Don’t Tell Me I’m Pretty
“You look very pretty today,” my neighbor said to me the other day.
She had greeted me after I had come back from a job interview, and I nodded my head in thanks as I unlocked the door to my apartment. My black shift dress and matching liquid liner with contact lenses were standouts from my usual t-shirts and jeans with thick-framed glasses that she sees maneuvering around the halls.
It was an outfit I knew made me look good. But at the same time, her compliment caught me off guard. She meant well, but it got me thinking about how I have been hearing my friends and acquaintances paying me those compliments a lot more lately. Pretty. Beautiful. And my feelings about those compliments are ambivalent at best.
It used to be that I wasn’t considered these things. At my heaviest, I was a 300-pound, 5’11 bespectacled nerd girl, in your face, happy, opinionated and strong. There were many words used to describe me — bubbly, friendly, loud, stubborn, eccentric, weird. But beautiful nor pretty were ever in there. In fact, you could have probably call me the DUFF, or designated ugly fat friend. It’s a term that seems to be getting more recognition as of late, particularly with the movie coming out of the same name.
My ex never called me beautiful, either. His voice would get nasal and irritating as he called me “sexy” or “hot,” making me self-conscious. His tone of voice was one where I knew he was lying, because when I would ask him if I was beautiful, he would never say that word back. The so-called compliments from him that I knew were real were those he used without that nasal inflection, like “irresponsible,” “difficult,” “too independent” and “living in a fantasy world.”
Beautiful and pretty were things I assumed would never happen to me, although that wasn’t to say I stopped trying to fit the description. Red lipstick would be darted across my lips and dresses and tops were donned that showed off my ample breasts. It was my own odd version of the topic of pretty. In a world where a certain size is the normal one and my body never fit the standard of feminine beauty (both in height and weight), it was easier not to conform. Rather, it was simply good enough to be something that made me feel beautiful when I walked out the door into the world, both in clothes and attitude, and not think about everyone else.
When the weight loss came, both before and after my split, I began to see the change in how people would respond to me. Then after I took off my glasses and began wearing contacts, it became even more palpable. It was like people finally realized that I was a feminine woman — why taking off my glasses proved this, I don’t know. But then the compliments followed.
I would go out and my friends would start saying how beautiful I looked. People would ask me how I lost the weight. (Answer: Poverty and stress.) Guys started leaning in to ask me questions with their heads tilted to one side while girls would jump in and try to steal the conversation from me, trying to pretend I didn’t exist so they could get the guy who was paying attention to me.
So I’m pretty now, I guess. When I was younger, heavier and nerdier, I would have given anything to be told how pretty I looked on a regular basis, be flirted with and receive those words from the people around me. But now it feels like the wrong pair of shoes; they look nice on your feet, but then you walk around in them, and you don’t feel steady.
The compliment of “pretty” feels good… for about five seconds. It can be like a drug for many of us. We can’t hear it enough, and when we don’t hear it, we get hungry for it again. We buy the makeup, work out for hours in the gym, spend hours looking at ourselves in the mirror and taking selfies in the hopes that we’re going to be called “pretty” by anyone and everyone — whether we have a partner or not. It’s a never-ending cycle of trying too hard, and after a while, I get tired. Pretty needs constant maintenance, and it doesn’t last forever.
It was something I thought about when I sat in a job interview for a company that made me take a standardized test before I arrived. Sitting across the table from four men, I watched one of them whose body language very clearly said I was pretty (either that or he had never seen a girl before and was mesmerized by my existence), but I wondered deep down why they brought me in. It certainly wasn’t to ogle me. When I asked them how I scored on that standardized test and why that led them to call me, one of the other guys answered back frankly but sincerely.
“Well, you’re a writer, so we expected for you to score high on the verbal,” he said. “And you did, you got the 97th percentile. But we also found that you have great math and spatial skills as well, which isn’t as common for writers. It made you different than the other candidates.”
There was the sense of a compliment in his tone of voice, and it sang out how smart I was. It was the first time in ages that I had been called that. In my unwieldy mind, a match was struck and it wouldn’t go out. Unlike red lipstick that fades, smart doesn’t go away. You can’t wash it off and it doesn’t disappear into the clutches of time. And despite the fact that I didn’t get that job, the compliment of “smart” stuck in my brain and made me feel better than I had in a long time.
Suddenly, I saw a different set of compliments fluttering around me. Sure, there were the people who told me I looked beautiful in a given moment; I saw it, accepted it and then let it flow off of me. But at the same time, there was the woman who called me for a phone screen for a job and told me how lovely my energy was. Then my cousin who told me I was the most ambitious person she had ever met. In the background were my parents who told me how courageous I was in the face of rejection and despair, and my strength in getting up and fighting on. The feeling of my friend as she told me how much she loved the words I wrote for this blog. And how, after I told him one of the most horrific details of my life, a boy held my hand on a park bench, hugged me tight and told me how amazing my spirit is.
Looking into his eyes, I know that he could have told me I was beautiful a hundred times over and it wouldn’t have made a dent. Instead he made my heart sing by telling me how much he respected me and how I could have been a different person given what life has thrown my way. Yet I was “optimistic,” “funny,” “kind” and “brave,” among other wonderful words that my gut told me he sincerely meant. And every adjective I could use to describe him — warm, brilliant, sensitive, affectionate, dedicated, ambitious, and even gentlemanly — have nothing to do with how he looks on the outside. It’s recognizing the humanity in him and having him see it in me.
Exterior is just one facet of what makes us who we are; inside our minds and through our actions, we contain seas of valuable treasures only we can share with the world. It can be loyalty, intelligence, sincerity, ambition or even a dash of courage. We can do so much better than pretty; after all, beauty can only heal the world up to a limited extent, and may mask more than its contributions in true value. We should compliment the insides too, and as often as we can.