Having cake and eating it too

I’m not pretty. I’ve never been pretty. I used to wish I was, but I’ve accepted that I’m not and it’s okay. I’m happy with myself the way I am.

Last March FMH ran a guest post by a woman considering breast augmentation. The post was about her concern of living up to her feminist ideals and how this conflicted with feeling happy about her looks. The responses were fairly evenly divided between those who felt that she should go ahead with it, because ‘you only live once,’ so why spend your life dissatisfied with your looks? And those who felt that real satisfaction could only be obtained by learning to see her existing, authentic, beauty, and refusing to bolster false ideals of beauty by having surgery. Where I fall in this particular debate is beside the point.

What I found interesting about the conversation was that everyone seemed to agree that thinking oneself to be ugly was a completely unsatisfactory state of affairs. The only acceptable courses of action are to train herself to believe that she *is* already pretty, or change herself to match what she already thinks to be pretty. Accepting the fact that she doesn’t particularly like how she looks while learning to be happy with herself anyways seems implausible, unthinkable even.

We are willing to accept and ignore all sorts of shortcomings in ourselves:

I’m not athletic. I’ve never been particularly good at sports. It used to be that I wished I was athletic, but I’m realizing that it’s okay. I’m happy with myself the way I am.

I’m not musical. I’ve never been able to carry a tune. I used to dream of singing a solo, but I’ll be alright if that never happens. I’m happy with myself the way I am.

I’m not artistic. Even my handwriting has always been awful. I envied my friends who could draw, but now I’m happy enough to hang other people’s art on my walls. I’m happy with myself the way I am.

Except if a woman inserts “pretty” into that format:

I’m not ________________. I’ve never been _____________. I used to wish I was ________________, but I’ve accepted that I’m not and it’s okay. I’m happy with myself the way I am.

Suddenly it seems as if everyone will fall all over themselves to either correct her, (“but you are pretty!”) or help her out of her sorry state. This pattern reinforces one idea that is still more true than it should be: a woman’s most important trait is her looks. I think a true post-feminist world will be one where a women can be as comfortable with the fact that she isn’t pretty as she might be admitting that she can’t spell, or dance, or swim, etc. It will be a world where a woman’s looks are truly incidental.

Whether or not I actually think I’m pretty is beside the point. My point is that the overwhelming discomfort you (probably) felt while reading the opening sentence, and the powerful urge to disagree with that statement reflects a big problem. I don’t think we can convince people that their looks don’t really matter much until we stop bending over backwards trying to convince them that they really are (or can be!) beautiful.


Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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32 Responses

  1. Stella says:

    I’m just applauding. And thinking.

  2. jks says:

    I agree. Recently I spoke to someone who was concerned about her looks and she planned to see some people she hadn’t seen in a long time. I told her that once she was with people who care about her they will just see her for herself, it is the person you like not the looks. I tried to get the idea across that after the first 5 seconds, who even cares?
    Later, I worried that I should have instead complimented her looks (I probably spent time just yesterday agonizing a little). That’s the standard female friend make you feel better thing, right? But she’s got personality and charisma that are far more important than her looks (I won’t say whether she is Hollywood attractive or not because either way I think it doesn’t matter).
    She seemed at the time to take it how I meant it. I hope she knows that I rarely compliment anyone on their looks so she perhaps knew what she was getting when bringing up the subject.

  3. Lora says:

    No discomfort here, just resounding applause. I have this conversation with friends and family members fairly often, with dissatisfying results every time. Once I wrote a post about the phenomenon, stating that I don’t mind not being pretty because I’m intelligent and creative, but I do mind that being okay with not being pretty means I apparently have low self-esteem and every single comment was people rushing to reassure me that I am, in fact, pretty. Just. Argh.

    • Starfoxy says:

      It can be rather maddening. I suspect part of the problem is the fact that often women do say “I’m ugly” as a way to start conversation, bond with friends, communicate humility, or fish for compliments. And in all of those scenarios the accepted and expected response is “but you ARE pretty.”

      Refusing to give that response is hard (as JKS points out), you feel like you’re doing something wrong. But it is also kind of risky, in that some one might take offense at your incorrect or unexpected response.

  4. Laughing, because the minute I read your first paragraph, I wanted to FB message you and protest that you ARE pretty! So the rest of the post really made me think. Great points, and I’m going to be more conscious of this from now on!

  5. spunky says:

    Never met you in person, so I know nothing of your looks. But your writing is BEAUTIFUL! Excellent points, excellent post. Thank you.

  6. MJK says:

    My only worry in the fact that I don’t think I’m pretty is that if I have a daughter, she is (going by family history) probably going to look exactly like me and I don’t want that to affect my raising of her to be strong and self-confident.

    • Starfoxy says:

      That is a really reasonable concern, especially given the fact that we don’t live in a post-feminist society at all.
      Something to consider might be if you would have the same concerns about a son? Perhaps you might worry about him romantically, but it’s very unlikely that you’d worry about him feeling unable to make friends, or be a successful, self-supporting adult.

      • MJK says:

        I have a son, actually. He does look like me to some extent, but I find him beautiful. I have issues with my mom and I worry about the whole daughter thing. I’m kind of going with, “If Heavenly Father wants to give me a daughter to raise I’ll do my best, and if he wants to give me all sons that’s ok too.”

        I’d have to show you a photo album of the men vs women in my family or for you to understand but if you look at photos of myself, mother, grandmother great great grandmother at the same ages, we look almost identical. it doesn’t seem to hold true for the men in the family. *shrug*

  7. Maureen says:

    Awesome! Your first paragraph didn’t really phase me, one way or another. I just took you at your words as the truth of you. If I had heard this in person and found some part of your physical appearance personally appealing, I probably would have pointed that out without thinking. But I love the logic and thought processes of the rest of your post. Just awesome!

    While I recognize people have relative preferences concerning appearances, (some are attracted to blonds, the tall, or those who wear makeup) I believe in the objective reality of beauty. Perhaps it has something to do with symmetry, healthy complimentary coloring, harmony. I don’t know for sure. But I think that if we didn’t have something in opposition to beauty then we wouldn’t really understand it for what it is or appreciate it. I think it is a blessing that there is ugliness and the not quite beautiful in the world. I think in some respects of physical appearance I am definitely lacking in the attribute of beauty, but I am okay with that. I can love beauty and the beautiful, and still love myself. 😀

  8. Diane says:

    I have one rule.

    If people don’t like the way I look, then don’t. I’m not even going to try living up to someone else idea of perfection. (i.e) i’m never going to be a size 6, or have the perfect teeth, the perfect hair. I’m just going to be the best me that I know how to be and that’s good enough for me.

    And now just because I want to add a little humor, When I was younger I was teased something awful by a school age bully. This boy use to say to me,” You are so ugly you need plastic surgery,” I’m not making this up, I’m not that clever, So my response to him was,” I’ve already had it,” well there was dead silence, because he didn’t know what to say.

  9. SilverRain says:

    Actually, my first reaction to your first sentence was relief. I’ve come to the same place, and it’s nice to know I’m not completely odd.

    Or, if I am, that I’m in VERY good company.

    The one I’m having the hardest time accepting is my personality, though. I’m like an ox in a social china shop, and I hate it.

  10. I think a big part of the problem is that women are trained to give a lot of compliments as a way of showing approval, and since there is so much focus on the physical appearance, that’s what shows up the most. Plus, there’s the ridiculous cultural thing where a compliment isn’t sincere until it’s been defended a couple of times.

    “You look so great in that dress.”
    “No, really! It brings out your eyes.”
    “I don’t know . . .”

    It’s like we’re digging and digging, trying to get the “thanks” that should have come at the very start. Just an observance.

    • CatherineWO says:

      Oh, this is so true, this digging for compliments. I’ve been so guilty of it myself. Maybe the best response to a compliment on our looks is a simple “thank you” and then move on?

      • I remember having a whole YW lesson about just saying “thank you.” I think that’s the best way to go, even if you don’t believe what they’re saying.

  11. LovelyLauren says:

    I’ve always felt sort of ambivalent about how I look. I love fashion, so I was far more into my clothes than my face. I wrote a post on my own blog about how all of the “love you body” rhetoric just doesn’t resonate with me. Those kinds of campaigns just made me wish that some women would decide that there were other qualities that they loved about themselves. Somehow, I don’t see a “you are witty” or “you are creative” campaign coming into fruition.

    I’ve mentioned this before, but I was a competitive gymnast for years. I always considered my body in terms of what it could do instead of how I look. I know that this experience wouldn’t work for everyone, but I wish more women had the same experience of valuing their body for a reason other than it’s cosmetic appearance.

  12. alex w. says:

    This gives me a lot to think about. I think, like many women, that I have a complicated relationship to my appearance. On the one hand, I want to look nice, and there are things that I struggle with, but on the other hand, I don’t care enough to conform to a lot of social ideals. And, of course, I have a few things in the middle. I generally have to ask myself why I like to do what I do (paint my nails, color my hair) and why I don’t do others (makeup 80% of the time, wearing something nicer than a t-shirt and jeans most days), determine how I feel about all that, to see if I’m conforming or whatever that doesn’t make me happy, and get on with life.

    I can’t say I’m in a place where looks don’t matter, but I’m not terribly concerned about it, either (usually).

  13. Whoa-man says:

    Brillian. Brilliant. Brilliant.

    My initial response was to say, “No. I’ve met you. You are pretty.” and then I realized, who cares? and why do I feel that need to make everyone feel that way and why do I feel that impulse to be pretty in my self? Such a brilliant post! It reminds me of this article and how we are socialized to seek after looks from very very young ages and what we can do to stop it. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html?ref=fb&src=sp

  14. mraynes says:

    This is a great post, Starfoxy! As I’ve considered my own need to feel pretty, be skinny, have the picture perfect home or family, etc., I’ve wondered if maybe it is a symptom of feeling like this is the only area I have control over. So perhaps some women’s need to be pretty is a way for them to assert some power over their lives. And when others step in to reassure a woman of her physical attractiveness it is to remind her of that power. Of course this is a poor substitute for the real thing but I doubt we will see the phenomenon you describe disappear until women have more access to real, substantive power.

    • Emmaline says:

      I REALLY like this idea. Spot on.

      And the original post made me think about how many times I’ve told my little girl “You look so pretty today!” without thinking about it. :-/

  15. chanson says:

    Excellent observation!

    At first I thought I’d have no problem agreeing with your form with the “pretty” in all the blanks. Then I imagined a female friend saying that to me, and I would have a hard time because — even though I agree with the sentiment in theory — it’s hard to imagine agreeing with a woman as she’s saying she’s not pretty.

    To be fair, though, I think it would be worse if a female friend said that formula, filling it instead with “smart” or “intelligent.” I can’t even imagine just agreeing, even if it were true.

  16. April says:

    Love the post. I’m just smiling. And biting my tongue to keep from saying something reassuring.

  17. E says:

    Starfoxy, you never fail to post such thought-provoking and intelligent ideas! Thanks again.

  18. charlene says:

    Hm. I think part of why I think prettiness is different from athletic ability or musical ability is that I find “prettiness” to be highly subjective. I once stymied my sister when I described a college friend as “quite pretty.” My sister responded, “She’s not pretty at all… your other friend, though, is gorgeous!” I said, “She is?”

    I would be fine with filling in your blanks with “classically beautiful,” or “pretty in the accepted way,” though. Because there does seem to be an objective societal standard of prettiness (the one my sister knows about), even if I personally don’t know what it is 🙂

    Similarly, I’ve learned that “smart” (which was the thing I always stressed out about, much more than whether I was pretty or not… I suppose that is a triumph, of sorts, of a quasi-feminist upbringing) is rather more subjective than I believed it was in college. At that time I figured it was highly quantifiable, based on how well you solved math problems. Now, I’m starting to realize that there are lots of ways to be smart that don’t rely on one’s math problems… I know people who don’t know any math at all, and yet they continually amaze me by how intelligent they are about people. And so on.

    • charlene says:

      (That is to say, I would have similar problems with filling in “smart” in those blanks as I would filling in “pretty.” So I don’t know that it’s just non-feministic tendencies that drive my reaction. That’s what I meant to say in the above comment, but didn’t quite get there… brain not quite firing today!)

    • Kmillecam says:

      I was just going to point out this very idea! Thank you for bringing it up.

      I think it’s definitely something I need to work on to allow individual’s their opinions, just on the level of respect and my genuine “hearing them”. I also agree with you that being pretty is subjective, similar to being smart. It depends on what kind of pretty and what kind of smart you’re talking about.

  19. Rebecca says:

    I was just talking about the visible signs of aging with my mom. I think this is one reason it’s so hard for many of us to accept the wrinkles, and all the changes in our appearance that comes with getting older. Women are supposed to be soft, and pretty. It’s sad to think that so much of our self-image is tied up in our looks. If we are lucky to have a long life, we will surely see our face change, in ways that society does not value. I hope to be able to take these things in stride, but I know if won’t be easy.
    Great post! And you are a beautiful (and often very funny) writer.

  20. Kristine says:

    The poetic version of the OP:

    Love is not blind–Edna St. Vincent Millay

    Love is not blind. I see with single eye
    Your ugliness and other women’s grace.
    I know the imperfection of your face,
    The eyes too wide apart, the brow too high
    For beauty. Learned from earliest youth am I
    In loveliness, and cannot so erase
    Its letters from my mind, that I may trace
    You faultless, I must love until I die.
    More subtle is the sovereignty of love:
    So am I caught that when I say, “Not fair,”
    ‘Tis but as if I said, “Not here—not there
    Not risen—not writing letters.” Well I know
    What is this beauty men are babbling of;
    I wonder only why they prize it so.

  21. Starfoxy, I’m sure I’ll be thinking about your post for some time. Right now, though, I’m having thoughts along the line of charlene, that “prettiness” is too subjective for this kind of conclusion.

    I know that I’d rather that my daughters view themselves as beautiful-in-their-own-way than that they aren’t beautiful. I’m certainly not “pretty” in a supermodel or head-turning way – and I’m definitely okay with that. But I do have – in my opinion – beautiful hazel eyes. I love wearing colors that bring out my eyes, and I enjoy being complimented about that.

    I think the post-feminist world I’m hoping for would see everyone as beautiful – perhaps in much the same way that it’s become more widely acknowledged that there are multiple intelligences, or maybe even the sort of way that young children believe they are artists or dancers or musicians until someone tells them that aren’t.

  22. Mike H. says:

    The one I’m having the hardest time accepting is my personality, though. I’m like an ox in a social china shop, and I hate it.

    So am I. I used to have girls in High School tell me I was ugly.

    One Messianic scripture that gives me hope about my lack of “beauty” to other being critical:

    Isiah 53:2 “…he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.”

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