The Rumpus Saturday Essay: Me Be Pretty One Day

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When I was younger and lonelier and knew more about other people than I did about myself, I thought what I wanted was to be pretty. I thought of it as an existential status, pretty. I thought: if I know all the right lipstick shades and I can walk in heels that will be it. I will have checked off all the boxes. From then on, stairs will only lead upwards and I’ll never buy another mealy apple and I’ll land a Heathcliff to my Catherine without another thought. So I bought all the pretty-making things the others had. For girls, anyway, particularly around middle school, there is a list of these things one Must Have. Someone, though it’s rarely clear who, is keeping track.

Most people have mothers who guide them through this. My own was never much for such things, partially because my grandparents, dairy farmers in rural Québec, were so thin on money that she’d never been able to conceive of buying them. But she knew the pretty-girl trappings were the price of entry for most young female friendships and this last, she was determined I would have. Indulging me, though, did not make the difference she’d hoped. It took me years to see the waste of time and money it was. For me, I mean; people always read my judging them into that. But the things I had, the jelly shoes and the sparkly lip gloss, the Tribe perfume and the Club Monaco sweatshirt, they didn’t make me more acceptable, least of all to myself. I did like that fake watermelon smell, I liked catching unexpected whiffs of candy all day long. It was soothing.

But none of it changed me in the eyes of other people. The skills of friendship would take a few more years to learn. It would happen, mostly, in an era where I wore all the wrong things but I guess said at least a few of the right ones. It happened in an era where everyone I knew had long since tired of gauging other people by the checklist handed out at the door of what was “pretty” and what wasn’t.

This has made me, as an adult, perhaps a little more hostile to the claims of those who “defend” beauty than I should be.

Of late these defenders have been very vocal about the connection between beauty and writing, particularly with respect to women’s writing. In a (characteristically) beautiful short essay for Lambda Literary, the poet Saeed Jones suggests that “the poetics of beauty isn’t really about poetics at all.” He points out the difference in tone between the way many write about Anne Sexton and the way they write about Adrienne Rich. He pointed out that race and class are wound up in this beauty ideal and he was right. Somehow the louche glamour of the padded shoulder, dark lipstick, draped-over-couches thing is not available to whole swaths of womanhood. It’s a shame.

The essay has a context I won’t get into because I do not know much about it, something about gay men and beauty and queer poetry that I’d like to learn about but haven’t yet. I agree with Saeed, though, that the problem at root is one of prioritizing “bodies over bodies of work,” and I think it goes beyond the context he gives it.

Earlier this year, when Jonathan Franzen wrote about Edith Wharton and commented on her looks, so many of us were incensed. A lot of people were angry that he’d brought her looks into the equation but I barely understood what he said about her looks in the first place. It wasn’t the least bit clear why he thought Wharton wasn’t pretty. He declared this without stating his reasons, reasons undoubtedly derived from photographs, because they clearly never met. He clearly did not have the opportunity to gauge what strikes me as the actual essence of beauty but is rarely discussed: the alchemy between personality and certain “acceptable” facial features — the pert nose, full lips, wide eyes, long lashes. None of these latter have much to recommend them without an animating spirit, it seems to me. Any dead-eyed catalogue page can show you that.

Of course, we knew what he meant, anyway. What he meant was something like what my middle-school guardians meant when they declared a girl ugly — “Her hair is greasy!” “Her eyes bulge!” He meant that her body could not be poured with ease into the fashions of the day. Most of all he meant that he, personally, did not find her attractive, which somehow transmogrified, in the natural way these things do, into the world not finding her so. Men often talk this way, casually inserting appraisals.

I never know how to explain this properly to men but that, right there, is the essential weaponry of the whole beauty calculus: how quickly “I think” becomes “The world knows.”

That is not to let women off the hook, of course, because in a very real way the fetish is ours. Mine too. I write a lot about women and writing because I can’t seem to turn off the faucet, and every time I do so I end up talking about beauty even as I try to steer around it. Just last week I wrote a short piece about Yeats and couldn’t help but comment that Iseult Gonne was beautiful. I had to add pictures of them because I like the pictures, because the eyes are haunted in a way I find instructive.

I want to get away from pictures, really I do. When there was the whole dust-up earlier this year over a young writer who wrote about her sex life the story and the picture were inseparable. People had to look. They had to see. They had to have opinions of who and what she was that were, effectively, all about the picture. Not about the writing. This bothered me more than I should say, because it tapped into a deep well of longing and frustration I had long since thought had been lured underground. There are people who would call that pure jealousy but I think it’s more complicated. I do not want to be a writer with a picture you can’t ignore. I want to be a writer with words you can’t, though. I don’t know any woman writer who wouldn’t say that’s what she wants.

But then I know that, at least for “Girls,” that troublesome category, the question of self and beauty is not really separable. I am not a fan, per se of, the show that’s currently providing a fulcrum for the discussion. Something about it is at once too broad and too uncommitted to broadness to appeal to me. But I admit the moment I really thought was brilliant, that said something I hadn’t heard before, was the one in which Lena Dunham’s character is asked why she has so many tattoos. Her Hannah is not an alterna-punk girl, she doesn’t register as someone who’s read a lot of Michelle Tea or Eileen Myles, and as such her heavily inked back does seem out of place. Her answer to her boy-questioner is something like, I got them because I was gaining a lot of weight, and because I wanted them to mark some control of that. The honesty of that — apparently it’s Dunham’s own explanation — undid me. If only the rest of the show was like that, saw that the brilliance of it could reside in the blank indifferent of the boy’s reaction. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know how it works, for “girls.”

But then, most days, neither do I. I was out the other night with a few friends and was talking to one about romantic disappointment and I said something offhand like, “I am not the type men go for.” I can’t tell you I know what I meant by that, other than cite evidence, but fundamentally it was a ridiculous statement and my interlocutor called me on it.

As women sometimes do in these situations we began considering revisions to my current style. I call the style “uniform,” since it is in essence always the same: black top, some sort of denim, dark lip gloss and eyeliner if I’m feeling fancy. A necklace if I am not feeling lazy. “You have this whole Winona Ryder in the 90s thing going on,” she said to me, by way of sizing up my aesthetic. An absurd statement on some levels — no one will ever use the words “elfin” or “waif” to describe me — and yet one that made me feel, suddenly, as if I had been blessed. Because I know what I know about the way “prettiness” is artillery to the soul, I clamped down on it quickly. But the blush crept across my face, anyway.

 


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →