Thursday, February 28, 2013

In Which I Am Not Pretty

This poem by Kate Makkai is making the rounds again, and it hits me so hard every time I hear it.

When I was younger, I wore "I am not a Pretty Girl" like armor.  I've never fit the measured social standard of 'pretty'.  I am too large, too curved, too strong, too loud, too smart.  My features are described as 'striking' or even 'majestic' and 'beautiful' but I never fit into the pretty pink size four prom dress, and so many of my high school colleagues tried to make sure I'd wear that failure for the rest of my life.

Every 'friend' who said, "It probably doesn't come in YOUR size," every young man who rejected me in favor of some tanned and slender, soft and smiling creature, the teacher who 'inspired' me with "It's OK.  You don't really need to worry about your looks, because girls like you are admired for what's inside," all served to remind me that there is a mold for 'girl' in this world and I grew out of it somewhere around the eighth grade as the Pretty Girls were just learning how to grow into it.  The Pretty Girls took that power and they made my life hell for years.  And I let them.

I wore my rejections as a reminder that 'women like me' didn't have to be desired to be valuable.  I told myself, for years, that I didn't need love if I could just be smart enough to figure out how.  I had crushes like the other girls, but I assumed their futility from the start.  I operated under the expectation that who I was, this too-tall and too-present body, the unafraid opinions and the aggressive pursuit of my own ideas, the fast-moving mind and the mouth trying to keep up, spelled a diminished mating fitness that everyone could see.

I spent years of my life believing I'm not (and never could be) the sort of woman men pursue; as much as I've always flirted and joked, I secretly believed anyone showing interest was settling.  When I look back at my 20's, I have to admit that while I dated some wonderful men, I also threw my time away on some real losers just because they showed an interest and I didn't think I really had the room to be picky.  Girls like me, I was made to believe, should learn to take what they can get and not complain.

In short, I lived Makkai's premise as a defiant embrace of failure, a deliberate rejection of my own pursuit of happiness.  Fuck 'pretty', I said, which was a good start, but then I took the fatal step of missing the point entirely, of becoming complicit in the exact thing 'fuck pretty' is supposed to reject.

I agreed to accept, somewhere along the way, that only pretty girls deserve to be loved, desired, happy, and fulfilled, and that by embracing my own lack of 'pretty' I was giving up any chance at all that.  I decided I would reject their stupid notion that women have to be pretty, but instead of taking that next step to "I deserve the chance to pursue what will bring me joy regardless of whether I grew into or out of the 'pretty girl' mold," I said, "I'll just get used to not having the nice things pretty girls get.  I'll content myself with more cerebral, more spiritual goals and maybe find love with someone who's willing to look past the outer me," never realizing that by doing so I was automatically devaluing myself, those goals, *and* anyone who might look twice at me.

Whether I meet that standard or not has nothing to do with whether I deserve to be loved, whether it's reasonable for me to want to be desired, whether it's shallow for me to want compliments, whether I build loving relationships or spend my life alone -- or move between paired and alone as life moves and changes.  If I choose 'deeper' pursuits, it's not settling for having a 'nice personality'.  If I seek partnered relationship, it's not a desperate chasing for something I'm not 'supposed' to have.

These days, pretty's not my enemy any more.  It's just another way for people to be.  Pretty is more than just 'easy on the eyes'.  Pretty is easy to know, easy to approach, easy to like and accept.  Pretty is more comfortable, more pleasant.  There's nothing wrong with being any of those things; pretty people are actually pretty nice to have around -- especially once we all got out of high school and 'pretty' stopped being a weapon in the wars girls fight to destroy each other.

But...I will still never be one of them.  I cannot fit the pretty mold and I won't kill myself trying.  I'll keep being too big and too loud and too 'striking' and I'll keep challenging assumptions about beauty and I'll keep on being just awkward and ferocious enough that 'pretty' falls off when you try to hang it on me.

There are any number of people who'll read this and want to reassure me that *they* think I'm pretty.  While I appreciate the sentiment, it's not necessary and I'd rather they not do it.  I've come to terms with it.  It's not a denial or a resentment, not a resigned acceptance of my 'never have' status.  Not pretty is a way to be, just like pretty is a way to be, and I've abandoned "Fuck Pretty" for "Hey, Pretty, did you know we're on the same side?  Let's go get a beer and hang out."


  1. Nailed it again, Badger. I was also one of the girls who was informed multiple times, on no uncertain terms, that I was not and would never be pretty. Besides being too large, too opinionated, too tall, I was also too black to ever be 'pretty'. Stories like "the Princess and the Pea" helped to affirm that. I was also one of the "Fuck Pretty" crowd and I kind of still am. I'm too bad ass to be pretty- it became something that I didn't hate, but had little value instead.
    I also grew up dating or sleeping with men who I assumed were settling. Thank you for writing it so clearly. Knowing that I was not the only one is at once helpful and sad, because no one should feel like that.
    Coming to Austin and meeting people who Actually, Genuinely thought I was beautiful was helpful. But I still have a hard time not falling back into that mindset of there are people who are pretty and I do not belong to that group. Thank you for being more than pretty and sharing your defiance of the norm.

  2. Beautiful! Thank you for writing this.