The Pretty Trap

“I’m pretty.”

Are these words you have ever said? Not immediately followed by a “but,” not tempered with a list of all the reasons you don’t really think it’s true, and not through clenched teeth to satisfy a friend’s attempt to make you feel empowered? They were difficult for me just to type, and even now I see them all alone up there and have to fight the urge to delete them or add something to explain why I would feel the need to say them, that I’m not some Regina George trying to prove I’m better than anyone else.

Apparently this is pretty normal. Today I came across this article that explores how rare it is for women to simply admit they are pretty, and instead arm themselves with a laundry list of their flaws at the ready. Jezebel listed 10 reasons we won’t say “I’m pretty,” and I know I am guilty of most of them. Body insecurity has been on my mind recently, but this article reminded me the issue’s just as complicated on the flip side. It has become so normal and even expected that women believe such crazy and screwed up things about themselves that to suggest you have maybe overcome that particular struggle is somehow immodest or vain.

What’s weirder: the thing we are so reluctant to say about ourselves is the thing we so desperately want other people to believe, and spend so much time and energy and even money to convince them of. They are magic words. I distinctly remember the times people have said them to me, without being asked or as a way to shut me up after I have asserted the opposite, but simply because they felt so led in the moment, and I go back to them incredibly often.

It’s not like I don’t believe it deep down. I think really we all do. When I look in the mirror that one last time before going out, I feel it. Yes, this is it, I think. This is me, the me that makes me feel most confident. Pretty, even.

But pretty is not prettiest. And somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that’s what matters. It reminds me of something Hannah says in Girls:

We’re afraid if we suggest we might be confident about what we look like people will see through it and confirm our worst suspicions about ourselves. It carries with it the suggestion of a privileged few, a club that is not open for admission, one we have to be invited into. I suspect this can be traced back to our middle school selves jockeying for position, carving an identity in relation to others who are all too willing to remind us where we stand. The author weighs the risk of describing herself as pretty:

I’m almost inviting people to comment negatively, and honestly, I’m not confident enough about the way I look to do that. I don’t want to hear them tell me I’m wrong, I’m ugly. Why? Because beauty feels important, even when I’d like it not to, even when there are a million other, bigger, more pressing things in my life, beauty feels sensitive, because we know, let’s be honest, we know it matters.

Or we are afraid that by asserting our own prettiness, other women will feel there is less available for them. Which is crazy! Beauty is not a zero sum game. There is no reason to envy another woman’s confidence; in fact, it should empower us to embrace our own. We women are constantly competing for what we believe are limited resources–admiration, attention, love–when in reality there is more than enough of all those to go around if we would just love ourselves first. It’s what keeps us back, as best actress nominee Jessica Chastain pointed out when questioned about her alleged “feud” with fellow nominee Jennifer Lawrence:

Please don’t allow the media to perpetuate the myth that women aren’t supportive of each other. Every time an actress is celebrated for her great work, I cheer. For the more brilliant their performance, the more the audience demands stories about women. With support and encouragement, we help to inspire this industry to create opportunities for women. And as we all know: a great year for women in film, is just a great year for film.

Humility is a virtue, certainly, but it is not the opposite of self-worth. Why shouldn’t we say we’re pretty? There are too many voices trying to convince us of ways we could be better, should be better, and by refusing to silence them we’re giving them power they don’t deserve. Loving who you are doesn’t mean you love anyone else less. I don’t know what the answer is, except to let other women say it and celebrate them for their confidence. And say it yourself! You don’t have to go shouting it from the rooftops, but  the next time someone compliments you, accept it. No caveats, no protests. Thank them, embrace it, even own it. It won’t be easy, but bite your tongue. Eventually you might actually start to believe what the rest of the world already knows to be true!


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