He’ll say I look nice. He’ll tell me he likes my smile…the way I look at him…
I know that’s, ‘I think you look pretty/beautiful/attractive now/when you do this/wear this/whatever,’ and that’s a more specified form of ‘pretty,’ and I appreciate that. I want J to think I’m pretty and find me attractive. Clearly. And I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting your romantic partner to find you attractive or wanting to look good to and for them. And I admit, I used to (and still sometimes do…let’s be real) get down about not ever being called ‘pretty’ (or any of those other words), from the time I was a little girl into middle age now (when…let’s face it…I’m not going to be called pretty MORE now…America is obsessed with youth, particularly with women). But I’m actually glad and grateful now that ‘pretty’ has never been a main focus for anyone who values me. I know they value me for more core aspects of myself. Like my integrity and intelligence and kindness and generosity and courage and compassion. And I’m especially glad those things are what J focuses on. Those things aren’t dictated by some arbitrary societal mold I have to fit into. Those things are me.
Now I’m kind of glad I’m not a pretty girl. And I’ve never really been a pretty girl.
And to all the pretty girls out there…your age or weight or hair color or skin color or texture or whatever…isn’t what makes you pretty. Your soul does. That’s something that lasts in a permanent way, no matter what changes it endures. At least, that’s why I think you’re beautiful anyway. ❤