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“Well, I guess we’ll be the brains, and you can be the beauty.”
These words hit me like a ton of bricks, when they came from some well-meaning male friends in high school. We had joined forces, two guys and myself, to work on an English project. I had thought we were coming together because we were the smartest in the class, but that comment made me question my assumption.
I don’t mean, “fuck looking pretty,” or, “fuck other people thinking women look pretty,” or even, “fuck trying to look pretty.” I mean I’m tired of everything that “pretty” means.
This is for my sweet 3-year-old daughter, who likes trains and cars as much as dolls. Who chooses pink cupcakes, but says her favorite color is blue. For the past three years, I’ve been trying to figure out what to tell you, when you finally started asking what I was putting on my face as I applied makeup.
I could tell you it’s stuff to make me look pretty. That’s partially true, but doesn’t that imply that I don’t think I’m good enough without it? What kind of a role model does that make me? I don’t want you to think that you need makeup to make you look pretty. Because you already are.
But I’m afraid to tell you that. Because you’re so much more. You’re pretty last, after being smart, brave, precocious, funny, silly, generous, spunky, and a whole host of other things.
This is for my amazing 14-year-old stepdaughter, who is beautiful and petite, but hates every picture taken of her and seems to honestly think she is fat. I wish I could revert to a time before selfies. A time when the only way to examine yourself was in the mirror, not through multiple filters at various angles, with the option to photoshop out flaws, all through the scrutinizing and impersonal lens of social media. Being a teenager was hard enough before all of these things.
I wish I could get you to believe that it wouldn’t matter if you were “fat” (although you’re not), and that even if you were, you’d still be intelligent, kind, thoughtful, independent, creative, and yes, you’d still be pretty. Because pretty isn’t about having a smaller nose or thinner thighs.
This is for my incredible 17-year-old niece, who is quickly becoming a face to watch on the Canadian modeling scene. Scouted by the top agency in Canada at the sweet age of 16, she is hurtling into a career where it is all about being pretty. I wish I could tell you how proud, but how worried I am.
I’m worried you will succumb to an eating disorder, to keep up with other models, or get ahead. I’m worried you will forget that you are so much more than your face, your hair, your legs. Because you are smart, sassy, hilarious, sweet, and generous as well as pretty.
I wish I could explain, after all these years, why I still want (and sometimes need) to wear makeup. I see other women who don’t wear makeup, and I think, “Wow! She looks amazing, and you can tell she’s not wearing anything.” Why would I assume no one thinks the same of me? My husband prefers me without makeup. And yet, I would never be caught dead going to a party without makeup on. What am I so afraid of?
It’s a complicated thing, this idea of pretty. I continue to want to fill the role of looking pretty, but I find myself getting angry when that’s the first thing about me that is recognized by others. And I am fiercely protective of my youngest daughter’s exposure to the word and all of its implications.
In this Disneyfied girl culture that we’re raising our daughters and nieces in, I worry that our girls are learning that the heroine always has a tiny waist and perfect makeup and hair, and is saved by a prince. That’s not who our girls should be aspiring to be. The heroines are girls like Malala Yousafzai, who took a bullet in order to get an education, and is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala, who is courageous, eloquent, intelligent…and pretty. Not because she has a tiny waist, and perfect hair and makeup, but because she is all of those other things.
Related post: To My (Maybe) Daughter