I grew up reading books obsessively, writing 20 page stories when the assignment called for two, which made me every teacher’s pet, but no one’s best friend. I played alone in my room for much of my free time, with my dozens of dolls strategically placed around my bedroom, each an integral part of an elaborate storyline. I didn’t like to wear anything tight and I refused to smile in pictures, all because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I was studious, introverted, odd, mainly friendless, but happy.
As my teens rolled in and the academic accolades continued, I was allowed to continue my extra-curriculars of dance and drama because they might look good on a college application. I made the high school dance team, which allowed me to mingle, for the first time, with the popular girls. Girls who knew how to incessantly but effortlessly flip their hair, who knew to roll the tops of their dance pants down so their bellybuttons would show when we practiced near the football team. Girls who got asked to dances. Girls who kissed boys. I wasn’t one of them, and I didn’t eat lunch with them or get invited to parties, but by sheer proximity to them, I began to be a bit more noticed for non-academic reasons.
My grades and perhaps my extra-curricular activities got me into UCLA, where I entered as a passionate English major, also taking lots of philosophy because I loved nothing more than heated debates about the meaning of life. I continued to gravitate towards the nerdy, the interesting, the girls without highlights, the boys without biceps.
But I started to notice the sorority girls walking around campus, just as I had noticed the high school dance team girls. Now, these sorority girls obviously got into UCLA for their brains and hard work, but their hair was just so damn shiny, too. They knew to wear sweat pants that hugged their bottoms and shirts that effortlessly fell off one shoulder. They knew to have purple pedicures and pearl earrings, even during finals. They had boyfriends, boyfriends with biceps. They got invited to fraternity parties, and even more shocking, knew what to do when they arrived.
So I joined a sorority. I drank alcohol for the first time, and got a B in English for the first time. On Saturdays, I used to study or go to independent films, but now, frat buses took sorority girls to the football games, where you pre-partied at the frat house early in the morning, boarded a bus with a keg in the back, tailgated in the stadium parking lot before the game started, and then joined the other 80,000 people cheering on the sorority girls’ boyfriends with biceps as you tried to seem nonchalant, perky, and fun for four hours.
And then I spotted the UCLA dance team down on the football field. 10 girls with the bounciest hair and feet I had ever seen. Technically perfect girls, both in their dance training, and their bodies and make-up. I had to be one of them. Maybe then I would feel popular. Maybe then I would feel pretty.
I made the dance team, and got thrust into one big, long ego-boost of a ride.
I was told I was pretty one too many times. I either started to believe it, or started to believe I should try to do something with this said prettiness. That it would be a waste to not at least try to capitalize on it. So as my friends entered law school and consulting firms, I entered acting classes and dance auditions. As my friends stressed over never meeting good guys, I let an endless line of them come and go, simply because it was just too easy having another waiting in the wings. I spent my college summers interning at film production companies, but eventually started to believe it when male producers said I shouldn’t waste myself behind the camera. When I wanted to apply to graduate school, I started to believe it when people said “girls like you don’t belong in academia.”
My priorities changed, my friendships changed. I would oh-so-slyly seek out any reflective surface I passed, trying to catch a glance of myself, either chastising my self-perceived, life-controlling fatness, or admiring my yes!-it’s-looking-skinny waist. I’d spend hours and hours and dollars and dollars researching and buying the best face wash and night cream. I’d “oh my god, how fab do you look!” with my new circle of dancer and model friends.
And now here I am, on the brink of 40, and pretty is fading fast. I ended up having a ‘normal’ corporate career, but it wasn’t one I would have chosen had I set out with more focus and determination at 22. I have slowly, painfully, and with many hiccups, learned to like myself in spite of my appearance and not because of it. It’s taken a long time to get back to being the nerdy but happy bookworm.
So I’m done being pretty. And I’m done telling others they are pretty. I tell a woman I like her dress because I don’t know what else to say. I say her hair looks amazing but what I really want to do is hold her heart and say “I am here for you.” Our default is to compliment on the external because it’s easier, it’s safer, it’s always well-received so it feeds back to our own ego. But I truly believe we are, subtly, mainly unintentionally, perpetuating this constant obsession with appearance. If no one talked about it, it wouldn’t have any power, would it? If we didn’t compliment little girls on their prettiness, they wouldn’t know prettiness is the goal, would they? If we ignored the selfie-obsessed celebrities, they wouldn’t be celebrities anymore, right? We are doing this to ourselves. We can blame society all we want, but we are society. You and me.
I know the temptation will be to write “you still look great!’ But please don’t. If you do, no offense, but you will have missed the point completely. Even though my ego so desperately wants to be told I’m pretty, I don’t want to hear it anymore. I want to hear “I get it. I hear you. Me too.”