Why can't women think they're pretty?

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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.

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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!!

50 comments so far

  • On my facebook feed, the 'I am beautiful! This is real beauty!' posts are authored and shared by overweight women, older women, post baby-body women. All my gym junkie and model friends post about their body inadequacies.

    Commenter
    mk.mac
    Date and time
    February 18, 2013, 9:38AM
    • I've often thought that women complaining about themselves is just attention seeking. I see a stunning lady and she sees all these flaws. Still stunning to me though.

      Commenter
      Schmavo
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 9:42AM
      • *Groan*

        ... dismissing someone's behavior as 'attention seeking' simply because you don't understand it is the ultimate form of silencing. What's more, this idea that as long as you find a woman 'stunning' then she should automatically substitute your opinion for her own (and that' it's self-involved of her not to) speaks volumes about your ego... Newsflash: it's not all about you buddy!

        Commenter
        Nina
        Date and time
        February 18, 2013, 10:02AM
      • I think i'm pretty. Bam!

        Commenter
        SarahSarah
        Date and time
        February 18, 2013, 11:51AM
      • Nina, you are projecting. Schmavo does not say that she should change her views because of the way he perceives her.
        He is just saying, that as men we are often surprised to hear from a woman, that she does not consider herself attractive. I heard the most stunning women say that, and it should be okay for us simple-minded men to be puzzled about that, shouldn't it?
        In fact, this article helps me understand what is going on, thank you!

        Commenter
        Jo
        Date and time
        February 19, 2013, 10:17AM
    • Having just turned 44, I realise that only in the past few years I have forgiven myself for being me.

      As a late teen I felt I was too shy, pimply and overall unattractive. I did not notice at the time that I was quite slim with a tall figure many women my age and older envied. I could not see it because I disliked other things about myself.

      Through my twenties and thirties I battled with the concept that I was not like other women I admired. I am reserved, quiet and do not seek attention. I thought I should be more bubbly and outgoing. I've always been attractive but it does not mean I have always liked who I was.

      I'm blessed with great genes and have always looked after my skin. I really do look like I am 30. Nobody ever guesses my age. But I'm also...well educated, talented, intelligent, artistic and funny. I can make people writhe on the floor in laughter with the most spontaneous of comments.

      I'm driven and enterprising. I'm about to start part time studies - the first time at Uni for over 20 yeas. I create beautiful things with my hands that people spend their hard-earned money on to treat themselves.

      As to looks - my darling partner (bless his kind and loving soul) tells me I am naturally attractive. I don't need makeup or embellishments to be attractive in his eyes. And now, finally, I don't stress about my looks. I scrupulously look after what I have, but I don't desire to change it.

      I've stopped comparing because I like who I have become and I am loved for being her.

      Commenter
      Forgiven
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 9:45AM
      • +1

        Commenter
        Nina
        Date and time
        February 18, 2013, 10:05AM
    • I don't think this issue is necessarily only something that women experience (however I do believe they probably have it worse than anyone). But as a man and a gay man I can tell you its pretty bad in my world too.

      If anyone has ever seen the movie Mean Girls where three gorgeous teenage girls stand in front of a mirror and start picking themselves to bits "God I have man shoulders", "My pores are huge", "My nail bits suck".

      We are always comparing ourselves to the rich and famous and often unrealistic beauty standards of magazines, tv and movies.

      Next time you give someone a compliment watch how they react, 9/10 they will reject the compliment like "well thank you but I don't see it" or they'll make a non-commital noise like "mmmm".

      Most of us don't believe we're beautiful or good looking which is a shame because really - everyone is beautiful in their own way. But only when you believe it does it really shine through.

      Next time someone gives you a compliment, even if you don't believe it, just smile and say "thank you, I appreciate the compliment" its amazing how wonderful you feel afterwards.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 9:54AM
      • Adrian, I really like what you said about accepting compliments. It's really hard to do, but makes you feel great when you finally can. After a few years I'm now okay at accepting compliments, but still have trouble talking myself up. I think, as Kate wrote, it's fear of someone saying the opposite.

        So I'm scared to say I'm beautiful because I'm already expecting people to point out the flaws (and finding the flaws myself as a result. But you know what? I have lovely eyes and a cheeky smile I really like. I'm not perfect, but I'm pretty happy with how I am.

        Commenter
        AmyBG
        Date and time
        February 18, 2013, 11:42AM
    • Bragging about how awesome you think you are just isn't a great look, whether you do it about your appearance, your money, your staggering intellect or how many sit ups you can do in a row. Maybe this helps to explain why women aren't likely to go around talking up their own beauty.

      That, and nobody wants to be the next Samantha Brett. ;)

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 9:56AM

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