The Politics of Prettiness: Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.

marilyn-monroe-in-the-mirror

“I think she’s cursed by being pretty,” my mom was saying, about a friend going through a hard time.

Life is easy for pretty girls, she explains, and when it isn’t, men don’t take you seriously and women see you as competition. Dad pipes up, “Well, our daughter is pretty, too!” I look at her. “Not as pretty as Chelsea.” Thanks, mom.

I’ll give her this: if you looked at Chelsea and I side by side, you’d see Chelsea, and you wouldn’t notice me. I’ve decided to start thinking of this as a superpower: Invisible Woman. Never being recognized is a good reason to keep saying inappropriate things in public and generally live up to my unofficial Noble Shit Disturber title.

Chelsea can be my sidekick: dazzle the men while I get my fingers sticky in the Status Quo jar, and no one will be the wiser. Sounds fun, right? Being a girl is so much fun.

Chelsea and I are both slim, white, and middle class.

Prettiness, I argue, is not a fundamental quality. It’s a conventional look dictated by culture and the media that has shifted from pale blonde Marilyn Monroe curves to rail-thin Brazilian dark Gisele in just a few decades. Its fluidity keeps it purchase-able: with orthodontics, dermatologists, diets, makeup, tanning salons, even plastic surgery, anyone can be pretty. If you couldn’t buy pretty, it wouldn’t have much value, would it?

You “feel pretty” the same way you “feel fat”: it’s mostly an illusion.

Prettiness, then, is partly a choice, and I’ve been trying to not choose it. My partner calls me “undercover hot” because you don’t realize how bone-able I am until you get to know me well enough to start recognizing me at parties or have the chance to look under my men’s size raincoat that I use to hide my body from impending sexual assault.

It wasn’t always this way.

When I was younger, I wore short skirts and, always, heels. I wouldn’t leave the house without makeup. I worked as a cocktail waitress and flicked my hips around the bar, creating magnetic energy that caused coins to stick to my ass. I am pretty sure that job was at the low end of the sex-work continuum. I wasn’t invisible then.

I was also working on my Masters in Literature at McGill, where I was submitting papers under a gender-neutral name, and being accepted with emails addressed Dear Mr. Peters. When a professor wanted to work closely with me on a project, my boyfriend at the time said, “I’d want to work one-on-one too, if I had a student who looked like you.”

When I started performing poetry in the competitive form called slam poetry, I started hearing things from men and women like, “I’m coming to terms with how I feel about you using your sexuality to get points on stage” and “Of course you won the slam, you were probably the prettiest one there.”

The second time I was sexually harassed at work, I was working at a yoga studio.

After  refusing to have sex with the manager, he ignored me, and I was fired for dubious reasons two weeks later. I landed in a fancy wine bar where the managers insisted that when the old mafia guys came in and put their hands on me, that I resist yelling “keep your damn hands to yourself!”

I felt much safer at the bar where an aspect of Hot Cocktail Waitress’s superpowers were the bouncers who would kick anyone out who dared to touch me. It’s weird that the job where I felt safest in my sexuality was also the job where I was pretty sure I was on the sex work continuum. Being a girl is fun.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on prettiness.

It’s not that it hasn’t taken me places: “pretty” women get to be cocktail waitresses, which is definitely more lucrative than the “male” job at the bar, which is bussing tables. Certain of my male bosses really liked me (a little too much). Men come to my yoga classes after sending me late-night messages that read, “Ur hot. It makes me wanna do yoga.”

It’s just that I don’t like being treated that way. So I started actively downplaying my femininity and sexuality in the hopes that someone might hear the words coming out of my no-longer-lipsticked mouth. I let my hair go natural, and I am proud of the gray hairs sprouting (I own a small business. I EARNED those gray hairs).

My superpowers have been downgraded (or upgraded?) to Invisible Woman.

It’s only sort of working. After all, as my partner reminded me while trying to convince me go ahead and be “overcover hot” again, sooner or later I’ll age, and I won’t have the chance to be pretty anymore. He took it right back when he saw my eyes turn black, but the point stands.

In the end, neither Hot Cocktail Waitress nor Invisible Woman feel very powerful. Both of us will get old and lose our sexual attractiveness, which is the only power we’ve ever been told we have.

So perhaps my mother was right: Chelsea is cursed. And she’s not the only one.

We’ve all been forced to fight for the kind of beauty we never get to feel in our own skin. Even if we one day could find “pretty enough,” we may have found we paid with our right to be heard. And we’re all getting old anyway.

So let them keep their “pretty.” Give me my gray hairs and crow’s feet if they will undo this strangling pressure to look like I have value.

Let me be free to unleash my terrifying sexuality long enough to make children who can grow up in a world where they will not be cursed or blessed by what they look like. Let me be free to stand up with Chelsea and everyone else who feels silenced by their own bodies. Let us be seen as who we are, heard for what we are saying, and let us be speaking.

 

*****

{Biutiful}

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Julie (JC) Peters
Julie (JC) Peters is a writer, yoga teacher, and studio owner in Vancouver, BC. She has a Masters in Contemporary Canadian poetry, and uses it to win arguments all the time. Learn more about her poetry, articles, and yoga workshops at www.jcpeters.ca.
Julie (JC) Peters

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15 Comments

  • Mamaste
    Mamaste commented on April 24, 2013 Reply
    JC, I thoroughly enjoyed this and related to this on many levels. We women, all have super powers. It’s learning to own them that makes us confident and beautiful. BTW, you are probably WAY more beautiful than Chelsea! ~Mamaste
  • Tanya Lee Markul
    tanya lee markul commented on April 24, 2013 Reply
    WOW! It’s really interesting this topic on so many levels + planes. I can’t help but to think of my mother who has nearly debilitating arthritis in her hands and hips. The doctors won’t offer her or help her with any sort of disability because she ‘looks’ healthy – she’s at her perfect weight and takes good care of herself in her mid-fifties. She’s pretty and she’s positive. It’s all so interesting, aye?!
    • Julie (JC) Peters
      JC Peters commented on April 24, 2013 Reply
      Yes it is! Amazing how much power perception has, and how we like to determine how other people feel just by looking at them. Thanks Tanya!
  • Asifa Patel commented on April 24, 2013 Reply
    Can relate to both sides of this. I remember dealing with unwanted attention at the tender age of 10, being very tall and noticeable. At the time and sometimes even now, being attractive occurred as something scary. Then later as a teenager I felt so plain and longed for that magnetic beauty. As an adult, I think I am learning some kind of balance, to allow myself to be pretty without getting sucked into thinking that my image is ‘me’. Whether we accept that ever shifting notion of beauty or rebel against it, it is amazing how much of a hold it has over us as women.
    • Julie (JC) Peters
      JC Peters commented on April 24, 2013 Reply
      Yes, I totally agree. It’s interesting, in the week I wrote this article about wanting to reject perceptions of my own prettiness, that voice inside my head got really loud when I looked in the mirror attacking how ugly and old and fat I looked! It’s so deeply internalized within us and very challenging to battle when it’s around us all the time.
  • Lucy Lucille commented on April 24, 2013 Reply
    Well said!
  • Andrea Balt
    Andrea Balt commented on April 25, 2013 Reply
    Julie, what an honor to enjoy your writing on Rebelle Society. I got that last paragraph (and every other sentence) stuck in my throat & heart & veins. There’s nothing more enjoyable than a woman at peace with herself – in equal doses of beauty & invisibility – it’s a whole package. More please!
  • Julie (JC) Peters
    JC Peters commented on April 26, 2013 Reply
    Thank you Andrea! <3
  • Marilyn Harding commented on April 26, 2013 Reply
    Umm, beauty and sexual attractiveness are two different things. And it all really depends on who you want to be beautiful to and sexually attractive for. If it’s everyone, or society, or anyone but yourself and the one who loves you for who you are, then you are in for continual disappointment. Disappointment in your own looks – because they will never be perfect or like Chelsea (in my case, Cathy) and disappointed in the way men treat you as desirable – or not – and take that as some kind of truth about you. A year ago at a very swish beach club in Greece, two beautiful young women in string bikinis shifted this way and that on their lounges to get full sun. Meanwhile climbing out of the Aegean came a woman in her late 30’s or early forties. Long black hair, tiny black bikini and she walked like a goddess to the shower in the centre of the crowded chairs. Under the pouring water she swung her hair and bright droplets flicked off like Bo Derek (or someone else more recent). But here’s the thing. She was well over two hundred pounds! She was anything but pretty in a ‘good body’ kind of way, but she was gorgeous in her stunning confidence of her value as a woman and her right to walk with pride. She gazed at the two young women with a kind of hauteur. She knew who she was and these young women were still in thrall to the cultural definition of beauty. Be who you are and love that person and you will never be subject to the swings of fashionable beauty or diminished by the vagaries of age – wrinkles, gravity et al. And in closing – a note from ‘the other side’ of whatever age one thinks sexual attractiveness ends. It doesn’t. It actually improves with age – or rather maturing into accepting yourself as you are. Then you can be attracted and love another just the way they are. It’s an astonishing freedom that leads to an intimacy that no Barbar and Ken can match (if they’re still at it). Pity the ones who rely on facial beauty or sexual allure. It all fades and styles change, but the love of self burns eternal, is always beautiful and sexy at any age.
    • Julie (JC) Peters
      JC Peters commented on April 26, 2013 Reply
      Thanks for your comment–I would love to live in a world where everyone felt this way about their own beauty. I think we are working on it, but the sway of ‘conventional’ (purchaseable) prettiness is so strong it keeps us from feeling liberated in our own skin. I would love to feel that beauty was something that belonged to each individual, not the external world (or inner voices) that constantly tell us we are not good enough.
  • Shannon Murray-Corsale commented on August 11, 2013 Reply
    Perhaps your inner voice tells you that you are not good enough. I hope you won’t be projecting your subjective feelings and personal insecurities onto Michelle May and Robert Sturman here on Rebelle Society as you’ve done on Elephant Journal.
  • Peter commented on January 21, 2014 Reply
    JC Peters – Sorry to break this to you, but you’re not as beautiful as you think you are. I’m sure you’re a nice girl but I wouldn’t be spinning around to check you out in the street, club or yoga class.
  • John commented on March 28, 2014 Reply
    You’re not even that pretty. Don’t know how people reacted like this with you. You’re average! Strange..
    • Sue Velasquez commented on May 31, 2015 Reply
      Peter, in my time I have seen a lot of so-called average-looking girls hook up with lovely-looking guys. It’s all subjective. Maybe the girl in question could discuss politics like a demon (and the guy liked it) or she was just great in bed, or she just wasn’t going to challenge anyone soon. Being pretty is no guarantee of success with the opposite sex.
  • nochoice girl's life commented on November 17, 2014 Reply
    True that you’ll get less trouble from girls if you look less than average. I look average but a lil bit better I’ve got lots of troubles that cease if I choose to “hide my body” as well. Attention from boys kill all kinds of friendship with any girls. Yet I believe not all boys are attracted to the same woman though. The few attentions you get will be enough to create lots of drama.

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