If you are alive and female, you are all too aware of your own prettiness factor. And how could you not be? We spend our lives being told exactly where we rank by one person or another, not to mention offered an ideal example constantly, and sometimes (if you've ever walked through a shopping district) at literally every turn we take. But what are our alternatives? It's all too easy to say that women's obsession with prettiness is, ultimately, a fool's errand, not to mention the small fortune we spend chasing an ideal unreachable for most. Fighting the beauty industrial complex and going rogue, while certainly admirable, is unrealistic (not to mention easier said than done). Women may never stop thinking about their prettiness on the Great Big Scale — duh, does a bear apply mascara in the woods? — but it may be far less emotionally driven (or depressing) than we might assume. In fact, many women approach their own looks with an economist's appraisal more than a spiritual embrace. And in a world where our looks are used irrevocably for or against us either way, why not?
In response to a piece called "Why Can't Women Think They Are Pretty?" — a thoughtful look at how rare it is for women to simply admit they are pretty, when instead they are armed with a laundry list of their flaws at the ready — I was all prepared to write at length about the fact that it would do us well to focus on anything but the pursuit of beauty, so tenuous and undependable it is.
But then I put the question to four of my twenty- and thirty-something friends instead, and discovered that rather than hand-wring about the issue, every one of them had a totally figured-out narrative about their own prettiness and prettiness in general, full of exceptions and asterisks and rules, honed over a lifetime. The idea that they would ever not think about it was ludicrous, nor were they about to go blabbing about it all that often. And more importantly, it wasn't a cause for upset.
The piece sets it up like this:
When is the last time you heard a girl or a woman say, "I'm pretty"? The other day, a woman commented on a beauty-themed blog post I'd written that she thought she was pretty. The comment made sense in the context, but the confession was so unusual that I felt the need to respond: "Good for you!" Several minutes later, she wrote back, explaining that even though she was pretty, there were plenty of things wrong with her. And also, just to clarify, she was just pretty. Not, like, strikingly beautiful or anything. God, no. Of course not.
The author goes on to talk about how difficult it is for women to admit they are good-looking. That we go through our lives feeling unattractive or never attractive enough, like a plague or a pervasive poison. That feeling good about how we look is a sin, so better to keep quiet about it. But that, sadly, it's more than OK to voice our growing list of flaws, and that we often do so without hesitation. And that this happens even with the so-called most attractive among us:
Female celebrities reassure us that, really, they don't think they're as hot as other people think they are. They, too, can reel off their physical flaws for a reporter. "I think I've got really weird features. I have very large features on a very small head," Anne Hathaway informed InStyle magazine, "…It's my face. I'm not very pretty." And she isn't the only stunningly gorgeous star to make a statement like this. They're actually common.
The author admits that she's:
...afraid to say something positive about my appearance, even when I feel it. I'm almost inviting people to comment negatively, and honestly, I'm not confident enough about the way I look to do that. I don't want to hear them tell me I'm wrong, I'm ugly. Why? Because beauty feels important, even when I'd like it not to, even when there are a million other, bigger, more pressing things in my life, beauty feels sensitive, because we know, let's be honest, we know it matters. But I want to speak up. This culture of shame and forced modesty is as much a problem as our culture of body insecurity and beauty obsession.
We are getting caught in a sticky trap of mixed messages: we are supposed to be modest, even as we're supposed to be confident. But it shouldn't have to be immodest or arrogant just to acknowledge when we're good at something. Or when we look good. That should just be realism.
But among the reasons my interview subjects gave as to why they wouldn't discuss their prettiness in general conversations out in the world, realism — not insecurity — was, in fact, the biggest driver for how they thought and talked about themselves. (Let us also never forget what happened to Samantha Brick, the lady who dared to publicly inflate her worth.)
For them, it wasn't that they couldn't think they were pretty. It was that they all knew, after lifetimes of being shown images of what is pretty, cute, beautiful or not in staggering detail, EXACTLY what kind of pretty they are or aren't, to what type of person they were most appealing, to what degree their prettiness abounds. Just saying they were pretty without acknowledging the exceptions seemed to be like admitting that you didn't understand how pretty works. And "pretty" isn't a permanent state, either: it's a complicated, evolving assessment, discussed with a detached, almost economic appraisal.
To be clear, none of these women thinks she is ugly. If anything, perhaps we've all heard the message of accepting our own beauty loud and clear. But each intuitively understood that her prettiness, and all prettiness, comes with an asterisk in terms of the currency it yields in the world. Only it wasn't cause for insecurity anymore than it was something to shout from the rooftops. It was, merely, as soberly self-evident as the money in their bank accounts. Their reasoning follows.
I'm pretty, but not the kind of culturally condoned pretty
One friend of mine who has the coloring of Elizabeth Taylor, described her kind of pretty as, "I'm pretty but I'm chubby so keep it quiet!" For her, she says that although there were always guys and other people who found her pretty, being overweight, especially in high school, meant waiting until literally almost now to see celebrities — like Adele — actually be praised for being pretty without people having to say "for her size."
I'm pretty, but not for the region I grew up in
Another friend who could be Brooke Shields' little sister explains that in spite of being what any living breathing person I know would call exceptionally attractive, she had zero market value where she grew up: "Women are acutely aware of their physical market value, and most women are clued in to how the markets change. You're valued for your looks relative to where you live. Growing up as a brunette in the Midwest in a sea of blondes, I could never be in the top tier of perceived hotness, even though a great number of the blondes had small ferret faces. I understood that my hometown market valued "blonde" above all else."
I'm pretty, but cognizant of where that fits on the full spectrum
Another friend I asked who looks like an English Rose, said she knows it's true that she's pretty, but also isn't blind to what's in the world: "I've definitely said before that I'm pretty, and I think it's true. My eyes and skin are great and I'm symmetrical as fuck. But I wouldn't call myself beautiful, because there IS a scale. I just watched CHICAGO the other day, so here's an example: Catherine Zeta-Jones is beautiful. Renee Zellweger is cute/pretty."
I'm pretty, but I'm not beautiful
Another friend who has an ethereal Mermaid beauty, said "Well, I guess I think I'm pretty, but I know I'm more "cute" than "beautiful." I know I'm prettier than some people, but I definitely notice more people that are prettier than me than the opposite."
I'm pretty, but I know my market value
"By the time you're in your 20s," said Brooke Shields' little sister, "you might know you have a good face, but you've also seen pictures of Kim Kardashian's ass, and you know you can't compete in that department. Thus, if you say, "I have a good face" without tagging it up with "but let's be honest, no ass" you know that objectively, you're being dishonest."
I'm pretty, but I take shit pictures and therefore have no real proof
The English Rose said: Just because you're baseline okay doesn't mean you're going to live the rest of your life in Optimum Prettiness mode. Also (and this is crucial), just because you're good looking doesn't mean you photograph well. That can be a huge bummer.
I'm pretty, just not today
All the women asked had examples of how their prettiness could easily be compromised by a bad hair day, a zit, bloating, or any number of things which could affect their particular presentation on any day you might ask:
English Rose said: "Confidence and Security are based on good days or bad days, good haircuts or shitty haircuts, looking forward to something or being bored on the sofa wearing the same pants all weekend. People Who Are Confident aren't like that ALL THE TIME, and if they are, they're kind of sociopaths?"
While Mermaid said: If I feel like I look good, and I get a compliment, I still have to point out the gross thing about me, like that I haven't showered, or that I have been wearing the same bra for three weeks straight, or that my dress is too tight and I can't breathe because I ate too many nachos and I'm on my period, etc etc etc.
English Rose added: "Today I am kind of gross! I have a chin zit and my bangs look greasy. I'm bloated and am wearing a dress I kind of hate. But I went out on Friday night and looked good, to the point of receiving compliments (that naturally I accepted with grace and aplomb). But obviously there has been no fundamental change in my looks over the past three days. It's all circumstantial."
I am pretty, but sometimes it's still an illusion
Mermaid said, "I had been on South Beach [diet] for a couple of months, and bought these highwaisted shorts and it felt good! But I think that even when we look our best we can still feel all of the stuff we are hiding, and I mean, when was the last time we didn't have to hide something? Zits/bloat/cellulite/greasy hair."
I'm pretty, but there's a hierarchy
Brooke Shields' little sister: In college, where almost everyone was a super nerdy brunette — I DOMINATED!! I developed an unrealistic sense of my awesomeness. Then reality hit in LA, where I had to acknowledge that there exists a preternaturally gorgeous group known as the "model actresses," and they are not my people. But, given that my job is based on my brain, it's totally fine.
I'm pretty but admitting it is vain and/or sounds delusional
Everyone agreed it was vain to say you are pretty, but especially without showing knowledge of the various asterisks. (FWIW, it IS vain for men to talk about how good-looking they are, too. Also, I asked a couple of men whether they thought women "knew" they were pretty or pretended not to know, and one thought women had no idea of their prettiness, and the other had no idea either way if women knew or not. Goes to show how much they know.)
But what was the most interesting is that none of the women thought of any of this pretty evaluation as especially deflating or even all that troubling. They simply knew their worth and worked what they had. Or as Brooke Shields' little sister put it:
I should add that there really isn't a lot of emotion attached to any of this analysis. I feel pretty detached discussing looks. And, again, I think most women have a realistic sense of their looks (and have hopefully made peace with it either way). I don't think there's a gender wide body dysmorphia going on, which is what this article seems to be implying.
It's true. What the article missed — and what my friends, yes, anecdotally, pointed out — was that in spite of constant bombardment of messages of female perfection, they were all incredibly keenly and accurately aware of what was good and or bad about themselves and had, since high school, but had basically accepted their particular brand of pretty, and liked it. Or as my Elizabeth Taylor friend said, "I think most people stop looking outside in their 20s and just you know, look in the mirror." By then, you see what society sees. And if society doesn't reinforce the message, you might still go ahead and find yourself pretty anyway. You just aren't going to risk looking delusional babbling on about it Samantha Brick-style.
I'm not implying that it isn't shitty that we are all handed this particular deck of cards, because the game of beauty is rigged worse than a payday loan. But it's worth talking about women's particular knack for adapting to these rigged rules and finding ways to win anyway, if by win we can mean that somehow, in spite of a daily campaign to make us feel less than perfect, we like ourselves anyway. We've merely incorporated this blinking awareness into ourselves, and it's always there, as omnipresent as the makeup on our faces. At least, on a good day.