Why “You’re So Pretty” Sucks: Being Mindful of Dangerous Beauty Standards
In the arena of beauty standards, a personal position is not available to me without admitting to things that are embarrassing; shameful; or even, in the case of “you’re so pretty,” a little vain. Knowing this, dear readers, please understand that I speak from my own experiences with as much honesty as possible, owning the fact that I am one person among many. In no way do I intend to speak for all women. I learned already (from my makeup survey which I will publish later on the blog), that there are MANY different perspectives on female beauty standards and many stories to tell.
Disclaimers aside, here is one.
I am lucky that my parents never reinforced beauty to me. My mother and father never told me that I was pretty. They did tell me I was talented, I was capable, I could work hard to reach my goals.
Throughout much of my young life, however, I felt awkward, underdeveloped, decidedly not pretty. I was made fun of for being “flat chested” all through junior high. I was also called “Miss Piggy” because my nose turns up at the end. I was always a little on the outside of the inner circle; I was just not cool.
This all changed for me, inexplicably, my freshman year. I “developed” and that was probably part of it. I honestly don’t know the rest. I did become aware, though, because it was expressed to me on multiple occasions that I had made “the list.” I was among the girls considered to be attractive, a high demand commodity in high school.
This felt very uncomfortable to me right from the start. Why did people feel differently about me so suddenly? I hadn’t changed at all. But of course, the pressures of high school considered, I was changing- and more than I realized at the time. It felt good to be valued, even when I knew the value was false. I was also probably tired of feeling like an outcast, and while on some superficial level this seemed to solve the problem, on a deeper level I never felt like I fit in during these years.
My improved status to one of the “hot girls” was only uncomfortable and awkward at first. It wasn’t until my sophomore year when it took a pretty ugly turn. As a former teenager and later high school English teacher, I want to premise this next phase of my life by stating how much I understand that our teenage choices don’t always reflect who we will become. This being said, I experienced some things that were very uncomfortable from boys at my school. I remember being at a football game and having a boy scoop me up in the air behind the bleachers in what began as a hug. It ended with other boys sticking their heads between my legs in obscene gestures. I also remember a very popular boy bringing a CD for me to borrow to French class where I sat behind him. He turned around to hand it to me, but instead stuck it in the front of his pants and told me I would have to “come and get it.” A couple of anecdotes that stand out among many, these circumstances changed the way I viewed myself. I became very unhealthy emotionally and physically.
By the middle of my sophomore year, administration suggested I be pulled out of school to be “homeschooled” so that the boys could be “dealt with” without me being subjected to any social repurcussions. What ended up happening was that I got minimal assignments sent home and no tutors. Previously on the honor roll, I almost failed the quarter until my parents protested. The boys received two after- school detentions (and not in a timely manner).
My parents fought for me in meetings that I have still never really asked them about, and meanwhile I continued on my ever quickening spiral into “What is wrong with me?” I saw a therapist, I started at a new school, I had eating problems, substance problems, and not much changed in my life with boys besides the fact that I stopped resisting and started making some bad decisions.
To summarize, I often found myself in compromised positions which were in some ways worse than the victim role I had played before (I never told the boys to stop harassing me). Now the stakes were higher. Physical contact was a given. It was a matter of when I decided to say no, emphatically, and how much they would pressure or bully to keep things going.
I was lucky because… Well, I just was. Without rhyme or reason, I was lucky. I was never raped in my teens or early twenties, although there were a few situations where something happened where consent was quite questionable. I was once pressured for hours to sleep with a guy (bullied, really) and made to feel like a failure when I finally agreed and then couldn’t do it. This is one of a couple of instances from high school that still fill me with anger and shame.
I have talked to many women about this time in my life, and my experience is not unique. Many friends have shared with me stories of not knowing how to stop something once it had started. Stories where they felt obligated and pressured to take next steps. I read the article “The Ugly Side of Being An Attractive and Available Heterosexual Woman” and connected to some of what the anonymous author described had happened to her in her life. (Note, if you click on this link, please know there is graphic material that could be offensive.) For example, I once had an ex-boyfriend drunkenly enter my apartment in the middle of the night, get in bed with me, and refuse to leave. Here is a quote from the article about “consensual sex” as a single woman:
“It’s the idea of consenting sex, the idea that women are going along with it and enjoying it just as much as the man, but really it provides an excuse for some men to get away with taking advantage of/degrading sexual women without being held responsible. It’s the idea that when a woman consents to sex, she’s consenting to it any which way, and being treated like a piece of meat is just part of the package she’s agreed to.”
I can relate. There were times in high school that I began to feel like I had one defining characteristic that mattered to men: my attractiveness. This characteristic came with the great “benefit” of being subject to sexual advances that were unwanted and uncomfortable. When physical contact became involved, it seemed all standards of appropriate and humane conduct disappeared. I was there for one reason only, and I needed to deliver.
All of this “stuff” caused a complex around intimacy and dating. I really did not date in my early twenties at all. To be honest, I had a real fear that guys would try to kiss me or have some other form of physical contact that was unwanted. The only time this contact felt okay to me was in clubs or bars. It was public. I didn’t ever have to see the person again. No really intimacy and no risk of having to go further than I wanted.
At some point, I began to rebel against the oppression and pain that sexualized beauty standards, and being a woman in general, had caused me. I think it began in high school when I would wear extra layers of clothes to school, and it continued through college where I experimented with short, funky hair styles that made me look less “girly” and clothes that made a statement- one that was not about my looks. The pinnacle of rebellion was at age nineteen, I shaved my head as a “humbling experience.” (After which I was promptly fired from my job as a hostess at Applebee’s when the manager told me “you are not working here with that hair.”)
When I met my husband Jamey a month before my twenty-first birthday, I had short hair that changed color frequently and wore funky clothes that were often purchased from a thrift shop. I had also just gotten out of a relationship where my boyfriend coerced me into not plucking my eyebrows and shamed me if I got a good haircut because he was worried I would be attractive to other men… So there’s that, too.
Once we got more serious, I began to feel that my spunky hippy-ish look didn’t really cohere with the young professional crowd. A recent college graduate, he had a coveted job for a consulting company where he traveled for work each week (so glamorous!). He was different from me in so many ways: a fairly straight and narrow type of guy, he had played varsity sports in high school, was the president of his fraternity in college, had been a member of the Young Republicans group on campus. On our first Valentine’s together, we stayed in a fancy hotel in downtown Pittsburg and had champagne in the restaurant downstairs.
A “fancy” restaurant before this point in my life was probably Red Lobster… And there was an unspoken rule that we were not supposed to order soda.
While he never said I word, I began to feel my wild-ish looks (and my wild-ish ways) just weren’t suitable for the relationship (and for being an adult in general). I slowly, subconsciously, strategically, began to fit to the mold of other wives, girlfriends, co-workers I saw in his world. I grew my hair out and got it highlighted, I plucked my eyebrows, I started to dress in a more stereotypically attractive way.
I had always been a chameleon of sorts; I just didn’t want to miss anything. I experimented with sub-cultures and experiences, and my style shifted accordingly. This was just another change, but it went on for much longer than the others. For many years in fact I honed my public persona as an “attractive, competent young professional”, a “stylish woman out for a cocktail with friends”, a “sophisticated wife going to the symphony with her husband.”
One day I looked around and I thought, “Who is this person? I am not even sure I know this her.” Of course, my epiphany was about far more than just my looks, but my physical appearance was a physical manifestation of what I had cultivated as my sense of “self.”
This really brings me to today. I am, of course, evolving as a person. I am deciding what still works for me and what doesn’t. And there are a few things I know for sure at this point.
One of them is that this system, the gender system, the beauty system, does a lot of damage to women like me. Even things that seem harmless are in fact not.
This brings me to “You’re so pretty” and its twin partner in crime “You’re so skinny.” What does it mean to say this to someone? Well, using Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset as a template, this type of statement seems to me to be the psychological equivalent to telling a kid “You’re so smart.” Basically, when you tell a kid he or she is smart, it then becomes a virtue that must be maintained. They are scared to lose the coveted status of “smart kid,” so they cling to the perception and avoid situations where they may be shown to be “not smart.” This means they miss opportunities to take risks, to learn new things, to grow.
The same can be said for calling someone pretty or skinny. It is a characteristic that can only be clung to and one over which the person has little control. At the same time, it will only fade over time. The combination is a recipe for self consciousness, low self esteem, and a lifetime of skewed priorities. For me personally, it has contributed to body image issues, an exaggerated fixation on my personal appearance, and a devaluing of my other positive qualities unrelated to my looks.
I want to make one thing clear: I called this a “seemingly harmless” act. Being called pretty is very minor in comparison to being coerced into unwanted sexual activities or being made to feel like you are not valuable enough to be treated as a human being. Those things are WAY bigger and DEFINITELY need to be called what they are: acts of violence against women in a world that sometimes devalues female humanity (especially when it comes to sex). AND I think that beauty standards, and particularly the sexualizing of attractive women, somewhat contributes to some men’s insidious desires to have what they want.
I am not excusing this behavior from men, and I am not blaming anyone (men or women) who use this language for the acts of violence I and other women have faced. What I am saying is that this language unconsiously contributes to a culture of “pretty” that has serious consequences.
Also, I want to make it clear that I know I am not describing all men. My husband, for example, is a kind, warm, loving and respecting human being. He has never pressured me to look a certain way, and when he tells me I am “beautiful” I know he means as more than as a sexual being. I have never once felt taken advantage of by him. As a matter of fact, he did not try to have sex with me until long after we began dating. I felt safe and respected by him always.
So what does this, my story and perspective, have to do with mindfulness? So much. Mindfulness is about awareness of reality. This awareness includes seeing through the facades of societal values and determining meaning for one’s self. Mindfulness isn’t an escape. On the contrary, it is a digging more deeply into truth.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the intersections between action and contemplation; they are by no means mutually exclusive. In fact, as one engages in the contemplative process of seeking deeper understanding, he or she will likely feel more compelled to engage with the world (a topic to be explored further later).
In this context, this post is a call to action.
Might it be a worthy point of civil discussion to question how we unconsciously support repressive beauty standards through the language we use with one another? Might we mindfully engage in communication and dialogue that is life-giving instead of supporting the status quo? Might we share our stories of discomfort, abuse or injustice without shame?
Thoughts on this post? Please respond in the comments or feel free to send me a message via the contact page.