My eleven year old son suggested I write about the word pretty. I asked him why, and he said “Because my mommy is pretty.” Immediately, I panicked and knew I could not write about that word.
That’s how I knew I had to write about it.
As an adjective (according to Google search), pretty means “attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful or handsome.” As a noun, it means “an attractive thing, typically a pleasing but unnecessary accessory.”
These definitions embody all the things wrong with the way we use the word pretty in our culture, especially for women. We want women to be pretty, but in a delicate way, without being overpowering. Women who are pretty are pleasing, but really unnecessary.
As a woman, I have learned that pretty is what we should all strive for. At the same time, being pretty is something we should never admit to and never strive for in public. We are supposed to be effortlessly pretty, and yet it is considered egotistical to ever say that we are.
As a mother, I have learned that I should be pretty for my partner, but never make an effort to be pretty because that means I care more about myself than my child.
As a wife to a man who is athletic and good looking, I know I am supposed to be conventionally pretty (thin, tall, and blonde) in order to “match” him. But I am neither thin, nor tall, nor blonde. Thus, I should always make sure that people understand that I know my place. I should never accept compliments, and I should always tear myself down just a little bit to indicate that I know I am worth less than my husband.
As a professional woman, I have learned that I need to be pretty, but not too pretty. I especially cannot be pretty and powerful, because that is way too threatening to men and other women. The disgust with which other women talk about pretty women in power is palpable.
As a plus-sized woman, I have learned that I cannot be pretty. It’s not possible. To ever say that I am pretty is just me being deluded. Being a fat person who thinks I am pretty is the best way to get ridiculed.
As a woman over 25 years of age, I have learned that with each passing year, I will lose any prettiness I ever may have had. Older woman can’t be pretty. If I want to maintain any sort of prettiness, I need to dye my hair and Botox my face.
For all these reasons, and more, I became very uncomfortable when my son said I was pretty. Instantly, I thought of the many reasons that it was imperative that I tell him that I am not, lest he think I am conceited and trying to climb out of my proper place at the low end of the social pool.
But I didn’t. I just accepted the compliment.
I still have no idea what pretty really means. All I know is that it is a word that holds a lot of weight for many of us. I have a friend who is conventionally pretty and holds a position of power. People judge her and insist she needs to play down her prettiness. People with physical disabilities are often assumed to not be pretty. If they are conventionally pretty, everyone is shocked by that. Apparently, we are not allowed to say that men are pretty, unless we want to insult them. The way we use the word pretty to disguise oppression of people of color is simply unjust.
Many words trigger thoughts about ourselves and our bodies because our culture has taught us some very messed up things about ourselves. Any time that happens, it is a good idea to go deeper and think about all of the things these words mean to us and why. Then we can decide whether the word resonates with us, how we define the word, and how we want to use the word.
My son gave me a compliment. It was a nice thing for him to do. I could have completely ruined that moment if I had let other people’s ideas of what pretty should mean take over.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a light-skinned person with blond hair applying lipstick to pursed lips. The image appears in profile against a red background.]