Yes, another post about pretty girls. Before you sigh and cringe and get ready to spew general disdain, I’m not here to humblebrag or tell you about pretty girl syndrome or pretty girl problems. When we talk about the “pretty girl” as a phenomenon, there are some fundamental questions that surround the discussion: What is a pretty girl? Who decides what a pretty girl is? And what are we to do about it?
The discourse of what constitutes a pretty girl is paradoxically both exhausted and insufficient. We all know and we all talk about how privileged certain conceptions of beauty are over others – whiteness is one example, thinness is another example. The media and we, the people, are continuously shaping and re-shaping the constructions to privilege people with certain features and attributes over others. We are all culprits. We don’t like to think that we participate in the constructions but because most of us produce and consume the messages around us that create biases of what beauty is and isn’t, we are not exempt from prejudices of beauty. We say Gwyneth Paltrow is a pretty girl and so is Cindy Crawford, Demi Moore, Hale Berry, and all the rest. And so they are.
But those are celebrities who are privileged anyway because of their status. But what about us? What about us, the regular people? Based on our prejudiced standards, we call some people beautiful while rendering others average or ugly. Our conceptions are based on the objective standard of what is aesthetically pleasing to the senses as much as it is based on culturally-specific perceptions. But our senses are not objective because from birth we have been exposed to a limited conception of what is beautiful and cultures, of course, are not impartial. Moreover, cultural conceptions are not equally valued in our world – hegemony perpetuates the beauty discourse as it does most things. A pretty girl is who we say a pretty girl is; the majority rules and it is a tyrannous majority.
When I was younger, I was not considered a pretty girl. When you’re a dark-skinned Black African female, you do not start off in the world with beauty privilege on your side. It didn’t matter that my family told me otherwise, the world told me that I was not, and so I wasn’t. It was often a source of confusion and discontent in my childhood – I was everything else but not pretty. There was a transition, however, a sort of ugly-duckling evolution when all of a sudden, I could be considered pretty by that same tyrannous majority. This is not unusual; one’s physical features sometimes change in a way that is found to be more appealing by the majority. But perhaps what changed more was my attitude towards myself — I found a voice, no matter how small, that I wouldn’t let that tyrannous majority dictate what I saw when I looked in the mirror.
The consequences of being pretty or being considered pretty rather, are not universal because the experiences that led to that label are not universal. If my story is one of the ugly duckling who had to learn how to say, “Thank you” rather than make self-deprecating clarifications when strangers would comment on how I look, that is not a universal experience. I know pretty girls who have always been pretty and for them the incident of a strangers compliment is an every-day occurrence and expectation. Some of these pretty girls still say “Thank you” and some don’t care enough about it to explicitly express gratitude. I know pretty girls who expect things for free and will gladly take them because while the majority considers them beautiful, they are sure as hell going to take advantage of it. I know pretty girls who feel embarrassed to let anyone favor them because of their beauty, and I know pretty girls who explicitly refuse anything given to them by virtue of someone thinking they are pretty. I know pretty girls who are very sure, very certain, very accustomed to almost everyone considering them beautiful. But I mostly know pretty girls who aren’t so certain of the tyrannous majority’s labeling of them and who are still are as insecure as everyone else is, about the way they look.
The label, “pretty girl” and the way we define it is problematic because it is not something that one is necessarily deserving of, because in its current construction, it can seldom ever be earned. And if you have that label, then there are expectations of how one ought to feel about it which are as arbitrary as the standard itself. So being pretty becomes this thing that everyone talks about and some people have it and some people don’t but no one really understands exactly what they are referring to or its implications. And the conversation continues to be exhausting and insufficient.
So what do we do with pretty girls and pretty girl labels? I think we realize in the first place that it is somewhat of a myth — not that it is necessarily unreal because it is as real as much as any social construction is real. But that it is not an objective, entire, and complete notion that is verifiable and exists, ipso facto. If a guy wants to buy me a drink because he thinks I’m pretty, I will gratefully accept if I want to talk to the guy anyway. And hopefully there will be other things he finds about me that are attractive other than those biased senses and conceptions he uses. But maybe it’ll do anyone who is in this position to remember that for every one of these guys, there is another, even if he’s in the minority who will look at you in terms of solely your physical appearance and say, “What’s the big deal?” or worse. And if we all remember that, we’ll hopefully be humble enough to realize that the world’s standards for physical beauty shouldn’t ever be the most valuable thing about us. And perhaps if we all did, the pretty girl label, if it ought to exist at all, can finally be something we’re all capable of earning because it’ll have more to do with who are than what we look like.