Saturday, July 21, 2012

My Problem with Pretty

I know this is going to sound strange, but I hate being called pretty. When people call me pretty, I wince, then smile and quietly say, “thank you”. I’ve asked most people in personal relationships with me to stop calling me pretty. They look at me funny; they think I’m being modest or projecting from some unspoken childhood trauma, but I’m being completely honest.

Here is why I hate “pretty”: Pretty is a trap. Pretty is the subjugation of personality, intellect and beauty to the perceived expectations of a patriarchal society. It is a false feminine. While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, pretty is not. You don't get to define pretty for yourself. Pretty is uniform, plastic, unyielding and silencing. It’s a uniform we wear in our roles as women.  It’s one-size-fits-all.

When someone who knows me well says, “You are so pretty,” I think to myself – really? That’s what you see? You look at me, listen to me, know me – and “pretty” is what you come up with? I get offended: of all the things I am and could be called – loud, smart, rude, caring, funny, messy, colorful, scattered – any of them says far more about me than pretty.

But I stopped being offended when I realized what a large role I was playing in “pretty”.  My entire teenage and adult life, I have woken up before dawn to straighten my hair, layer on makeup, try on outfit after outfit. I will need surgery on my feet soon due to the horrific shoes I have crammed my feet into. My scalp has scars from using caustic chemicals to straighten the natural curl out of my hair. I haven’t sat in a relaxed posture in decades for fear that my outfit will not be forgiving of my stomach. I’m late to work every day because it’s more important to be pretty than punctual. When I do all of these things, I am pretty. I’m very good at being pretty, and because I’m good at it, I must maintain it. And I don’t want to be pretty, it’s a suffocating expectation. It’s not me. I know this may sound spoiled or whiny. I know that there are a lot of women who suffer every day from never being called pretty - for not being able to reach that criteria, no matter how hard they try, but I will stand by this: pretty is vapid, vacant and soulless and it harms women. It should not exist.

So why have I been doing this for so long? It’s been my penance, my apology, for not being everything else I was supposed to be. As a super-tall, loud, messy, chubby, single-mom of color – the least I could be was pretty. If I can’t contribute at least that much, why even bother going outside? I’ve dreamt of days where I was successful and thin – only because then I could wear baggy, comfortable clothes and cut off my hair. I could wear whatever ridiculousness caught my fancy without fear of what others would think of my thighs. I could wear less makeup and people wouldn’t think I’d stopped trying. DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW CRAZY THIS IS??

When I decided that I was not going to fight my body anymore  - that I was no longer going to obsess with numbers and sizes – I had to ask “now what?” Did I give up on my “someday” list? Did I have to acknowledge that flat shoes, short hair and 5-minute makeup routines were never to be in my life? One day, as I was sitting on the computer, researching “flattering” hairstyles for my face type, I just - broke a little. I got up, grabbed some scissors, walked to the bathroom and started cutting my hair. I cut off about 3 inches. I felt good. I went to work the next day, some people noticed and nobody seemed disappointed. So the next day, I cut more off.  Then I put on my most comfortable and brightly colored outfit and a pair of sandals.

For the most part, people haven’t really said anything – and what is said is usually something like, “that looks like you” or “I can see your face better now”. Nobody has called me pretty, it’s such a relief. The conversation has moved on to how messy my desk is or my habit of always yelling whatever is on my mind, or the weather, or politics. When guys walk by, I don’t check my posture and try to gauge their reaction to see if I have “got it right” today. If I notice them, I smile, but for the most part I’m busy doing other things.

The biggest change though is what happens when I look in the mirror. When I look in the mirror now, I just see me. Like, really me. I see my face that shows the tiny lines around my eyes from having smiled a lot and the body that has obviously borne two pretty great (and large) kids. In my outfits I see my creativity and love of color. My hair looks healthy and very curly. It takes me 10 minutes to get ready in the morning (it hasn’t cured my tardiness as much as one would hope though).

me - playing around with my new short hair.

I’m sure there will be times where I will feel like changing it up – putting on a super sexy outfit or breaking out the flat iron (I also really want a kick-ass dragon costume) – but that will only happen when I feel like it. I’m not going back. I’m happier.

Why am I writing this? Because I think there are a lot of other women in the same boat as me. I know so many women who don't know how to feel about themselves for the day until they get the opinion of others or see the number on the scale. I know women who refuse to buy new clothes until they lose 10 lbs. I see facebook posts every day ridiculing people for daring to wear what they want without concern for their height or size of their stomach or thighs. I hear so many "can" and "can't"s, "should" and "shouldn't"s, "not yet" and "someday"s. And I want to yell this: DO WHAT YOU WANT. Wear what you want, cut your hair, dye it blue, wear a bikini, sit comfortably. This is your body and truly living in it is a right, not a prize to be earned. You are beautiful and interesting – and that is so so so much better than pretty.