The Poison of Pretty
By Ana Chaves
This article is the first in Ana’s column which appears every other Thursday.
The first time I felt pretty was the summer after eighth grade as salty gray waters nipped at my heels and some girl with a blurry face asked me what it feels like to be pretty while her brother and his friend stared at me and whisper-asked if I had brought a bikini. I didn’t know how to respond. I had never considered myself pretty and there was something like longing in her eyes, something like hunger in theirs. “They just want to see you in it.” I nodded slowly, struck by this new kind of attention.
I have since learned to don pretty, smear on pretty, dab on pretty, draw on pretty, pull on pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty. “Thinner!” shrieks the poster; “perkier!” blare the tv speakers – smoother, tighter, plumper, longer! There are only so many people who can stand atop the two syllables standards of ‘pretty,’ but our culture couldn’t love any trait more.
One of my favorite spoken word poems is “Pretty” by Katie Makkai. In it, her future daughter asks her if she will ever be pretty; Makkai inhales, runs her tongue against the edge of her words, exhales:
“The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine will be contained in five letters. You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing, but you will never be merely ‘pretty!’”
Makkai’s truth strikes at the heart of a generation of girls reared on a Barbie empire, a generation of preteens accustomed to sneaking eyeliner to school, a generation of teenage girls whose parents signed them up for all plastic surgery has to offer, and a generation of young women that has turned to fingers, pills and willpower to bring them to lofty supposed ideals. Makkai speaks to every girl who has ever felt ashamed of not being catcalled, every man ashamed of the contours his body fills, and every person who has ever felt like a deviation from the norm. Makkai reminds us all that we are more than what meets the eye; we must be more than just what meets the eye.
I have a friend whose day is ruined if she must make it through without makeup, anxiously tugging at her own angles until the chance to fix her face comes. I have a friend who grabs her thighs – and grabs yours – and eyes others’, and can’t believe hers are so wide, so thick, so imposing (they’re really not). I have friends who exercise obsessively, friends fated for nose jobs, friends who hate their big boobs, friends who pluck their body hair with zealous dedication – and very few who’d concede that their bodies are good enough. Chances are, you do too. I have a friend who whittled her body from little to littler with the oldest recipe in the book – don’t eat; don’t eat; don’t eat. Coincidentally, a 1965 Barbie offered the same advice in her diet book accessory. And of course, Kate Moss promised us all that “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” The empowerment of the freedom to change one’s appearance at will has become crippling; never has ‘pretty’ been quite so ugly.
As the beast of beauty swells, pretty practices become increasingly dangerous, leaving us with people literally willing to die to achieve the perhaps impossible. Societal rebuttal to this pretty epidemic has been a sincere one – yet, misguided. Campaigns like Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ have widened the features recognized as beautiful, reassuring those previously excluded from beauty standards that they too, are beautiful. The curvy, the tall, the short, the pockmarked, the disabled, the dark-skinned, the pale-skinned, the curly-haired, the short-straight-haired, the-dresses-are-always-baggy-on-top-pear-shaped, the male-but-blessed-with-a-behind: one and all find a home in this inclusive view of beauty. The intent of such a movement is honorable; in offering everyone the chance to feel beautiful as they are, these campaigns imbue people with confidence in the space they fill. I can’t even imagine the power of a generation raised to believe that they are stunning. Yet, I don’t believe everyone is physically beautiful – I don’t think they need to be. There is something more than beauty out there, and I think Makkai says it best as she yells,
“This is not about me! This is about the self-mutilating circus we have painted ourselves clowns in. About women who will prowl thirty stores in six malls to find the right cocktail dress, but haven’t a clue where to find fulfillment or how to wear joy, wandering through life shackled to a shopping bag, beneath those two pretty syllables.”
With the ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, a young girl is taught that she is beautiful, but moreover, that it is important that she be beautiful. Her confidence must derive from her appearance. Beauty comes first, always. I fear for a generation fed such a superficial message. To reduce the worth of my and future generations to our aesthetic presentation is truly a disservice, as these campaigns fail to cultivate confidence in any aspects besides beauty, overpowering incredible talents and traits with the drive to fulfill some arbitrary standard. As a society, we hold some of our best minds captive behind this fruitless fight for ‘pretty.’ Creativity, intelligence, wit and other credits to our world melt away in the face of the opportunity to be beautiful – and it’s a shame. To create a generation of people pressed into the pursuit of ‘pretty,’ is to cheat a generation of the chance to realize their potential, reducing people to two dimensions. We cannot expect what we do not teach, and what we teach is dangerous. Never again should anyone be raised to believe that they are merely pretty, that the best thing they could possibly be is pretty – it is an excellent way to silence their voice. Instead, I hope for a generation that proudly exceeds expectations, pretty or not. There is more than beauty; there is more than beauty – and I hope we can find it soon.