I remember being very young and being told how pretty I was in my new dress or with my hair tied up in a bow. People say this to little girls. “Oh, how pretty you are!” I suppose it’s a nice thing to say. At least, the intent is well meaning. Little children know when you are giving them praise, even before they understand the meaning behind what you say. Their faces light up and you can see how proud they are when they hear you speak to them in this manner.
It’s interesting to me that from the very beginning, my gender role was being played out with these attitudes from the world around me. People don’t tell little boys they’re pretty. I’m sure a lot of people would think it silly. They call boys “handsome” or “strong” but not “pretty.”
“Pretty” is for girls.
Being complimented this way taught me that being pretty was a good thing. After all, compliments are for pointing out positive attributes. I know that seems like a silly statement, but my point is, being pretty was one of the first things I learned about my worth to the world around me. It gets pretty heavy when you think about it that way.
Delving into it a bit farther, this is in part evolutionary for us as humans. In the animal kingdom, an attractive animal benefits in finding a potential mate. The more “attractive” to their counterparts, the more desireable this animal becomes to all potential mates. When looking at it from this aspect, humankind doesn’t appear to have strayed too far from our prehistoric predecessors. We are cognizant beings who are still, in large part, controlled by animalistic instincts rather than our intellect.
Our society doesn’t help much on that front, either. In a consumerist society, everybody wants to sell us something. They need it to be catching, and make us want to buy whatever they’re offering. It’s a simple fact that sex sells. But as a whole, marketing that utilizes this sexuality is pummeling us with subliminal messages from a young age (whether that’s the intent or not) which doesn’t simply utilize our animal instincts to sell us things: it manifests them.
Before We Go Any Further..
Remember this gross article for Cosmopolitan where the author bragged about how hot she thought she was, and pretended to complain about it? That’s not my intent here. So I am going to disclaimer this, ad nauseam, to avoid sounding like this has anything to do with bragging.
Personally, think I’m a fairly cute girl. I think it’s okay for me to admit that. Like the rest of us, I know I wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. There’s that old saying, “you could be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there will always be somebody who hates peaches.” So I get that. I guess my point is- I don’t have an inflated ego like the girl who wrote that article did.
I also have spent most of my time in makeup and clothes that, in my opinion, help me look prettier. A secret about that? I don’t know if I’m that pretty just in sweats at home, because I don’t get that publicly affirmed for me. So I don’t know how much of this is just genetic, or my own personal sweat, blood, and tears. Talk about self esteem… yikes. (My boyfriend tells me I look great either way, like all good boyfriends are supposed to.)
I do know that people do tell me I’m pretty. Not everyone in every second, but it’s enough to feel like I can explain what being “pretty in a patriarchy” has been like for me, and not get eaten alive by the internet for it. (I’m crossing my fingers on that one.)
Striving For Beauty
So not only was I taught that my looks were important- I was shown growing up that being pretty was a legitimate aspiration. I played with Barbies, and loved watching Disney movies with princesses. All thin, young, and beautiful with perfect hair and makeup. I didn’t need to be taught what made a woman pretty. I saw it and accepted it unquestioningly.
I also grew up in a pretty typical, traditional family. It was an environment where comments were made about women- especially fatter women- which taught me that this was certainly not desirable. It’s funny noticing, now that I’m older, that these comments were never made about men. Who can complain about this? This is how the media is, too. It’s just a representation of the society we’re in. That attitude is not abnormal by any means. Though, highly problematic, as it were.
I remember being eight years old and writing in a journal about what I would ask for if I was granted “three wishes.” Do you know what my number one wish was? To grow up to be beautiful. This was my ultimate wish for myself as a human being. I don’t even remember what my other wishes were.
I remember being scared of growing up and being fat. I didn’t know what kind of adult I’d be, and I was afraid that once I got older, I wouldn’t care about my weight anymore. I already heard womanly gossip about girlfriends who’d “let themselves go.” My childhood didn’t revolve around my weight since I was already a very skinny kid, but it was a concept that I was aware of. This helped manifest itself as an eating disorder in my teen years.
Another thing that happened in my teen years? I discovered a lot of things about developing. Wearing makeup, high heels, and attractive clothing. For a second time in my life, I got positive attention for my appearance. I was validated by the world around me that I was attractive. It felt great, because this is what I was striving for.
If you’re familiar with any of my past posts, you will have seen that I wasn’t aware of the implications of these charges. I knew I could get boys’ attention (which I did want) but I didn’t know that wearing a crop top or a push up bra made them think about sex to the extent that they did. How could I know that? I didn’t know that it sent a message about my availability. I grew up watching women dress this way on tv and people on the shows reacted positively towards these women. If those sexual implications were there on all the shows I’d seen, I certainly hadn’t been aware of it yet.
But the strangest thing happened. Along with validation from males, I was heavily judged by adults and my parents, who knew these implications. They reprimanded my clothing choices (without explaining any of it) and treated me like it represented my character, or my morality. Which it certainly did not. I’ll be honest and say that these experiences still anger me, to some extent. I don’t think it was fair. But it was a precursor to the lesson I would learn: that when you’re pretty, your appearance is all most people pay attention to.
Judgements By Women
If you haven’t reached this conclusion by now, I’ll explain to you that one clear premise of this article is that in our society, we are taught that beautiful women are superior to other women. I definitely don’t think it’s true, but it’s a belief that fuels women’s strife towards attractiveness. We want to be the one all the other girls want to be.
But the media affects women’s attitudes towards each other, too. Have you noticed that all the mean girls in cliques on tv are beautiful? And the main character, Susie Every Girl, isn’t as pretty, but she has a winning personality that shines through. “You can’t have both,” they seem to say.
Years back, I was at a bar once with a guy friend, and we were laughing and joking all night with a group who was sitting next to us. “Not to be an asshole or anything,” one of the girls later came over and said to me, “but you’re like, way too pretty to be this nice.” I laughed. It seemed as though she meant this to be a compliment.
I have had many girl friends and for all the negative experiences, there are positive ones, too. But my friendships have never been spurred by looks. I have, however, had a few friendships that formed in spite of it. Because to some people, it really matters.
Mostly though (on the occasions when my appearance matters in the exchange at all) women have judged me more than men have. Actually, let’s put it this way- their judgements on me have been harsher and more hurtful. I think that when we, as humans, feel inferior to someone, it seems like a natural instinct to want to tear the other person down in some way. (Usually we just do this in our own heads. “She may be smart but she’s not as funny as me.” That sort of thing.) It makes you feel less bad about yourself, because it uses the belief that you have a strength where they have a weakness- so you’re not inferior anymore. Name calling and judgemental attitudes are the main weapon women like to use against the pretty girls. At least in my experience. And they love to whisper to each other when you do, say, or wear anything that isn’t perfect.
I spent a lot of my younger years being extra smiley and extra friendly in an effort to overcompensate for this treatment. I didn’t blame other women for their perspectives. I just wanted them to feel comfortable with me. I noticed that often any displayal of confidence or intelligence seemed to make other girls less comfortable. Because that seemed to make me “less likeable” I did not open this part of myself up to the world for many years. It affected my self esteem in the way that I had many friends and peers who saw me as a dumb, albeit nice, but nothing special otherwise. I have since ceased worrying about this and while I do make less friends, but I feel better about myself as a person.
We, as females, all live in this oppressive world with each other. We’re on the same team, in my opinion. I was subject to the same insecurities and the same judgements as anyone else. The fact that I wear heels and you wear sneakers doesn’t mean I’m a bitch, or a ditz, or the enemy.
For that matter, pretty girls need to stop acting superior, too. You’re just acting out the stereotype that people have already pegged you with. No matter the cards you’ve been dealt in life, being unkind diminishes each and every one of your positive attributes, as far as I’m concerned.
Judgements By Men
Most men I’ve spoken to about this concept agree- they think women want to be beautiful for them. Whether they think it’s simply for sex or to land a husband, or whatever the end goal may be, that’s when the answers will start to vary. But one thing remains true- they think all the heels, the clothes, the makeup is to be attractive to men.
You can’t blame them for this, when you think back to the “animal instincts” part of the argument. Yes, it’s true, being pretty does help a girl find a guy. You also can’t blame them when you think back to our society. Movies, shows, and advertisements show beautiful, coquettish woman who are all about sex.
Something I’ve been trying desperately to convey to guys I speak to about this is that it’s so much bigger than that. You think I spend 40 minutes getting ready before I go out just to be a treat for your dick? If you think that’s true, then you’ve been spending your life watching too much tv- and frankly- you don’t really know that much about women.
I was walking through Target one day in high school and two teenage boys walked by. “Too much makeup for me,” said one to the other. I wanted to turn around and say, “Don’t flatter yourself. I’m out of your league with or without the makeup,” but then… there’s that ego I told you I didn’t have.
I am so tired of hearing that men prefer the “natural look” I could pull my hair out. In that respect, I honestly don’t care what you prefer. I feel beautiful, and powerful, and fierce as hell with some good makeup. That’s my goal. I achieved my goal with my red lipstick. Middle finger in the air.
The thing is, most of us can get guys with or without the makeup. Don’t think we’re confused about that. You men are not all as picky as you pretend to me. Additionally, for any of the comments I’ve heard, I have never been turned down for wearing too much makeup yet. Not once in my entire life. And I am a girl who loves her makeup.
On top of that, I’ll let you in on something I’ve noticed in my life. Men view me a little more as a girl-next-door type without the makeup. But I’m viewed as more of a vixen when I wear it. And it doesn’t matter if I’m at a club or a grocery store- it never fails- men of all ages are extra friendly and helpful to the vixen.
Who Am I?
My quest for beauty and confidence in this world has really mixed me up about myself. This is my real, number one purpose for writing this post. To explain that for all beautiful women get glamorized, and idolized, and worshipped, I am worse off for it. Worse off as a human being.
I tell you truly that I am a victim of society, in ways that make me much worse off than so many other people. Not because I’m judged. No, it’s much more unfortunate than even judgement and bullying.
I want to be really honest and acknowledge openly that even today, beauty is my number one aspiration. Isn’t that so fucked? As a feminist, I enjoy feeling beautiful, so I allow myself to feel empowered by my choices. On the other hand, I know that it’s superficial and oppressive, and I wish I could wake up one day and decide that being pretty no longer matters to me. But it’s so deeply ingrained, I’m not sure this is something I even know how to fight within myself. My internal beliefs about myself have mostly solidified in my 27 years of life.
Wherever I go, I still get my beauty validated. I still get the message that my worth is my appearance. And I still believe it.
The bleak, grave truth of it all is that all beauty fades. We all age. Of all the attributes that all of us possess, this is the only one thing that you cannot keep. Do you know what that means for a pretty girl in a patriarchy?
I won’t know who I am or what I’m worth when it all leaves me.