When I was a little girl, I wanted to be told I was pretty. I think it came from a place of not being quite sure; it came from a place of wanting to be told that I was more than I was, somehow. I’ve spoken in the past about growing up with a beautiful mother, and about the pressure I felt as a girl, as a teenager, and as a young woman, to become my mother, or to be better than. It lasted until I felt secure within myself; it lasted until I loved my bones, until I loved my skin.
Self-love, as we know, is not instant. It comes from a place of deep understanding, somehow, of oneself. It comes from that moment when you fall deeply, and completely, in love, with yourself. Unlike other love stories (for I believe it is easier to fall in love with others rather than yourself), self-love is a lot harder to accomplish. To embrace everything within ourselves, both the physical and the not-physical, one must walk a long, and often difficult journey. It is a journey fraught with misgivings, with unanswered questions, and with not quite knowing exactly how wonderful you are. And that moment when you can shake it all off and declare to the world, ‘I am wonderful’, is quite freeing, but it is hard to come by, and for some, it can take a lifetime.
I suppose I am one of the luckier ones. I quite like myself. I might not be madly in love with myself yet, but I think I’m getting there. ‘I am alright’, I told myself once, letting a finger trace the outlines of my face as a lover might have done. ‘Yes, I am quite alright. This will do nicely. Thank you.’
But long before my mirror love story, as a very young woman in college, I listened to Ani DiFranco declare that she was not a pretty girl. It was something I was already writing about in my own poetry, in my own songs. I was making references to not wanting to be ‘just pretty‘, and being contemptuous of people who both wanted to be the word – and who used it. DiFranco’s song influenced me deeply; it made me sit down and actually think about the word, and it made me think about why I was starting to reject its premise. I considered its meaning, its implication, and what it meant to be pretty in the world.
“I’m not really a pretty girl; don’t really want to be a pretty girl; want to be more than a pretty girl.”
The word pretty has evolved into something rather ugly; in today’s society pretty is often equated to being enough. How different from the little-girl-that-was-me, who thought it meant something more than. I think that the word is used to denote physical characteristics that make a girl enough, and it’s reinforced by society in popular culture. I can’t quite remember which show I heard it on recently, but when a young girl is showed how to do something she tosses back her hair and says, ‘I don’t need to learn to do that. I’m pretty!’
It began upsetting me deeply, so much so that I began rejecting the word as ‘vapid’, and ’empty’. I was only just discovering my own inner feminist at that age, and reading Virginia Woolf, and listening to artists like Ani, shaped and moulded my own thoughts. When I heard a woman refer to her daughter as ‘pretty’, I remember telling her (I was only twenty-two at the time) that she wasn’t doing her daughter any favours. ‘Tell her other things!’, I implored, my hands moving as they tend to do when I am deeply moved by what I am saying. ‘Tell her she’s more. Tell her she’s everything.’
I am certain the woman must have thought I was mad.
As I got older, I began turning to words to express myself a lot more than I had as a child. Although I had been a prolific writer in my childhood, it was nothing to what was to come in my twenties. Even now, I am amazed at the volume I have churned out; my twenties have been my most productive decade to date. Notebook upon notebook upon notebook of thoughts, essays, poetry, stories, and ideas are in my possession, and sometimes they scare me. I see so much potential in myself that I have yet to translate into anything good or meaningful, but that is an essay for another day.
Recently I stumbled upon the following advertisement that made me remember again how much I hate the word pretty.
She’s so pretty, so she needn’t be anything else, because she’s just a girl. My anger came ebbing and flowing back. I then happened to read, on the same day, this popular blog’s post, which soothed me again. This was a father who’d figured it out, and then put it into words somewhere where his daughter can find it again some day. He speaks of her kindness, her strength, her curiosity about the world, her spirit, her naughtiness, and her love for everything. When she’s older, I think, she might get the long form of the answer. I thought to myself, ‘this man gets it’.
I wish more people got it, I thought.
My godson’s sister, Anaina, asked me the same thing not too long ago. ‘Am I pretty?’ I told her that she was pretty amazing, pretty brilliant, pretty strong, pretty clever, pretty interesting, pretty beautiful, pretty capable, and pretty funny. She was amazed; I truly think that she skipped away to play feeling like she was a LOT of things, and not just pretty. Later on, her mother, my bestie Aro, asked her what she’d done during the day and in her recap of the day Anaina had told her mother that I said she was brilliant and funny and strong. When Aro told me that I thought to myself, ‘I’m amazing.’ You see, I hadn’t been sure if she’d fixate on the word ‘pretty‘ or if she’d take something else away from it. She took a lot of things away from it, and that made my heart glad.
In a conversation recently with the man, I worried about the sort of mother I will be, and because I had just read the Ask Your Dad blog, the pretty topic was right on the top of my mind. I told him that I hoped I wouldn’t hurt my future daughters with my aversion of the word. I think we all pass on some of our foibles to our children – that is inevitable – but I think I would never forgive myself if I were the reason my daughters fixated on words that they never should, such as ‘pretty‘. I also happened to mention to him that I felt like the only woman in the world (with perhaps the exception of Ani DiFranco) who had such a visceral raw reaction to the word pretty. He is wonderful and supportive, so he assured me I would be amazing, but since I am me, I continued to worry.
Then a friend linked me to Katie Makkai, and her words for her future daughter, and all my loneliness about being alone in my hatred for the word ‘pretty‘, all my insecurities about perhaps being the only woman in the world who loathes it, vanished like a raindrop in the dust. In her poem Pretty, Katie declares: This, this is about my own some-day daughter. When you approach me, already stung-stayed with insecurity, begging, “Mom, will I be pretty? Will I be pretty?” I will wipe that question from your mouth like cheap lipstick and answer, “No! The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine will be contained in five letters. “You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing. But you, will never be merely ‘pretty’.”
So, there we have it. My future daughters, you will be many things, but you will never be just pretty.