I was telling a close male friend excitedly about some friends I'd met at a new job in a city I'd just moved to. "They're so cool and smart," I burbled happily. "And they're all really pretty!" I was relieved to have found people I got along with, and I really did think they were an exemplary bunch. I wanted to brag about them.
"Let me see," he said, and we went on Facebook, of course.
He proceeded to dismiss each of my friends in turn. "Eh, she's OK." And "I don't know … I wouldn't call HER pretty". And "Seriously?".
I was hurt and offended.
"You're prettier than this girl," he was saying, and I got the sense that this was supposed to make me happy. As though he were giving me some kind of medal. Well, thank god, I'm prettier than my friend. Now I can sleep at night. I have officially won at life.
I was annoyed and upset, but I wasn't very surprised. The practice of casually dismissing a woman's entire appearance is sometimes a part of everyday conversation. Guys do it, girls do it. Guys I've dated have reassured me that I'm "prettier than my friends", even though I hadn't asked and found that observation awkward and most likely untrue.
Other women have mentioned their partners telling them the same thing. One of my friends told me exactly which of our mutual friends her boyfriend doesn't think is attractive at all. Apparently, he's made a big deal about how he "just doesn't see what everyone thinks is so hot about her".
You know what, come to think of it, I can even remember my best friend, at 13 years old, mentioning that her parents had informed her that she was the prettiest of all her friends. That includes me, I thought immediately, and wondered sadly why her parents would say something like that about me. It felt personal at the time. Am I really not as pretty as her? I thought. Maybe I'm not even close …
Once I mentioned a beautiful friend of mine to some other female friends, and they quickly asserted that she wasn't really "that pretty". Even my mum has made an effort to set me straight on occasion when I refer "incorrectly" to someone's beauty. She recently told me, gently, as though teaching me a lesson: "Sometimes when you like someone, you begin to perceive them as beautiful, even when they aren't."
So many of us have fallen into the habit of diagnosing the beauty around us with barely a second glance. We seem to rate and rank the girls and women in our lives without much thought. We have learned to try to make the girls and women we care about feel better about themselves by putting other girls and women down.
It's a bad habit.
And I have this suspicion that my eyesight is not really so bad, nor my judgment so impaired by love, as my mum has suggested. After all, this type of exchange about who is "really" pretty happens constantly, and often it's not centred on people any of us know. Over and over, I've heard people argue passionately about the attractiveness of famously beautiful women. They seem to pride themselves on "seeing through the hype" and dismissing actresses and models and rock stars for not really being attractive, but for somehow managing to fool the rest of those schmucks.
Someone mentions Megan Fox and someone else says: "Ew. She's not even pretty. I think her face is flat and weird and her hair looks like it's made out of wax." Or whatever.
Of course, we all have our favourite famous beauties. My friend Lucy thinks Alexa Chung is particularly stunning; the only time I ever heard my dad call a woman besides my mum pretty he was talking about Meg Ryan; and I am always partial to striking women with interesting noses, like Emily VanCamp, while a parade of starlets with tiny, upturned noses and enormous eyes quickly lose my interest. But let's be real, just because I don't think Emma Watson is the most compelling beauty I've ever seen doesn't make her unattractive. And Megan Fox's look may not be your favourite one, and it's not mine, but it seems pretty clear to me that she's not ugly.
It might be that people just like to assert their personal preferences and have opinions about everything. It makes us feel special and unique and interesting to do that. It might feel satisfying to be able to distinguish yourself by disagreeing with the mainstream media about anything at all — a famous woman's looks included. And disagreeing with your friend over her friend's appearance may just be an automatic expression of personal taste. We like different things. The world is wonderfully diverse as a result. This is good.
But it isn't good to insult someone's appearance. And even if it were true that the girls in my new friend group at my new job weren't the slightest bit pretty — why did my guy friend feel the need to express that? What did it accomplish? What does it accomplish to insult someone's appearance?
If we do indeed sometimes put some women's appearances down in an effort to make other women feel better, this habit reaffirms an idea that the thing that is important about a woman is her appearance. We're assuming that the thing that would make a girl or a woman feel better about herself is to feel prettier by comparison to other girls are women.
But let me be clear: when you insult the way my friend looks, you aren't making me feel prettier, you're offending me, because you're saying something unnecessarily negative about my friend. And believe it or not, I am not competing with my friends to be the prettiest one. I am appreciative of their beauty, the way I am appreciative of their other positive characteristics. I am proud of them. That is why I chose to be friends with them. Because they are the kind of people I am glad to give my time to, happy to have in my life, and am proud to introduce to other people.
So when you say something about how someone I care about doesn't look as good as I think she does, or even when you make a snide comment about a famous woman's appearance, you don't sound clever or interestingly countercultural or complimentary towards my own appearance. You sound a little needlessly mean, and a lot like it might be time to get your eyes checked.