A friend shared this video on my Facebook wall the other day. I watched it late at night, alone, with my baby daughter sleeping down the hall. I had never heard of Katie Makkai before but I’ll never forget her now. Her performance of her poem “Pretty” was gut wrenching and real, detailing the machinations she endured in pursuit of prettiness. Her shouted words in answer to the question “Will I be pretty?” rang through my head like a call to arms:
This, this is about my own some-day daughter. When you approach me, already stung-stayed with insecurity, begging, “Mom, will I be pretty? Will I be pretty? , ” I will wipe that question from your mouth like cheap lipstick and answer no. The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine will be contained in five letters. You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing, but you will never be merely “pretty.”
I am not pretty. I never was pretty. I’m not unattractive but my appearance is unconventional, a strange mixture of Russian and Irish, peasant stock. I look functional. Strong, perhaps, smart. I hope. But not really pretty. That, somehow, is ok with me.
You see, I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s before the internet, before the 24 hour E! channel cycle, before TMZ. My teen years weren’t lined with red carpets and impossibly-made starlets. I didn’t pour over Teen Vogue and try to be like the models airbrushed onto those pages. Instead, I was a poet, an actress, a girl in black, eschewing mainstream movies and TV in favor of art films and Kurt Vonnegut novels. I was a creature of words, not of images, and my sense of myself was not in comparison to pre-packaged pretty. I looked for beauty in the women around me, real teens, real adults, in all their varied forms and colors. Beauty to me was real, lasting like art, not ephemeral and fleeting. Not painted on or surgically corrected.
Moreover, I walked among budding intellectuals and valued my brain. I knew myself as my thoughts. I knew myself as my mind. And while my image mattered, it mattered in the way of red lipstick and black eyeliner and standing out as different, smarter, more creative, more talented. Not merely pretty. Pretty wasn’t enough for me. I wanted a different kind of notice.
Can I give that to my daughter? I don’t know.
I chose my own steps off the beaten path. Maybe I went there because I knew I wasn’t pretty and I needed to go someplace where that didn’t matter. I can’t really say, now, so many years after I made the choice not to agonize over prettiness. But I still don’t agonize over it and my daughter will never see me agonize over it. What she will see from me is good grooming, a sense of fun about my looks, a lack of worry about how I present myself to people who don’t matter anyway. She will never hear me comment on my weight or my shape. She will walk beside me as I age with at least moderate grace. (Coloring the grey is a forgivable vice, yes?) I will show her my comfort in my own skin.
I will show her my work, my writing, my charitable endeavors. I will share with her my music and favorite books. I will give her humor and lessons about compassion. I will praise her. I will praise her effort, her creativity, her acts of caring for others. I will not call her pretty as I do not call her brother handsome. I will emphasize their sense of selves as their minds, their hearts, their words, their actions.
I am the first female image to my children, my daughter especially. Her first icon, perhaps. I am not pretty and I will not drive her to prettiness. I will try to lead her to so much more.
Photo credit: author