A long time ago, I wrote a piece about “pretty” that eventually became a section of She’s Not the Man I Married that in turn, our resident board moderator Donna recently referred to when recounting a moment where she looked in the mirror and actually saw herself as pretty.
What made me think about it – and my reputation of being Helen “pretty is a mug’s game” Boyd – was seeing an episode of What Not To Wear which featured a nurse from Arizona who wore her scrubs and sweats everywhere & anywhere. They even had to do affirmations with her, like “I’m beautiful and I want to share my beauty with the world” which the woman couldn’t say without getting teared up. But by the end, she had transformed: it was obvious she felt not just pretty but confident.
& What I’ve been thinking about is that it’s a whole different thing to experience yourself as pretty – in a positive way – than to be told you’re pretty when that’s not wanted. The woman on the show was so obviously floored by actually feeling pretty that I was struck by what she was experiencing in feeling pretty, and so I was struck too by the times feeling pretty meant something good to me.
& It still can, of course.
Growing up as me meant when I was smoking a cigarette near the subway, five men would go by & say “you’re too pretty to smoke” or “you’re too pretty not to be smiling” or “you’re too pretty to have a mohawk.” etc. It was all kind of – the only word that comes to mind is <<interdit>> – about what I couldn’t & shouldn’t do because I was “pretty.”
Looks can become the only thing that women think is important and/or valuable about them, too, & even the pretty ones often discount so many other good things about themselves when they’re not feeling pretty enough. Not buying into pretty was a good way for me, at least, to break through a lot of the gendered boxes I might have been trapped in otherwise. When you feel like you’re not pretty enough to go outside without makeup, & men do every single day, there’s something wrong that needs to be – well, accounted for.
I don’t necessarily love the cattiness of shows like this, but I also know how it can feel to put on something & just feel good – even pretty! – when you’ve otherwise been feeling grungy / dumpy / inept. It’s another case where I think my experience being raised female might be quite different from the way a trans woman might relate to the same issue – that is, an acknowledgement of difference & not cause for hierarchy – because trans women grow up being told you can’t be pretty, you won’t be pretty, and you’re not allowed to be pretty, which is quite different indeed from being told you can be pretty but you can’t be anything else. But all of us, I think, in this lookist culture, have to step back from the shitty feelings of self-doubt – and even the euphoric feelings pretty can bring – and pay attention to pretty being a lot more valuable when it’s something you feel, not something you are (or aren’t).