The Politics of Prettiness: Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.
“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.
Latest posts by Julie (JC) Peters (see all)
- The Politics of Prettiness: Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful. - April 24, 2013