Being Pretty In A Patriarchy

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.


Little Sarah, age four

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.


Sexualizing women in advertisements

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.


There’s me at age nine, in the red dress

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.


High school- senior prom. I was a bottle-blonde for years until I discovered people didn’t treat me like such an idiot as a brunette

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


Modeling for a comic con (photo credit Tom Nguyen ( This is me in a sexualized ad, too!

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.


Just adding this one because it was vixen-ish?

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 we are all victims of society, and I am part of that. Not because I’m judged. No, it’s much more unfortunate than even judgement and bullying.


True happiness. That’s me on the bottom of the dog pile. I think this better shows who I am instead of just how I look.

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.

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.

11 thoughts on “Being Pretty In A Patriarchy

  1. Ritten's Playhouse

    Well written piece, but I must ask if you’ve considered beauty might be supplementary rather than a burden inherent. That is, once it fades, if you’ve pursued other things, your life satisfaction will be salvageable there. That’s the only option for peasants, you know.

    1. justsarahg Post author

      Absolutely! I do think I have many other (more important) attributes to which I also devote my time and energy. I work towards being a well-rounded person, though when I was younger, I devoted 0% to anything but beauty. It took a lot of growing up to reconcile this.

      However, it doesn’t change some of the deeper-rooted attitudes that admittedly do exist. I work towards a healthier balance every day, not only because age looms around the corner, but because I worth much more on the inside!

      I hope that message can be implied for others in their lives.

      1. Megan

        In your article you state in your household you were taught growing up that women should be skinny and being fat was not something that you would want to be and some thing you are scarred of. This makes me think you think less of women who are like this. I was taught, no matter what you look like you should love yourself. You should also love everyone no matter what they look like whether or not they may like it because it’s their self esteem not yours and who are you to put them down.

      2. justsarahg Post author

        My point in bringing up their judgments and my reaction was to show that their judgements affect me and the way I felt about myself, too.

        Policing women’s bodies affects young girls no matter what their size is. I think it’s important that parents and adults consider this.

        Talking about how it affected me doesn’t relate to my thoughts about anyone but me. It doesn’t have anything to do with my opinions about “fat people” which is why your comment is so bizarre to me. I cannot find anything I’ve written that could lead a person to that conclusion.

        Not wanting my own body to be fat doesn’t automatically mean I have a problem with other people who are fat. I don’t want to be a science teacher, but that doesn’t mean I have a problem with science teachers. Other people live their lives according to their worldviews. In my opinion, their bodies and their lives are none of my business.

        As I’ve tried to say in this post, a person’s appearance is not a reflection of their worth. Not mine, and certainly not anyone else’s. I live by this belief- I don’t just spew it out on the internet in order to make myself look like a good person.

        This message was deeply offensive to me, not only because it’s so far from the truth, but because it was a judgement that was projected into something that was not there. It seems to prove my point about the judgement I receive from women, even when my words say the exact opposite.

        I appreciate that you took the time to write back, and I hope you understand where I am coming from.

  2. Sam Anderson

    Really enjoyed hearing the female perspective and learning so many aspects from it. Like I never would’ve thought about pretty girls feeling more comfortable playing dumb, the callous things other girls say to each other, etc.

    Also, the “picky” boys insight is so true. I’ve been guilty of this myself.

    I do remember at some point how odd it was to only comment to little girls about being pretty and my smartass quickly adjusted. I remember saying to my little cousin, “well you’re gonna have to be stronger than that. Show me your biceps.” And then tell her she better become smart, too.

    Great post. Kinda disappointed I don’t have anything to disagree about.

  3. learninglifewellness

    Thank you. I’ve been juggling with what personal worth means as a woman in a western society. I’m currently working everyday to recover from an eating disorder. Your discription of how the value of beauty became ingrained in your being at such a young age is what has happened to me. The truth is pretty women get treated better and forgive me for wanting to be treated well. I completly agree with your point about the whole pretty girl superiority complex that some females carry around to uphold their own self esteem, however this only gives temporary feelings of worth which fall prey to your conscience afterward and your spirit becomes bitter. My ed gave me perspective on this false feeling of worth and I’m all the better for it because I’ve learned what true confidence and compassion means. Unfortunetly comforming to the beauty standard becomes a cage. Something that feels nearly impossible to escape because by conforming there are certain benefits that are gained which are reinforced everywhere you go. Perhaps aging will be the key to unlock the beauty out of her cage and be free from her own spectacle.

  4. brooke

    Oh my gosh, the “Don’t flatter yourself. I’m out of your league with or without the makeup” is amazing. I doubt I have to tell you how sick I am of the “men don’t like…” or “men will like you more if…” mentality, so girls being upfront like that is my favorite. Once I remember getting a comment from a guy about my appearance when I was /on a date with my girlfriend/ and I could barely even say something back I was so overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of the situation. It will never cease to amaze me how men think that we want their opinion.
    But also!! I really relate to that: trying to be nice to other girls to get them to be nicer to you. I’ve definitely had to deal w/some cruel girls and it’s difficult to find ground between trying to stick up for yourself and trying to make them feel more secure. But honestly it’s mainly just made me super defensive of women in general. Like I hate that attitude, that women should be compared and pitted against each other so I’m always trying to spread the “we’re sisters and both equally worthwhile” attitude. It’s nice to hear that someone else has had that struggle too.
    This was all really well written! Thanks for sharing your point of view 🙂

  5. Shirley Colee

    Good post and responses. My favorite reply to unsolicited scorn or praise about appearance is: “What makes you think I’m interested in what you think about how I look?” This can be said with spunky assertion, or just with a straightforward curiosity, depending on the circumstance. Another good one, which can be delivered sarcastically is “Thanks for sharing.”
    It concerns me if women are spending much time making up or doing beauty treatments. If they enjoy it and it’s a creative or self care expression, have at it. But if they are hurting themselves or damaging their health in any way pursuing some often phony, peculiar, or trendy ideal of beauty, I am bothered. Think stiletto heels, breast implants and hair extensions. I went for coffee recently with middle-aged friends. Two of us are flat shoe wearers, ballet flat, loafers, athletic shoes, that sort of thing, except for special occasions, and then probably 2″ heels. Two of us are higher high heels, high heeled boots and high wedges wearers at all times. The latter two admitted they have ruined their feet and calf muscles, in the sense that they can no longer walk comfortably, or hardly at all, barefoot or wear sneakers, etc. Yes, they appear taller than they actually are by 4 or 5 inches – very impressive. Their legs look long. Sexy? But the other two of us can run, jump, and play. We can run down the beach and play tennis. We can run from an attacker. Our feet and legs don’t hurt. Another ‘beauty’ and ‘sexiness’ enhancer, breast augmentation, is now being implicated in autoimmune disease, besides being very uncomfortable, limiting sensation, you have to sleep on your back, and so on. Ultra thinness leading to eating disorders is literally deadly – it’s the most deadly of the behavioral health diagnoses.
    I personally think authenticity is the sexiest quality, and attracts the best people to us, both men and women. Much of the beauty culture is based on emulation of something we’re not, it’s phony. Bigger breasts are meant to emulate the lactating breasts of young mothers. Red lipstick attempts to mimic engorgement during sex. High heels mimic youth by lengthening the legs like coltish young pre-teen girls. Extra thick hair and long eyelashes mimic children.
    I totally get where the author is coming from, having grown up in our culture and in a household with a beauty contest winner mother, two older brothers, and a father who asked ‘have you gained weight? You don’t want to get fat,” when I was thirteen, 5’3″ and 105 pounds. A mistake for him. I gave him a funny look, looked his torso up and down, and said “But, dad, you’re the one that’s overweight!” (He was a little.) From adolescence onward I was often ‘fortunate’ enough to be called “the prettiest girl in the school”, “the prettiest girl in the sorority”, “the prettiest mom,.” etc. Big yawn. Always feels a bit dehumanizing. “Does that horse have good teeth?” When I brought home my best friend from college and my mother said (with shock) “But _______ (her name) is not pretty! She’s homely!” I said, “Mother, what IS wrong with YOU?” Last time she did that. Live, laugh, love, jump, run, play. Be real.

  6. Phil

    Reading this was a real education and insight into the pysche. Excellently written. Intriguing beyond anything I’ve read in some time.


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