In Defense of Pretty

I love this poem and its amazing author. I’ve watched this video more times than I can count, and it stirs me every single time. This poem challenges the pervasive notion that women must do everything in their power to look as pretty as possible. At all times and at any cost – be it financial, personal, or emotional. Which is, as you all know, utter bullshit.

Before my blog even existed, Erin wrote this amazing post, in which she points out that no woman alive “owes” the world any amount of beautification, but also points out that pretty CAN be a choice. She says (italics her original):

I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T be pretty if you want to. (You don’t owe UN-prettiness to feminism, in other words.) Pretty is pleasant, and fun, and satisfying, and makes people smile, often even at you. But in the hierarchy of importance, pretty stands several rungs down from happy, is way below healthy, and if done as a penance, or an obligation, can be so far away from independent that you may have to squint really hard to see it in the haze.

And I think that distinction is well worth making.

You get to make your own priorities in life, of course, but I highly recommend “happiness” and its buddies “serenity” and “joy” as some possible list-toppers. I know from personal experience that happiness can be extremely hard to come by, and dedicating energy to finding, creating, and nurturing your own little supply is absolutely vital. Never doubt that, above all, YOU deserve to be happy. You. Yes, love, I’m talking to you.

Making yourself look pretty should NEVER feel like cultural or personal obligation, a resentment-generating chore, or a priority that eclipses cultivating overall well-being. And while I encourage all people to consider how clothing contributes to presentation of self, the bottom line is that what you wear is your business, as is WHY you wear it, and no one can encroach on that no matter how hard they try. Not me, not Tim Gunn or Stacy London, not your mom, not a single living being.

But, depending on how you’re wired, feeling and looking pretty can help you connect your mental and emotional selves to your physical self. There are a million other ways to foster holistic self-love, and I know loads of women who prefer to enjoy and celebrate their bodies through exercise, yoga, or other non-adornment-focused activities. But I focus on pretty around here for very personal reasons:

I spent years and years and YEARS of my young life leading an emotionally and intellectually rich existence, but I felt hollow and miserable much of the time because I didn’t understand or accept my body. As I’ve mentioned, I dieted myself into oblivion and eventually embraced exercise in hopes of forcing my body into a more “appealing” shape. And it shifted this way and that, but mostly stayed the same and I mostly still hated it. Until I began exploring style. Playing with clothes allowed me to express myself, adorn my unchanged body, and feel strong and radiant and grounded in new and exciting ways. For the first time, I was proud of my physical self. I didn’t want to hide my body or distract from it, and I watched in wonder as it began to merge into my identity. I had spent decades feeling smart and talented, but no matter how many lovers I took or how many compliments I racked up, I hated my body. Until I found pretty, all by myself. And it turned the tide for me.

As Katie Makkai so eloquently sings to us, pretty is not enough. Pretty should never feel like the end goal, or the underlying motivator, or the meaning of female existence. I defend pretty because it transformed me. But although feeling pretty, standing tall and admiring my own physical form adorned and celebrated, helps me to love myself better and stronger, it is not enough. It alone does not define me. Pretty is personally vital, yet it is merely one color in the ever-expanding prism of my identity.

Originally posted 2011-01-06 06:15:06.

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42 Responses to “In Defense of Pretty”

  1. Sarah

    I love this Sal. It never fails to rile me, inspire me, shake me and remind me how important every single word I say to my niece is. Every single word!

    You rock Sal. You are pretty Intelligent, pretty Creative and pretty Amazing.

    Sarah xxx

  2. Mar

    Thank you for this post, Sally. I’ve been reflecting on what ‘pretty’ means to me lately. I too grew up hating my body, and wishing, like you I think said in one of your earlier posts on the topic, that I was a ‘brain in a jar’. Unlike the daughter in the poem, I didn’t get the message from my Mom that I need to be pretty – if anything, I grew up believing that spending time on fashion and style is not “worthy” of me. You know, I ought to keep working on my math problems and practice that piano rather than obsess about what I’ll wear the next day. So for years I lived with a wardrobe that could fit in one suitcase. It’s only in the recent year or two that I’ve finally fully acknowledged and come to terms with how much fun I have playing with style and fashion, and how happy it makes me to creatively put together outfits I like. I think the key in that acceptance to me is the de-emphasis of pretty that is conveyed both in the poem as well as in the quote from another blog you mention: while pretty should never be the motivator or end goal, not-pretty shouldn’t be a motivator either. There is nothing special about pretty, nothing exceptionally good, but also nothing exceptionally bad. It doesn’t detract anything from any of my other qualities, it is just one in the mix. But if it makes me feel good about myself and happy, then it’s a good thing for me.

  3. Rachel

    That is the first time I have watched this video…thank you so much for sharing. I found myself crying a little at the end, and I don’t cry often. I will probably share this video on my blog at some point. =)

  4. marzipan

    Oh Sal – YES. YES YES YES YES to this post. I just adore you. I struggled with embracing my body, feeling feminine, and looking “pretty” for so many years of my life – so firmly believing that fat was just not pretty and if I was fat I would be ugly, no matter what anyone said to the contrary. Learning to love myself has meant dressing up my fat. It has meant believing that I am beautiful – and worth feeling good about myself. It has meant perfect eyebrows and stylish clothing. I like to feel pretty, and it took me so long to get to this place.

  5. Jen

    Sal-Thank you, thank you, thank you one million times over for this post today! I wish to every star in the sky I could get this into the minds and souls of the adolescent girls I work with each day. It took me years before I embraced each curve, each freckle, even the chubby knees I was blessed with. Ever since I was pregnant with my son four years ago, I have felt so amazed with this body, and love what it can do. Now I’m working on how to style it (read: emerging from the coccoon of comfy pants, drab t-shirts, boring blouses) with a new wardrobe purchased one beautiful piece at a time. Thank you for being such an inspiration to me!

  6. Jodi

    Great post Sal!! I know there were several years I had it that feminine meant weak so I wanted to make sure I was always strong and fit and capable to prove that I was independant etc.. and I dressed in nothing but North Face and other outdoorsy clothes. I love wearing pink and heels and jewelry now.. and am still strong and fit and powerful… love the transformation!!

  7. Lynn

    Lovely post, Sal, thanks!!!

    It occurred to me whilst reading this post that I am actually happy:) Really and Truly, I am a work in progress like everyone else, but, honestly, I am happy, what a wonderful realization 🙂

  8. nestra

    For me the difference between a healthy pretty and an unhealthy one is who is defining it. ‘My’ pretty has much more to do with how I see myself when I am happy and feeling good than it has to do with my size or how well I fit into the social definition of pretty.

  9. tiny junco

    “But, depending on how you’re wired,…” and your conditioning, upbringing, personal/emotional/cultural history……as Sarah points out above, there are so many people living inside out heads! as she says, it’s important to think about how you want to live in other people’s heads, and whether everyone in your own head is helping you.

    important ideas. steph

  10. Anna Guest-Jelley

    Agreed! I’ve also watched this video several times over the past few months, and I always find it moving. I love how you talk here about finding our own unique routes to happiness and self-expression, whether or not they include pretty. And I’m with marzipan; as a fat woman, I spent years buying cheap, ugly clothes b/c I was just waiting until I could get back into “regular” clothes. It wasn’t until I woke up and realized that, hey, this is my body, so I might as well look nice that I could move into any form of body acceptance.

  11. Sarah

    A friend and family member wrote a post on my blog for me several months ago about his ideas as a fashion anarchist. I countered his post with my feelings about why clothing can be so uplifting. I thought of him the minute I read this because I know he is going to love hearing what you have said. I especially like the last line you wrote. Very beautiful, very inspiring. Thank you.

  12. lucie

    thank you for this post and linking to this video! i have never seen it before, and i LOVE it. i think i will watch it from time to time to remind myself that being pretty is not that important. i am in my early twenties and have grown up to be an attractive woman, and it is hard to handle after feeling and being awkward as a teenager. i think i take too much pride in being pretty and i want to change that, but i also know that this feeling of superiority will go away after some time, i just wish i could speed it up. thank you again so much.

  13. Barbara

    What wonderful words about happiness, self-worth, and the pursuit of “pretty.” I love Erin’s post, Katie’s poem, and you, Sal, for posting them.

    Erin’s words put style and attractiveness through clothing into a thoughtful and respectful point of view. I grew up in a family of academics and political activists for whom clothing was mostly a practical matter. My relationship with clothing continues to evolve. These words help me express some of what I feel. I’ll remember them.

    Redress Clothing

  14. Lucyna

    “I spent years and years and YEARS of my young life leading an emotionally and intellectually rich existence, but I felt hollow and miserable much of the time because I didn’t understand or accept my body.”

    I’m totally with you on that! I’ve never had a way to describe it until I saw that line you wrote, and it was like “BINGO”. It wasn’t until i hit age 30 (yes, THIRTY), that i came to understand, accept and learn to work with what I’ve got. And to embrace more of a ‘feminine’ look; not becuase I have to, but because it makes me feel good.

    How can we teach younger women, particularly adolescents, to embrace what we have? Being a teenager is so awkward and awful; how do we empower the young’uns?? I wish I had someone to empower me when i was that age…then again, would i have really listened?? As a mother of two very young girls, I’m petrified of the ups and downs they will have to go through as they mature.

    Great post Sal! Lots of food for thought here…

    • Sal

      Lucyna, I wish I knew. I feel like teaching girls about bodily diversity and self-love at a young age could completely transform their experience of growing into womanhood … but adolescence is such a difficult, delicate, confusing time. How do you convey those messages in an accessible, interesting, cool way so the girls take it to heart?

  15. Bubu

    Can’t watch the video until I get home, but loved the post and the comments. I agree there is a lot of pressure to be pretty in society at large, but in certain intellectual circles, an active discouraging and disapproval of those who care to focus on or enjoy fashion or style or looking pretty. I felt I had to hid these impulses for years in my family – what a joy now not to care, and know and believe I can be smart and worthwhile and full of gravitas while enjoying a drawer full of colorful tights! And now, instead of just admiring a woman of style when I see her on the street, I can be that woman myself, and smile when I pass my catching reflection in a street window.

  16. Anika

    So interesting and powerful! This really resonated with me. Thank you so much! <3 Anika
    ps, am following you!

  17. molly

    I’d like to add/echo that if you’re trying to build yourself up, don’t stop at “pretty isn’t as important as happy,” push on to think about where your definition of “pretty” comes from. What I think of as attractive is definitely influenced by my culture, and that’s okay as long as I’m not assuming that I or anyone else has to aim for that version of “pretty.” I often go for a conventional type of “pretty” (clothes that show my form, skirts, etc), but I don’t want to think of myself or someone else as “not pretty” because I or she is trying another look or dressing with different priorities.

    Even without an especially poor body image or history of eating issues, I find it’s easy to get trapped in negative, either/or thinking. I’m trying to question my assumptions to get myself out of that limited version of “pretty.”

  18. Nomi

    Wow, what a video.
    When I was little I asked my mother “Am I pretty?” and she kind of frowned and said “You’re above average.”
    I still wish I were a brain in a jar.

  19. Elly

    What a fantastic post and great video/link! Thank you.

    I find the comments about growing up or being surrounded by certain intellectual or political circles and the effect this has on personal fashion and style really interesting; as though you can be EITHER clever OR pretty, but not both (to echo your words Sal, utter bullshit). In fact, stuff like this is so interesting that at the moment I’m writing my MA essays and soon, my final thesis, on developing a critical philosophy of fashion that looks at problems like this one.

    • Shannon

      In fact, I think being seen as “smart” for me was equated with “ugly” as a teen. I too struggled with acne (still do – argh) and was actively told to my face by boys that I was incredibly unattractive. At the same time, most compliments involved my intelligence, so they become uncomfortably tangled up. Even now, if someone tells me I look “smart” – and not in the look “neat” sort of way – I wince, because I associate that with ugly.

  20. joann, sidewalk chic

    Sal, you rock for opining on this. You’re so right about the distinction between pretty feeling like a cultural obligation and pretty being about reaching a point of personal self love.

    I wish I hadn’t spent so many of my teenage years feeling so inadequate about myself, but having recently reached a point of some self-actualization in thinking that I am pretty and don’t care what other people think about my clothes or my life choices, I am kind of grateful for the journey.

  21. Catherine

    Thank you so much for this. Being 6′ 2″ and always feeling awkward and insecure about my body, I too have used style to overcome my insecurities. And luckily, I have also learned in recent years that happiness and health are way more important than pretty. I hope more and more people are realizing this and understand the importance of surrounding yourself with people who place happiness over beauty. Sometimes I start sinking back into the desire for ‘pretty’ but then I remember who I really am and feel grateful for the person I married who thinks I look great no matter what.

  22. Terri

    This is a very powerful video and one I will send to my youngest daughter. She contracted chicken pox the week she was to begin school in first grade. She went to school with a few healing pox on her face…mother not thinking at all about the possibility of taunting from brand new classmates. The messages don’t just come from mothers…

  23. unmitigated me

    Wow, that poetry choked me up. In my head, I’ve always ready your blog title as “Already Pretty….Let’s Work on Happy.” Because that’s what your work does for me!

  24. Lee

    Growing up, I’ve always felt like some awkward manly, tomboy/girl THING since I didn’t fit the definition of what was considered pretty. It was difficult to be openly compared to other prettier friends and family members by people I trusted. The struggle still exists within me sometimes when I forget about the good qualities that make me who I am and focus on WHY AM I NOT PRETTY?!

    So, I thank you for that video link. I’m seeking out my own brand of happy and will not let something so petty in my life affect my newfound inner joy. And it’s nice to know there are others who feel the same way.

  25. Anonymous

    this is the most amazing thing that I have ever seen. I LOVE it.

  26. Melinda

    I won’t lie…being pretty is VERY important to me. I’m a girly-girl. After being denied the chance to express my femininity for many years, I’m starting to revel in it again. I’m reclaiming what it means to feel pretty in my own way. I believe every woman can define beauty in her own way and claim it for herself.

    I feel pretty when I put on lotion after my shower. My skin feels soft and smooth with a divine scent…it’s a sensual treat to myself. 😉

    I feel pretty when my husband looks at me with love in his eyes.

    I feel pretty when I realize that I don’t need to pile on makeup to be pretty. I only need a bit of mascara and lip gloss to enhance my natural beauty.

    I feel pretty when I have sexy underwear on.

    I feel pretty when I drink water, eat healthy and delicious food, and use environmentally sound beauty products.

    I feel pretty when I wear turquoise jewelry or clothes in this shade of blue…makes me feel beautiful! 😉

    I feel pretty when I acknowledge the beauty of other women, both inside and out.

    I feel pretty when I look at women like Beyonce, Marilyn Monroe, and Kim Kardashian because their bodies are similar to mine…they don’t have to be extremely thin to be considered beautiful. I was once very thin and people made nasty comments. Now that I have more curves, I feel sexy despite what people say.

  27. Lisa

    As a young woman I fit the cultural stereotypes for pretty. Even from that perspective, because I didn’t understand my underlying value, pretty drained me dry. So. Pretty is a part, but only a part. We have to all know our value beyond pretty. Pretty aside.