Women are taught from birth that they should aspire to be ‘pretty’. From the giant bows stuck on their infant heads lest they inexcusably be mistaken for boys, to the constant barrage of media messages that girls receive throughout their childhood, by the time they reach adulthood, women have largely been conditioned to value their looks and how others perceive their attractiveness as their most valuable asset.
But woe betide the woman who has bought the messages, conformed to society’s beauty standards, and KNOWS she is pretty. She will be put back in her box quickly and viciously, slut-shamed and silenced for daring to acknowledge that she’s won out in the beauty sweepstakes. The message here is: ‘Be pretty, but don’t tell us you’re pretty. We will decide whether you meet our expectations but you are not allowed to have an opinion on the matter.’
Recently, a group of sorority girls attended a baseball game in Arizona. Moments after an announcement was made encouraging fans to take selfies of themselves in the stadium, the cameras trained themselves on this group of young women snapping away, making silly faces and holding hot dogs aloft. The two male announcers took it upon themselves to mock and deride their actions for several minutes, unbeknownst to the group of women, making it clear that their actions were vacuous and vain, despite encouragement from the sponsors to do exactly what they were doing. The selfies were reposted by one of the announcers on Twitter, where people tore them down with great merriment. How dare women attend a sporting event and then only sit on the sidelines caring about how they look? Umm, hello, what the hell are CHEERLEADERS then?
This exemplifies the struggle women face with wanting to be ‘pretty’ and then facing the consequences when they are either not pretty enough, or get too confident about their looks. The reason there is such a dichotomy is because our attractiveness is not ours. Beauty exists for the male gaze, and for male judgement. It is not ours to comment on or possess, for ‘pretty’ is a title we have to have bestowed upon us, not something we can claim to be. The amount of anguish that women feel over their lifetimes about not being pretty enough is time-consuming, soul-destroying and another example of the ways in which we are silenced and held back from achieving things with our minds, our actions and our personalities.
Katie Makkai’s poem remains one of the most powerful commentaries on what it means to be ‘Pretty’.