The Pretty Problem

I guess I’m a problem. Also a girl.

Text meme. Text in the body of the post.
I am so pro-selfie.

There are so many bigger problems in the world than girls who think they’re pretty.

One of those problems is girls who don’t think they are pretty. #takeaselfie

This was being passed around on Facebook. My initial reaction was “Seriously? I’m a problem because I’m aware I’m not pretty? Take all the selfies you want, but fuck all the way off.” I still think that’s valid.

It’s not, however, particularly accessible. And since this was being passed around by thoughtful people, making my thoughts on this more accessible is probably a good thing. Besides, my Facebook friends are probably tired of me talking about my relationship with lookism.

Here’s the thing about selfies: I’m entirely serious that you should take and post all the selfies you want to. If you don’t want to, it’s probably worth thinking about why. You may discover you’re carrying around societal messages about your looks and your worth that could use a bit of good undermining, for your own sake or for other people’s. You may decide that when you listen to what you think instead of those societal messages, you do want to give selfies a go. Then do it.

You might also discover that you’re not cut out for the selfie revolution. You might not like the work you have to do to get selfies you’re willing to post. You might find that editing your life through selfie selection makes you feel dishonest. You might not want people to look at you and comment on your looks for a variety of reasons. You might find that the responses you get are more important to you than you want your appearance to be.

That’s cool too. No problem, no matter what any meme says.

Nor do you have to think you’re pretty. You don’t have to find anything that makes you feel pretty–not an outfit or a way of doing your makeup or an angle or a lighting setup or a filter. You don’t have to “get over” any negative thoughts about your own appearance (though a strong divergence between your own thoughts and those of others could be a sign of disordered thinking that’s worth pursuing, particularly if your own thoughts are causing you distress).

These, too, are absolutely zero problem, and fuck anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

Here’s the thing about pretty: An awful lot of what makes “pretty” isn’t worth a damn. Some of it is, including the simple pleasure of enjoying looking at another person. Pretty isn’t required for that, though.

Most of the selfies I appreciate on Facebook don’t come from pretty people. That’s partly because most people aren’t particularly pretty, particularly in an aging cohort like mine, and partly because what makes me care about these people isn’t what they look like. I care, mostly, about how they’re grasping a hold of life.

For some of them, that is about pretty. It’s about dating and being attractive to others. It’s about taking and looking at and posting pictures that help them undo negative or distorted body images. It’s about clinging to a positive thing on a bad day. It’s about controlling how their bodies look along with what they’re capable of. It’s about fashion and makeup and pulling together an image, whatever else the world may throw at them.

This is all good. I like these selfies.

For other people, it’s about anything else. It’s about putting on performances that have nothing to do with pretty or undercut pretty. It’s about using a picture to share a mood because words take too long. It’s about capturing time with friends or time with family. It’s about documenting travels. It’s about showing who they are when they’re engrossed in work. It’s about saying, “I’m not even pretty, and I don’t give a damn.”

These are also good. I like these selfies too. They have nothing to do with pretty, and that’s a good thing.

Here’s the other thing about pretty: Some of what constitutes pretty is bad for us. Pretty is exclusionary. Pretty favors the young. It favors the light-skinned. It favors the healthy. It favors a narrow weight range. It favors the feminine. It favors those with time and/or money to spare. It is possible to be pretty outside those parameters, but it’s far more rare.

Pretty is privileged. Pretty people receive more opportunities and more positive attention. They’re even paid better. Substantial time and money is spent marketing pretty to us as a necessary product, which is done by making us feel insecure about how we look without help.

These are things that make the pressure to be pretty worth resisting. They are also things that make pretty worth co-opting, subverting, complicating, expanding. Both of those are worthwhile work, but any one person can really only do one effectively at a time.

Me? I’ve really only got the temperament to do the first part of that on a regular basis. I don’t have the temperament or even the proper equipment to do it through selfies.

I’m a lot of things. Pretty isn’t one of them, not even in high femme, not even with this ridiculous nose of mine. I have a lifetime of experience of the rest of the world telling me so. I’m more than capable of looking at our models for pretty and seeing how I don’t fit. Claiming pretty for myself would be a fight I don’t want to add to my list. I’m already fighting plenty, and this particular fight would be bad for me in ways that are none of your business and that I resent even having to bring up in public.

So take your meme and your blame and your selfies and go…think about which one of the three is going to do any good posted to someone’s social media. Think about the fact that this meme reinforces the idea that “girls” have to be pretty or think they’re pretty and what that means for the ones who honestly can’t.

And “girls” who aren’t pretty and aren’t up for that fight? You can come hang with me.

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The Pretty Problem
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5 thoughts on “The Pretty Problem

  1. 1

    I’ve always hated pictures of myself, though as I get older I mind them less. I don’t know if it’s about not being pretty or it’s the reversal of left and right from what I see in the mirror that makes me disclaim them.
    Selfies I’ve seen further distort faces than that. The over-close angle exaggerates a nose, forehead, or chin, making me wonder even more why somebody’d want one.
    I don’t do much about shooting others either. I prefer to shoot scenery, architecture, weather, flowers, critters, a dead stump, a breaking wave. I wait till the people leave before pressing that button. My memories of people are about how I felt about them, what feelings, ideas, events we shared. I haven’t figured out how to translate that into a photo. I do make exceptions for those milestone moments, first steps, kindergarten diploma, important achievement, that we-were-all-together-here moment which increasingly mark the befores and afters of our lives and deaths. Hard as that is to do well by some outside person, it’s all but impossible in a selfie which now not only distorts features but the relative importance of the people involved. Unless the selfie taker is the only important person involved. The further I get from my own youth, the more I find a problem with that value, and the more I hope selfies are a passing fad.
    Steph, I can’t tell you whether you are pretty or not in other people’s eyes. Your face shows combinations of all your ancestors, their gifts and their hopes and dreams for you. Your expressions show your personality, your feelings, the joys and struggles of your history, the expectations of your future. It can’t show your character, your integrity, your capacity for loving, your strength, your perseverance, your wisdom, your talents, your faithfulness, your intelligence… all the things on a very long list that take you way beyond “pretty” to beautiful. And beautiful is what I see every time I look at your face.

  2. 2

    Fuck pretty. I wanna be comfortable in my own skin, have a reference when I’m not myself, and evidence when I’ve scored a 10 on my makeup experiments.

    …or when I want to show people what a bad day looks like.

    I’ve taken so many pictures growing up with me behind the camera, so I’m making up for lost time 🙂

  3. 3

    I try to tell people I’m ugly. That I’m ok being ugly. This is my life in this body with this face.

    People get so horrified by that. Even the most feminist of feminists feel the need to tell me I’m beautiful.

    No. No I’m not. I have been, at times, interesting looking. Very occasionally handsome. Maybe even striking, once. But not pretty. Not beautiful.

    As a lover of words, I know that definitions evolve over time. But damn it, if you try to stretch pretty or beautiful to cover me, you stretch them into meaninglessness.

    I am me. I like me, and that’s a hard-won battle. Don’t undermine it by blowing smoke up my ass or co-opting me into your drive to make us homogeneous in the ways we like and care for and present ourselves.

    Thank you, Stephanie.

  4. 4

    I agree with everything you said here. Nonetheless, I wonder if the message isn’t so much “you should want to be pretty” as it is a reaction to the MRA types who accuse girls and women of being vapid for posting selfies online. I took it more as a defense of anyone who wants to post pictures of themselves to feel pretty, and less as a statement of what people should be wanting to feel about themselves.

  5. 5

    @Charlie

    I am a girl (or close enough for the purposes of this post). I do not think I am pretty. Per this meme, that’s a problem. *I* am a problem.

    The meme literally says that girls who don’t think they are pretty is a problem. If the author wanted it to be parsed the way you took it, then they should go for a think piece instead of a careless soundbite that causes hurt.

    There are plenty of memes that strike back at the criticism of selfies without making ugly people (or people who just don’t want to do selfies) into a problem.

    Shitting on vulnerable people (inadvertently or intentionally) is a damn poor way to fight against injustice.

    So is implying that people are wrong for taking the words that are there and not doing the mental gymnastics to make it more palatable.

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