When is the last time you heard a girl or a woman say, “I'm pretty”?
The other day, a woman commented on a beauty-themed blog post I'd written that she thought she was pretty. The comment made sense in the context, but the confession was so unusual that I felt the need to respond: “Good for you!”
Several minutes later, she wrote back, explaining that even though she was pretty, there were plenty of things wrong with her. And also, just to clarify, she was just pretty. Not, like, strikingly beautiful or anything. God, no. Of course not.
Before I could say anything, she commented again, apologising for potentially sounding vain, assuring me and the other readers that she really wasn't.
I started laughing, because she was so repentant that it was funny. But there was something strange and sad about the whole thing, too, and it made me think about how difficult it is for women to admit to being good-looking. I write a lot about the complicated flipside of this issue – body insecurity.
It feels like a plague sometimes. How many of us go through life feeling unattractive, or never quite attractive enough. It's not clear how we get like this. There's some pervasive, seeping poison, though, and while it usually enters our systems at a very young age, the symptoms can last a lifetime.
Interestingly, I, and other women who write about beauty, have been accused of being vain just for thinking about body image.
Women are sometimes dismissed as vain or superficial for being concerned about their appearances, even in a world that seems unable to stop thinking about feminine beauty for the short span of a city block or a TV commercial.
And yet, to feel good about the way we look is perhaps a greater sin. Or at least, if we do for some reason feel lovely and unconcerned with our bodies and our faces, we should probably keep quiet about it. Maybe there's nothing to say. But maybe we render ourselves strangely vulnerable by saying something.
It is easy to be self-critical. It can be funny, social, normal. Sometimes girls and women bond with each other through litanies of self-effacement.
At camp when I was sixteen, I sat in a mosquito-infested cabin with another girl and we laughingly listed every single one of our physical flaws.
“My thighs are too fat!”
“My nipples are a weird colour!”
“Oh yeah? Well, my fingers are stubby.”
It went on and on, almost competitively, without hesitation. We barely needed to think before calling out our imperfections.
What were our favourite features? What did we like about our bodies? We never asked each other. I still remember that she thought her breasts were too big, even though I was jealous of them.
I wonder sometimes who is allowed to be beautiful. Is anyone?
Female celebrities reassure us that, really, they don't think they're as hot as other people think they are. They, too, can reel off their physical flaws for a reporter. “I think I've got really weird features. I have very large features on a very small head,” Anne Hathaway informed InStyle magazine, “…It's my face. I'm not very pretty.” And she isn't the only stunningly gorgeous star to make a statement like this. They're actually common.
The beautiful women we watch in movies seem to be reassuring us that they are, like us, unhappy with the way they look. Maybe this establishes them as delightfully “normal.” Or, at the very least, we appreciate their humility. As though it would be conceited for these women who are praised by the world for their beauty to actually believe that they are beautiful.
Meanwhile, it makes sense for normal women to feel even worse about their appearances. If Anne Hathaway feels unattractive, I must be a slobbering, hunchbacked ogre! Shit. Shit. Wow. There is no hope.
We learn that when a “normal-looking" woman oversteps her bounds and acts in the ways that people expect a beautiful woman to act, she is subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. Look at the vitriol aimed exclusively at Lena Dunham's body. When her character in the HBO hit Girls, Hannah Horvath, seduces and impresses an older, good-looking man in the pointedly titled episode "One Man's Trash", the critics were stunned. “But she's not hot enough!” They cried, some going so far as to imagine that the whole episode must be some sort of dream sequence – the dream of a plain woman who wishes she were beautiful. The idea that Hannah, or Lena for that matter, might imagine herself attractive offends many people's sensibilities.
And I cringe, reading the commentary – I feel myself retreating. How dangerous it seems, to believe that we are beautiful, to even imply it. How exposed.
I catch myself feeling afraid to say something positive about my appearance, even when I feel it. I'm almost inviting people to comment negatively, and honestly, I'm not confident enough about the way I look to do that.
I don't want to hear them tell me I'm wrong, I'm ugly. Why? Because beauty feels important, even when I'd like it not to, even when there are a million other, bigger, more pressing things in my life, beauty feels sensitive, because we know, let's be honest, we know it matters.
But I want to speak up. This culture of shame and forced modesty is as much a problem as our culture of body insecurity and beauty obsession.
We are getting caught in a sticky trap of mixed messages: we are supposed to be modest, even as we're supposed to be confident. But it shouldn't have to be immodest or arrogant just to acknowledge when we're good at something. Or when we look good. That should just be realism.
We can't all look bad all the time. Sometimes we are pretty. Sometimes we are smokin' hot. Sometimes we are attractive, even if we don't look like the movie stars and models who still can't admit to their own beauty. Sometimes we look like movie stars and models, just because we happen to have been born with those genes.
I wasn't born with those genes. Instead, I got a hearty dose of nerdy Jewish heredity and some inherent schlumpiness. But sometimes, I catch myself looking awesome. Sometimes, I notice that I am beautiful anyway.
And I'm going to go out on a limb and admit it. If you want to, too, I'd be happy to hear it. Good for you!!