When I was five years old, I realized the word “pretty” held a lot of weight.
One morning on the car ride home from church, I broke down crying.
That day, no one had told me I looked pretty despite the fact that I was wearing pink, and people told me I was pretty almost every other week. My parents found this amusing. So much so that they still tell this story today.
But when I hear it, I am uncomfortable, ashamed. I now realize that even at the age of five, I was conditioned to respond to the word “pretty.” I was conditioned to desire it.
People handed it to me like a piece of candy in a shiny wrapper. And when I opened it over and over again throughout the years, I began to find that the glossy packaging also held a lot of deceit.
I played basketball in high school. Before practice, the girls on the team would sit around and compare bodies.
The girls who had an “hourglass” shape were frequently praised as pretty, desirable, and even beautiful. I remember sitting on the outside of their circle glaring at my rounded thighs, and my waist which strained over the band of my sweat shorts.
No one in that locker room told me I was pretty.
Instead, the word “pretty” appeared in other places.
It came from well-meaning friends, relatives, parents and grandparents, sometimes even from boys. The feeling accompanying “pretty” was nightmarish – intense happiness followed, later on, by tearful confusion.
Looking in the mirror, I didn’t see “pretty,” and looking at the world around me, I didn’t see “pretty.”
I didn’t see anything but myself, and myself was never good enough.
At 15, I realized “pretty” was an empty compliment.
I heard girls calling their friends “pretty” one minute, then turning around and insulting them the next. I heard relatives, parents and siblings call people “pretty,” then whisper afterward, “That poor thing isn’t very pretty, is she?”
The word “pretty” was thrown around like spare change. It was just kind enough for strangers, but not kind enough for truth.
High school taught me that “pretty” was both meaningful and meaningless.
This was because of a boy, of course. A boy who led me into a lie of believing I could not be pretty and. Pretty and intelligent. Pretty and complex. Pretty and creative. Pretty was all he cared about.
I went through a period of intense self-deprecation. I called myself names that brought tears to my own eyes. I called myself things so far from “pretty” that my parents became seriously worried. In the back of my mind I thought, “I’m not falling into these expectations now, am I?”
The word “pretty” created a standard I couldn’t live up to. And even in college, I see the ramifications of this damaging standard.
My friends, classmates and acquaintances are expected to resemble magazine cut-outs; perfectly proportionate, plastic, untouchable. They fall short because they are human (just as we all are), and because a standard requiring us to sacrifice so much of our authentic selves is one that can never be lived up to.
Society doesn’t want us to believe this. That wouldn’t be good marketing, after all. If we buy “pretty,” then we buy thousands of dollars of fashion and beauty products designed to “hide” or “fix” our flaws, not express our authentic selves. We dye our hair, paint our faces, airbrush our bodies and sacrifice our hours at the gym. We turn health and fitness (which are well-intentioned goals in their own right) into aesthetic goals that, if achieved, will bring us long-lasting fulfillment.
Society tells us we should be something. Something spectacular that fits their fine definition of “spectacular.” And far too often, we listen.
Please don’t call me “pretty.”
I am more than this word. I am more than a compliment, whether genuine or not.
I am more than a standard.
I am an individual.
And so are you.
Have you ever struggled with the word “pretty?” Let me know your take, and how you overcame similar obstacles in the comments below.