This is something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, but it’s hard to write about. Not because it’s an emotionally difficult subject — it’s not, at all, for me. It’s hard to write about because the typical responses to talking about this topic are so predictable and not helpful.
If you talk about attractiveness, beauty, etc., and you simply say, “I’m not pretty,” people will fall all over themselves to assure that yes, yes, you are pretty, don’t put yourself down, don’t have low self esteem. Which, first of all, I know they’re saying that because they think it will make me feel better, and secondly, it doesn’t make me feel better because it’s not something I feel bad about in the first place.
I’ve never been pretty. I’m fairly certain that as a child, teenager, and young woman, nobody ever used that word to describe me. The few guys I dated did say complementary things about my appearance (and of course the guy who eventually married me has been quite complimentary over the years), but I don’t recall the word “pretty” being used to describe me, or “beautiful” unless it was in a broader sense that was supposed to encompass personality as well. I don’t recall ever being called “cute,” except maybe by my parents when I was very young. Once you’re 5’11”, you don’t get to be cute. You hope for striking, gorgeous, model-like, but I did not get any of these things.
In my mid-fifties, I think about prettiness a lot, in the contexts of aging, and feminism, and being an aging feminist.
I could spend a lot of time analyzing what it is that makes me “not pretty,” but it wouldn’t make interesting reading. I’m not obviously disfigured in any way. I’m also not fat, which is one of the main reasons girls and women get labelled “ugly” in our culture; in fact, as a child and teenager one of the main things I got teased about was being “skinny,” which was no fun but is a hell of a lot better than the vicious and dangerous fatphobia bigger girls are subjected to. My un-prettiness boils down to the fact that I have an average, forgettable sort of face without strong bone structure, I’m unusually tall for a woman, and I have never had either the skill or the interest to improve upon that basic structure by means of clothes, hair or makeup.
A lot of things besides being not-pretty that got me teased and picked on at school; interestingly, some of those things were also privileges that gave me the ability to survive teasing. Being book-smart; having a sharp tongue and good sense of humour; having a degree of economic privilege as the child of middle-class parents in an area where most people were, relatively speaking, poor.
If I had been more likeable, easier to get along with, if I’d had less of that brutal combination of being both thin-skinned and sharp-tongued, I might not have been called “ugly” so much. But then, I have occasionally been called “ugly” by random dudes on the street who’ve never spoken a word to me, so who knows?
There have, obviously, been times that I wished I was prettier. Now, in my fifties, I sometimes feel like I dodged a bullet by not being conventionally pretty.
Most of the women I know have horror stories from early adolescence onwards: the guy who groped them, the guy who pinched them, the guys who catcalled them, the endless string of awful pick-up artists and bad dates. Let me be clear on one thing: being ugly, or un-pretty if you prefer, doesn’t give you a magic shield against sexual assault. Guys who are power-tripping on assaulting women don’t do it because they find the women attractive: in fact, sometimes they target less-attractive women because they see them as easier prey.
So I’m not saying, “Thank God I wasn’t pretty, or I’d have been sexually assaulted!” There are a lot of reasons I’ve never been assaulted but 99% of them just boil down to random dumb luck, because assaulters and abusers target all kinds of people, regardless of appearance.
However, there is a kind of casual harassment that pretty girls just get more of. I’ve never had to give a fake number or claim “I have a boyfriend” because a guy wouldn’t get the hint and leave me alone. My adolescent and young-adult crises were always about trying to get the attention of some guy who treated me like part of the furniture, as opposed to dealing with unwanted attention. I never developed a strategy to deal with pick-up artists or catcallers because those guys just didn’t see me.
Were there times, at 15 or 18 or 22, that I wanted that attention? Absolutely. Am I sorry, now, that I didn’t get it? Absolutely not. Having a few random dudes tell me I was ugly was a lot easier to cope with than years of fending off unwanted touch, unwanted phone calls, unfair assumptions about using my looks to get ahead. The truth is that when I look back at pictures of my younger self, my two main thoughts are:
- Hey, I wasn’t that bad looking — just kind of unkempt and unremarkable, and
- I kinda dodged a bullet there by not being prettier.
If one big advantage of not being pretty was a lack of male attention that I could mostly only appreciate in hindsight, the second advantage is one I feel every day now as I age. I honestly think women who were never considered pretty don’t find aging as difficult as pretty women do (or maybe I shouldn’t generalize; it might just be me).
So much of the experience of aging, for women, is about the loss of beauty (idealized Western beauty standards are always connected to youth and thinness), the loss of desirability, becoming “invisible.”
If you never felt pretty, you’ve probably never felt “visible” in that specific way that means “desirable to men” (or, to put it more crudely, “f@ckable”). And if you’re one of those un-pretty women, I don’t think you experience aging as a loss of beauty in the same way pretty women do.
Again, this might be just me. I’ve often felt like a piece of the brain that exists for almost all women and a lot of men — the part that allows you to imagine how you look to other people — is missing for me, which may be why I’ve mostly been able to be fairly chill about not being pretty. Also, because I’m quite tall and quite loud, I don’t worry much about “invisibility” — while I’ve never been visible in the “sexually desirable female” sense, I’ve always been very visible in the “you can’t actually ignore my presence and what I’m saying” sense.
I love that quote I put at the top of this post, by Erin McKean: “Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.” I wish we lived in a world where we could all define for ourselves the standard of how we want to look, dress, and appear to ourselves and others, and I wish that standard — our own — was the only one any of us felt we had to live up to.
Our current society is not structured that way for anyone but especially for women, who are subject to a thousand rules about how we “ought to” look.
More and more as I get through midlife and into the old age that lies beyond, I’m beginning to feel that never having met that societal standard of beauty is more of a blessing than a curse. It’s had its downsides, for sure, but it’s left me feeling very relaxed about gray hair, wrinkles, extra weight, and all the other things that come with aging. I’ve never felt “beauty” was a precious prize I was expected to carry through life without chipping or breaking it, but that’s only because I was repeatedly told I had never had it in the first place.
For the first time, I feel slightly sorry for, rather than slightly envious of, beautiful women and the male attention they got when we were all young. I wish a middle-aged woman didn’t have to be un-pretty to feel free. I wish we could all move through life being equally valued as human beings at any age, in any packaging: without our beauty or lack thereof being something that requires comment or approval, and without feeling the passage of time as a loss.
I don’t know how we get there, though.