UnPretty

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:

  1. Hey, I wasn’t that bad looking — just kind of unkempt and unremarkable, and
  2. I kinda dodged a bullet there by not being prettier.
For info purposes: pics of me in my early teens, late teens, twenties & thirties.

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.

5 Replies to “UnPretty”

  1. Excellent read. Brought back many memories. The good, bad, and the ugly. Thank you. Have a wonderful evening.

  2. This is a powerful piece of writing. Personal too. I gotta admit – those 4 pics you show? The two on the right show me an attractive intelligent looking woman! Now, am I just saying this and not being honest? No. The third pic shows a very pretty woman. (You caught my eye a day or two ago when I saw that pic on twitter, I believe.) And yes, I feel funny saying it that way since I just read your essay.
    My wife tells me when she was in high school she did not think she was pretty. “Skinny” she tells me. But when I look at the pics from her high school days etc I think she is attractive.
    So as a man I’ve often wondered about this topic of prettyness or unprettyness. I had one brother and two sisters and I can remember the curlers, the hair spray…..etc…. and how long the one bathroom in our house was occupied!!! How long is a minute?? Depends on which side of the bathroom door you are on.
    But I will say this. Some women are prettier than others but in my life I have come to realize a long time ago that beauty is really within. I know we all know this but it’s worth repeating – Real beauty lies within.
    Keep smiling, keep up the great writing, and keep us thinking!!!

    PS….I wrote a song for my wife. No, not a tear jerker, but an honest song that also has pics that show our age& wrinkles etc etc. But you’ll see “beauty” in so many ways here: https://youtu.be/c6VvpJIuiqo

  3. This brings back memories of a difficult conversation we had, when you
    were in your twenties, and I tried to normalize an insult a mutual friend made
    about your looks. You said you were not pretty. I disagreed–and I think that you thought I was just trying to make you feel better. I tried to explain that each person
    is a unique design, there is no one who is not beautiful any more than a plant is
    not beautiful, the job of the artist is to find how that design “works”. I would amend this to be “no young person” is ugly, because with age, most of us lose whatever beauty was fashionable–and have to make do with what our lives have done to
    our faces. I still believe that “pretty” is a social construct (which is why it is so easily forged and why it is dated) and that the beautiful part of each person’s design is inherent in each individual body. I don’t think that you were not pretty as a younger person–just born into the wrong culture and society. However, I would like to pass
    on a comment that my mother and I have both made behind your back that, as a middle-aged woman, you have grown into your looks and are a handsome woman. Which I know is beside the point that you are making in this essay, but, I think the words “handsome woman” has more to do with confidence and style then any ephemeral ideal prettiness. (Although I think you have more style when Emma
    dresses you.)

  4. Excellent article!

    It is sad that so many women do not realize that what many men find the most attractive in a woman is the grey matter between their ears. That brain power can turn a man on, attract a lover and solidify a friendship/romance far more than mere looks

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