but I am not a maiden fair

Ani DiFranco

I guess it was inevitable. I posted a series titled “not a pretty girl,” and what I heard back — invariably from male friends —  was “but you are pretty! Don’t you think you’re pretty?”

When I first got asked that, it gave me pause for a couple of reasons. The first was the sudden cognitive dissonance of trying to decide which of two socially acceptable answers to give. On the one hand, calling yourself “pretty” or “hot” or praising your own appearance is considered vain: with the concurrent advent of sites like MySpace and Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter and the advent of digital cameras, the phenomenon of “selfies” became very popular very quickly and become very mockable just as fast*.

On the other hand, I am an Empowered Feminist Woman who believes in body positivity and self-esteem and so forth, and being self-deprecating about one’s appearance is considered damaging and toxic and buying into Western beauty ideals.

On the gripping hand, my attractiveness isn’t even secondary to the point — it’s, like, quinary at best. But the title of the blog posts seem to have convinced some people that I don’t consider myself attractive, and it seems very important to them that I understand that I am pretty.

On top of all this, from other conversations people have been having around this series, I think I may have given the impression that I value the ideal of “pretty” over “not pretty” — that I think the pretty Other Girls are better than the not-a-pretty-girl Me’s, when really I just think girls shouldn’t hate on girls for being girls because being a girl is hard enough already. And since I wrote about identifying as a “I’m not like those other girls” type in high school, maybe it came across like I wish I were prettier.

So here’s my answer:

Am I aware, objectively, that on the spectrum of American beauty ideals I fall more towards the “pretty” side than the “ugly” side? Yeah, sure. Am I also aware that, objectively, I will never meet the American beauty ideal because a) I’m short and kinda pear-shaped and b) that ideal is literally unobtainable? Yep. But that’s not what “not a pretty girl” means.

Pretty” is a word that carries a lot of specific connotations in American English. Pretty in Pink, “Pretty Woman,” Pretty Little Liars, pretty as a picture. Pretty please? When used as a descriptor, it’s almost exclusively used to refer to women (or inanimate objects).

Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You. Are you saying that I'm not a pretty guy?

As is often the case, 10 Things I Hate About You bucks the trend. (No, Heath. No we are not saying that.)

Or it’s used in a derogatory way to describe a man. That’s because what “pretty” really means is dainty, domestic, delicate, neat, in-line. Feminine. When we use it as a modifier it means acceptably close to the mark — that’s pretty good, that’s pretty close, that’s pretty terrible. When we refer to a woman as pretty, part of what we’re saying is that she meets our standards. She’s not so sexy that she makes us uncomfortable, which would be “hot,” and she’s not so totally unthreatening that we think of her like a child, which would be “cute.” She’s just where we want her to be, well-behaved and well-favoured. She’s pretty.

Ani DiFranco

When Ani DiFranco sings “I am not a pretty girl,” it can seem almost disingenuous, because by any reasonable person’s standard, she’s gorgeous. I mean, look at her. She’s beautiful. When she smiles the whole room lights up.

What Ani is not — loudly, insistently, consistently not — is acceptable. She’s queer. She’s feminist. She’s class-conscious and independent. She does not want you to forget any of this.

And that makes her not pretty.

In “Not a Pretty Girl,” she sings:

I am not an angry girl
But it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled
Every time I say something they find hard to hear
They chalk it up to my anger and never to their own fear
Imagine you’re a girl
Just trying to finally come clean
Knowing full well they’d prefer you were dirty
And smiling

A big part of what the Me vs. Other Girls phenomenon comes down to, I think, is the gulf between fitting the mold and being pretty and being acceptable, and feeling uncomfortable in the mold, feeling unacceptable because you’re not blonde or you’re gay or you’re fat or you’re loud or you read. Feeling wrong because of those things. Being told you’re wrong. Being told that boys won’t like you if you cut your hair short. Being told you’re not pretty when you run.

From HuffPo’s 2009 article “COLOR HER BAD…AND GOOD: Vote for Hillary Clinton’s Prettiest and Not-So-Pretty Pantsuits.” Because the prettiness of the Secretary of State’s clothing, rather than, say, her foreign policy, is of great concern.

With this definition of “pretty,” I’m probably prettier than Ani DiFranco, but not as pretty as Taylor Swift. (And even TSwift has had some ugly moments.) And in some ways, I hope that the more I write about feminism, the uglier I get: when someone on Reddit says I’m only writing this stuff because I could never attract a man because I look like the back end of a diseased cat, I’ll know I’ve hit the big time.

One recent conversation ended with the guy firmly informing me that I am pretty, and me thanking him — and I meant it, too! But we’re both guilty in that exchange of reinforcing the idea that being pretty is better than being not pretty. ‘Course, we’re also both products of society, and it takes a lot of conscious work to get away from that.

Look: the point I’m trying to get at here is not that it’s bad to be pretty in any sense of the word, any more than it’s bad to be un-pretty. If you want to be pretty — in pink or otherwise — go for it. You don’t have to explain yourself. Certainly not to me.

Liza Minelli in Cabaret.

“For example, if I should paint my fingernails green, and it just so happens I do paint them green, well, if anyone should ask me why, I say: ‘I think it’s pretty!'”

And if you want to be anything but a pretty girl, go for it. Be loud and ugly and bitchy and declare yourself not pretty. You don’t have to explain yourself, either; though you’ll be asked to, or told to, you don’t have to. Hell, if some days you feel pretty and witty and gay, and some days you feel like the wicked witch of the west — that’s okay too. If you contradict yourself, very well, you contradict yourself. The point is, this should be something you choose for yourself, not something we desperately grope towards, a title bestowed by benevolent others.

When I say “I am not a pretty girl — that’s not what I do” and the guy I’m talking to nevertheless insists “But you are pretty!” I want to ask: So? Why is it so important to you that I admit that?


*Extra credit question: with what demographic are selfies most associated? Teenage girls, right Do you think that the scorn heaped on the concept of selfies might be because our society has a well-entrenched tendency to devalue and deride the activities and desires of teenage girls? HMMMM.

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