Friday, September 6, 2013

Skin Deep

I don't think I'm very pretty.

Before you read any farther, let me clarify something: I'm not blogging today to talk about the shape of my nose or my waist-to-hip ratio. What I want to discuss is a pattern I've noticed when I express this thought out loud.

When I say "I don't think I'm very pretty," there is a 1.5 second delay. Then someone gets mad.

"Why would you say that?" they demand. "Don't ever say that! You're gorgeous!"

Every single time.

I don't get anything like this reaction when I say "I don't think I'm very good at football."

People stare in confusion. "Huh?" they ask. "Why would you care about football? This isn't high school."

I don't get it even when I talk about something that I know I'm good at.

"I'm just not cut out for this," I'll say, staring at 118 pages of editing work left to do.

"Oh, gosh, I know," say passers-by. "It's so hard, and you always miss something. Editing's a pain."

I have never had anyone cry in alarm, "Why would you say you're bad at calculus? Don't ever say that! You're amazing!" No one is upset that I think that I have trouble parallel parking. I've never heard a peep of protest over my insistence that I just can't swim the butterfly. But if I declare that I'm not pretty, everyone in earshot panics. And the conversation is not allowed to end until I'm beaten into submission on the issue.

Why do we do this?

I have a very dear friend. She is one of the smartest, quirkiest, most entertaining people I know. She throws great parties, always knows the best books I've never heard of, and has thousands of fascinating insights into the things in which we're both interested. I think I'd known her six months before I realized she wasn't pretty. She pointed it out to me.

As soon as she said it, I felt those same words rising in my throat. "You're super pretty!" I wanted to say. "You have great bone structure." (I still have no idea what this means; people just say it.) "You have fantastic eyes." Or maybe "Anyone who thinks you're not pretty just isn't bothering to look hard enough." And then I stopped myself. Because it felt wrong.

Why was it so important to me that my friend think herself pretty? Why, when she already knew herself to be smart and capable and hilarious and dedicated and brilliant?

We talk about 'inner beauty.' We tell girls and women that they are beautiful because they are kind, beautiful because they are creative, beautiful because they are welcoming, beautiful because they are confident. These qualities give them inner beauty. But . . . why? Why can't we just be kind and creative and welcoming and confident, straight up?

Because, at the backs of our brains, encoded into the binary of our thoughts, is still the conviction that beauty is the only important attribute a woman can have. We don't tell boys that their diligence or compassion or prudence make them handsome. Those qualities have intrinsic worth when we're talking about guys. But for girls . . .

So when I say "I don't think I'm very pretty," what my listeners hear is "I don't believe I'm worth anything." And they react immediately and instinctively to beat down this idea before it does me harm.

In the spirit of kindness and empowerment, we work as hard as we can to stretch the definition of beauty to include everyone. And that's fantastic. (In fact, if you'd like to see some awesome work in this department, google Beauty Redefined.) But can we even go farther than that? Can we get to the point, as a culture, where beauty becomes just one desirable quality among many, instead of the baseline of personal worth, the ultimate goal of all self-improvement?

I don't think I'm very pretty. I'm good at working with power tools. I'm not terribly good at electronics. I'm hilarious. I'm no good at Spanish. I'm a really good listener. I'm rubbish at video games. I'm an excellent writer. I have no skill whatsoever in the application of eyeliner. I'm a dang good teacher.

I'm a person, not a picture. I don't think I'm very pretty. And that isn't a problem.