How much does “pretty” matter?

By Caitlin Kelly

Cover of "Pretty Is"
Cover of Pretty Is

Loved this blog post, from dressaday, by brilliant Bay area writer and dictionary editor Erin McKean, about why women don’t have to be pretty — unless they choose to:

You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness toanyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.

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 this essay from The Wall Street Journal by an Iranian writer, Marjan Kamali, about returning to her homeland, where every woman she meets urges her to pretty up:

The first thing we noticed as we strolled to a fancy shopping mall were the couples. Young women in bright tunics and scarves that slipped back to show their hair walked with guys in jeans and tight T-shirts. The women’s eyes were accentuated with eyeliner and shadow…Their nails were red and green and hot pink.

“I didn’t know they were allowed boyfriends here,” my daughter said. “I didn’t think they could do lipstick.”…

Later that evening, over a feast of jeweled rice and walnut and pomegranate stew at my aunt’s home, we caught up on family and politics. Suddenly my aunt said: “I can take you if you want.”

“Take me where?” I asked.

“To our best beauty salon.”

“I didn’t come here for a beauty salon.”

“As you wish,” she sniffed. “But what is this look that’s no look that you have?”

At another relative’s house, it was the housekeeper who pulled me aside. “Madam,” she whispered. “Those eyebrows. Please. You’re a mother of two. You need to be tweezed.”

My naked face stood out among a sea of lipsticked and glamorous Tehranis glowing under their hijabs. The surprise bordering on concern at my un-made-up ways was everywhere. “Why don’t you wear more makeup?” asked women whose cheeks were caked with foundation. “What do you have against lipstick?”

In Tehran, it turned out, the standards for fashion and appearance were extremely high. Women dieted and went to Pilates and yoga. Though by law they had to cover up outside their homes, many women rebelled, especially the young. They let their head scarves slip as far back as they could and wore tunics that, while not revealing any skin, were vivid and tight. And they obsessed about their faces, moisturizing and plucking and exfoliating.

And this, from Danish blog Rebelle Society, one I recently discovered:

Brace yourself, beautiful.

We’ve now entered the PhotoShop era, where a fanciful fiction of fairness leads to a fall down the rabbit hole of deception and discontent, all designed by an ad executive who will tell the world what your ass should look like in those $300.00 jeans.

It’s a dizzying effect of distortion and contortion of beautiful form without adding real function and it’s pretty damn ugly.

I’m also re-reading DV, one of my favorite books, by the late, legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, a famous jolie laide, whose style was defiantly and gloriously and confidently eccentric.

Women use their disapproval of one another’s appearance as a channel for aggression, according to this recent study. Facepalm.

While we’re heavily socialized not to appear mean, women can be sneakily vicious to those who fail to meet our standards of thin, stylish beauty.

Here’s Emily Graslie, who does videos of science from the Field Museum in Chicago, talking — with considerable and real frustration — about the haters who comment on her appearance, not her effing big brain and all the cool stuff she shares. Morons!

If you’ve got time to watch it, this new British documentary about six extraordinary women — ages 70s to 91, including an active choreographer and the oldest woman in the House of Lords — is lovely. Each is stylish in her own way, from the Baroness visiting her hair salon of 30 years to the defiantly confident Bridget, who visits Vogue to see if they’d like to hire her as a model.

They each have terrific elan and confidence, and none is Botoxed or rolling in bags of cash. The film is 47 minutes long, and worth every minute.

Pretty is as pretty does.




27 thoughts on “How much does “pretty” matter?

  1. I turned 50 this year, Caitlin, but at 45, I stopped colouring my hair to hide the gray. I just couldn’t be bothered any more. I am blessed with good genes (my mother looks like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada) so have a relatively unlined, youthful face; people see my sliver-streaked hair, and have trouble believing that I’m 50. HOWEVER. I have never considered myself pretty. I am smart, and confident, and bubbly, and fit, and attractive, and funny. And lots of other things. Pretty is not one of them. And I’m happy with that. I think it was Tracey Ullman who said something along the lines of: I never worried about losing my looks as I age, because I never had them to begin with. I’m from THAT school of thought 😉

    1. It’s interesting how deeply invested some women are in being pretty. I’ve been told that I am, but I tend to discount it and try to focus more on intelligence and other non-physical attributes, as you wisely do.

      Pretty can fade. The other stuff doesn’t.

      I still color my hair, though! 🙂

  2. I just spent 4 days with my 83-year-old dad and his 87-year-old wife (#4). She is a pretty woman, has always been and looks much younger than 87. After she grilled me about my weight, we had to stop on the way somewhere so she could get her B-12 shot at the fat clinic. I realized that her whole investment in herself was about her physical appearance; she married at 18 and was only widowed a short time before marrying my father. She has never had to develop any other part of her personality and as a result she hasn’t. I felt intensely sorry for her but very glad that I was blessed to have not been born pretty. I had to develop my brain and wit and all of my personality – my husband says I am beautiful and I have never wanted for the attentions of men (when I wanted them), but I know I am not “pretty.” Thank the goddess.

    1. Thanks for sharing this…My mother and late step-mother were both deeply invested in being considered beautiful. The word most often used to describe the latter was “chic” but she was not a kind or nurturing person, to me anyway, much of the time. So, yeah, she looked great. That didn’t do much for me, and I think made me reject that sort of vanity as a result. I’d rather be loved or respected.

      I agree that focusing all your energy on being outwardly appealing is not a great choice.

  3. Caitlin

    I really enjoyed that you took the time to gather multiple perspectives! I like that Erin McKean’s article points out you don’t have to be pretty but you don’t owe feminism being not pretty either. Sometimes I feel guilty for not spending more time getting all made up for work and then other times I feel guilty for thinking I have to be pretty to be good at my job. In reality I just don’t want to perfect my hair but I love wearing lipstick. I wonder if that counts as half pretty :). The world certainly seems to make being a confident woman quite the challenge some days.

    1. Thanks.

      There’s lots to think about in this subject…I, too, swing wildly between slobby at-home-ness and getting dolled up (which I enjoy) for work, like today and tomorrow when I am spending all day interviewing people at two major trade shows in NYC. I really enjoy dressing well, but am grateful it’s not a daily necessity.

  4. Inese Poga Art Gallery

    It sure is no obligation, and it’s silly to take care only of one side. However, looking good or looking terrible is our daily choice. I’m just that way and always have assumed that we all women and men, and kids, and grandparents need to somehow be put together, somehow take a good care about our only skin, and hair, and body, mind, spirit because it’s all connected.
    When I was about 12 years old, I saw a fashion magazine. It was in German, by that time, I had learned German fairly well (my native is Latvian). This was Aenne Burda’s magazine. There was a picture on one cover; family at breakfast: 2 nice kids, dad and mom. Mom looked stunning, she had light hair, very attractive eyes, she was wearing fitting colors. It said under the picture: we wish every woman experienced some time how beautiful she is. I’m 55 now, but I never forgot that picture and this saying, and I always repeated it by myself in moments when I knew I looked great just like she did.
    I was usually having too less money to buy expensive stuff, but I learned to sew when I was 13, so I was always looking well dressed without any big expenses. We didn’t go even to the grocery store without makeup in Latvia, not to mention wearing some pajama pants as I see here in Canada. I think looking good doesn’t mean to please anybody, it means to live up to your own standards. I was always taught: all parts of us, everything has to be perfected and great: character, our brain, body and style, face and posture, and all other sides. This also means not being lazy and neglecting some parts of us. People who respect others always try to show their best side to them, would that be kindness and welcoming approach or polished and attractive look. I feel sometimes sorry when I see on TV a very smart woman, but the way she looks is just taking away from what she says. Nobody has to be a knockout beauty if they have more important thing to devote their life to, but some elegance, some charm, some personal style is really what matters, because balance is the key to everything.

    1. Thanks for this.

      I agree that looking your best is not about spending a ton of money and it sends a very powerful signal of self-confidence when you do. I lived in a small town in New Hampshire for 18 months when I moved to the U.S. — and boy was I out of place in this respect! Women wore no make-up or perfume, wore baggy, boring clothes and had ZERO style — this after I had just lived for 2 years in Montreal, one of the world’s most stylish cities. Talk about culture shock! I hated the total lack of attention to style and beauty and quickly fled to NYC. Although, interestingly, women here don’t dress that well either. The wealthy do, and the creative crowd, but it’s no hotbed of great style. Many women here hide in their designer uniforms.

      When I see women clearly not giving a damn about their appearance, I wonder what message they’re wanting to send.

  5. Wonderful post. Can’t wait to watch that documentary, and I loved that Emily Graslie did a whole webisode on the bullshit she gets from something as unfocused on personal appearance as a youtube channel largely revolving around scientific taxidermy and natural science!

  6. Great post. I just wanted to mention I can relate to Laura’s and your comment back to her. I took had a Grandmother who only seemed interested in how I look. I was never into nails, I bit mine and the first think I always heard when I saw her (and mind you it wasn’t often, we lived across the country), how are your nails, still biting I see…tsk tsk…and of course, the assumption that from some older women seems to be if you are thin, you must be “doing well” or must be “happy”. Anyway, I live in a rural place, and sometimes it feels like another country when I see the media focus on eyebrows, and nails and botox and face-lifts. Most people here love normal, natural. I’m glad to be here, and judged for being me…not just for impeccable style and beauty that really means nothing in the scheme of things.

    1. It’s interesting how scarring it can be, esp. when we’re young women learning what it means to BE a woman — and be perpetually scolded for not being ….something…enough. I saw pretty early that it’s much more about someone else’s insecurity in the power of their non-exterior qualities than their issue with us. It’s really about them.

      I have mixed feelings about complete non-attention to beauty — I really appreciate, in men and women, an attention to good grooming, a nice haircut and color, a manicure. I do think it’s possible to be elegant without insanely addicted to vanity. I just took a 42d street crosstown bus in NYC — pouring rain — and two superbly elegant women in their 80s (possibly, maybe even older) got off together. The woman beside me, my age, and I sighed in admiration for their attention to detail — at any age.

  7. Brilliant post. I suspect I’m pretty, but not too pretty. I suspect this because very pretty women are not afraid to be my friend. I wasn’t raised to be pretty, and a lot of them were. I wasn’t raised to agonize over my body, or my clothes, but instead to have good posture and to speak well, and to use my brain. I grew up as the smart one, and I don’t think I thought much about pretty until I was in my mid-30’s which is when my pretty friends began to freak out about wrinkles and saddlebags, etc.
    I am letting my hair go, but I am undecided on how long — I haven’t committed to letting it go, but am more in a let’s see how it goes frame of mind. My mother is far prettier than I, and has beautiful silver hair, flocked with peppery strands.
    I truly believe my mother is to thank for this lack of self-hatred, and it’s a gift I give my three daughters as well.
    I’m off to read that WSJ article and bookmarked the video you recommended.

    1. Thanks!

      I was never told I was pretty by anyone and was also focused from childhood on athletics and intellectual ability. The prize in our family is (as they all are) to be smart, creative, talented and high-achieving…not Botox my forehead or wear this season’s colors. Thank God! I also came of age in the mid 1970s, the era of second wave feminism and in Canada, where there just wasn’t some sick obsessive focus on beauty for girls. SMART mattered.

      Your daughters are lucky to have this role model. 🙂

  8. I moved to Dallas in my mid 30’s from rural Kansas. I didn’t have big hair or flashy clothes. I had my first manicure when I was 40! I’ve always felt put together and I’ll invest extra time on my appearance if I feel an occasion calls for it. I feel most attractive when I’m true to who I really am.

    1. Man, that would have been a change!

      I spent this past Sunday with a multi-cultural group of women, one of whom had moved from Tokyo to Sydney…and had to ditch her whole wardrobe becs the styles there were so different.

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