Stop Calling My Daughter Pretty

7 minute read
Kelleher is the author of The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, an essay collection that illuminates the darkness hidden behind our prettiest purchases

The other week, my four-year-old daughter and I were going to her swimming lessons, when a man came up to us in the gym and exclaimed: “What pretty girls!”

“Mama, what did he say?” my daughter asked, her strawberry blonde hair falling in her face. “He said he likes your hat,” I lied. I didn’t want her to know how he was looking at us, how his assessing gaze had combed over our features and found them satisfying. I didn’t want her to feel proud of that label: pretty. 

My daughter has already begun receiving compliments from strangers on her blue eyes and big smile. Despite the fact that I adore her face beyond words, it does make me mildly uncomfortable to hear these things from people in passing.

When I was a child, I thought being pretty was an important currency, one that could be potentially traded for power, money, or happiness. I was told I had some; I wanted more. My mother helped, taking me to a salon at age 12 to get my hair highlighted, buying me fashionable clothes, encouraging me to take perfect care of my nails and skin, like she did. I don’t blame my mother for raising me how she did, though at times I do feel resentful of how much the word “pretty” has ruled my life—how thoroughly her declarations of my attractiveness shaped my self-conception; how powerless I felt when I thought I was “not pretty enough.”

To be pretty is a privilege; we’ve all come to realize that. But it’s also a liability. It arrives on one's doorstep, a neat package tied with a ribbon, stuffed with resentment and bile, expectations, and justifications.

The word pretty is like glitter. It shimmers, but it also invades. 

This isn’t a new concept— that the weight of the word “pretty” is too much for a child to hold. I’m old enough to remember when poet Katie Makkai went viral for her performance of “Pretty” back in 2007. She described how her “poor mother” went about “fixing” her looks to give her an advantage in life, a “marketable facade.” I was 20 when this video began circulating in my corner of the internet, and I remember watching it again and again to absorb her righteous anger.

I’m 37 now and I see the same sentiments echoed on TikTok, young women frustrated with the ugliness of being pretty. Recently, influencer Caroline Lusk has gotten some blowback for daring to call herself “pretty,” which inspired her to post about all the times that men have harassed her. “Their excuse for all of those actions is because they think I’m pretty,” she says. “It’s a compliment,” she sarcastically continues, but not one that she can repeat or accept. “I’m a bitch if I do.”

From a young age, we train girls to accept compliments with deflection, to be nice and polite, to appreciate the attention without appearing to enjoy it. It’s a thin line we expect them to walk. And whether or not we intend to, we teach our daughters to navigate this world through our own actions. My mother watched her mother do her makeup and act demure around men; my daughter watches me brush on my mascara and try to shrug off catcalls with a joke and a laugh. 

Multiple studies that came out around the wake of the #metoo movement indicated that the negative consequences of objectifying young women may run deeper than expected. Harassment, which can include supposedly complimentary statements like those detailed by Lusk, can cause pre-teen and teen girls severe mental distress, increasing their likeliness to self harm, engage in disordered eating, abuse substances, and experience suicidal ideation.

Read More: Survivors Used #MeToo to Speak Up. A Year Later, They’re Still Fighting for Meaningful Change

Of course, not all compliments are harassment, and to comment on another person’s looks isn’t always abuse. But the point is that it can be

Women and femme-presenting people are often subjected to this kind of attention, and it doesn’t matter whether they are conventionally attractive. It can happen to anyone, though whether or not we’ll be believed is always up in the air. People who are deemed pretty tend to be considered more credible when reporting abuse, while those seen as less desirable tend to be dismissed. This is a function of pretty privilege, but what a sad perk it is. Citing the recent online discourses about “pretty privilege,” Guardian columnist Moira Donegan notes that while pretty people do get more status in some ways, these gifts are given “in a very ambivalent way.” She told me, “It’s ‘privilege’ that requires sacrifices of time, money, health, and self respect, and which makes the recipient complicit in broader misogynist value systems.” 

The problem, ultimately, is that the power given by anointing someone “pretty” does not make up for the pain that comes from subscribing to this measurement of value. And even if you prefer not to elevate “pretty,” the sheer repetition of that idea, the reinforcement of the concept that pretty matters— this begins to feel true on a deeper emotional level. Social constructs are difficult to resist precisely for this reason: they appear endless, infinite, and we inhale them like smoke. 

And then I think back to that man in the gym. Or the people that give my daughter compliments. It turns out they’re not the real issue. The most insidious messaging comes from television and movies, from the endless parade of girls in gowns depicted in highly gendered children’s shows. Of course, we can watch Bluey instead of Princess Power, but I won’t deny her the classics. We watch Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, just like most households. And I try to focus my attention on the gorgeous illustrations rather than fixating on the skinny blondes that flit across the screen. I try to direct her attention to other aesthetic triumphs, too, ones located outside the human body and its depictions. “Look at that castle,” I sigh to her, hoping some of my love for architecture will be passed on, or maybe my interest in plants. “Do you recognize those flowers?”

One can claim prettiness or refuse prettiness, but neither of these actions will shatter the force of lookism. Instead of focusing our resistance on the word pretty, what if we ignored it entirely. What if we deflated the word, took the power out of it, and replaced it with other compliments. What if we stopped ranking women by numericals, stopped telling strangers what we thought of their faces. What if, instead, we divert our attention to other, more interesting pursuits.

At the end of her poem, Makkai imagined a conversation with her “some-day daughter,” who wants to know if she’s going to be pretty. “The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine will be contained in five letters,” she spat into the mic, bestowing this angry blessing on her audience. 

I’ve held onto those words—I want all of us to be more than simply any one thing. Not just for our children, but I’m starting there. Raising a child with an intrinsic, expansive sense of self worth is no small task. But it’s where I can place my energy right now. And that feels good enough.

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