Pretty is a Set of Skills

Burlesque performer and fan dancing extraordinaire Jezebel Express once shared her realization that “sexy is a set of skills.” While I wholeheartedly believe this, I think it extends beyond sex appeal. Pretty, too, is a set of skills.

In a recent conversation with high school girls about body image, several spoke up about their own preferences in females (specifically ones they might be attracted to) — for them to wear no makeup. I couldn’t help but think of two related comics by Alexandra Dal and Kate Leth, respectively:

My friend Caroline would always say that people would ask her if she was sick when she didn’t have any makeup on, and I had a hard time believing her until I crashed at her place and found myself asking her the same question in the morning. The “natural” look is not natural at all, as evidenced by the copious amounts of “no makeup” makeup tutorials on YouTube. It is rare that a woman without any makeup at all is complimented on her looks. (A cat call is not a compliment.)

Pretty isn’t about how my face happens to look due to my genetic makeup. Pretty is about what I do with that, about my skills in the makeup department. Finally mastering the art of the false lash, I’ve noticed that the longer the pair I don, the more compliments I garner. “You’re so pretty!” “It’s just these lashes. They’re amazing!” We learn how to apply eyeshadow and mascara. We learn how to use concealer, lotions, foundation. We master the liquid eyeliner cat eye, we pluck or get our brows shaped to both complement our features and appeal to the fashions of the times. We gloss our lips up, and when we feel daring, we paint them red.

But it doesn’t stop with makeup. Pretty is also about hair. When I was in middle school, it was fashionable to have long, straight, shiny hair. My hair is naturally curly, but I hadn’t had a proper haircut until I was 12 so I hadn’t realized it was anything more than wavy. I was determined to get my hair to be just as beautiful as the popular girls at school, so I stood at the mirror in the morning blow drying my hair with a barrel brush. I looked like Alice from Dilbert. I achieved the straight part, but I had terrible triangle hair.

It wasn’t for a few years that I learned what products to put in my hair to work with it and not against it, to emphasize its desirable features while hiding frizz and puff and other unsightly characteristics. A suitable cut can also affect “pretty.” I found, rocking a shoulder length curly ‘do during my sophomore year of college, that my hair made me feel pretty enough that I didn’t need to put any makeup on. I also found, rocking a shaved head during my senior year of college, that my lack of hair necessitated an increased amount of makeup, as well as large jewelry. There is a certain level of “pretty” that I feel comfortable expressing myself with, and changing my hair up created a need to find balance.

Pretty is also affected by dress. It’s a pain in the ass to find clothes that fit nice, especially pants. The low rise pants, that have been fashionable since I’ve been of age to shop for them on my own, squeeze my fat in a decidedly un-pretty fashion. I have learned that certain cuts of dresses look more pretty on me than others. My body looks best in dresses that are fitted from right below the breast to just below my belly button. I have also learned the trick to getting a more “pretty” boob-belly ratio: wearing a push up bra. Heels are uncomfortable, but they make most every outfit a bit more pretty. It’s remarkable what a change a pair of heels will make to a tank top and leggings when compared to a pair of running shoes.

Posture makes pretty. A world of body woes can be washed away by learning to properly stick your boobs and butt out, put your shoulders back, and your chin up.

Pretty is artifice. Pretty is a construct, and a social construct at that. Pretty can be fun to do, to learn, to practice, to hone; but pretty can also be damaging. When I worked at Ben & Jerry’s during undergrad, I noticed that on days I wore makeup, people were nicer to me. Our society ascribes value to women based on how well they’ve achieved this artifice to suit current trends and values. A woman’s appearance is often discussed before or / and more than her personality, beliefs, passions, or achievements. Especially when those passions and achievements have nothing to do with creating this artifice.

Women are constantly down on themselves, comparing their mental image of what they look like in the bathroom mirror in the morning to what other women look like fully costumed in Pretty with pretty lighting and pretty scenery to boot. I recall a friend wallowing in sorrow and cyber stalking the new girlfriend of her ex. As she clicked through MySpace photos (this was quite a few years back), she would complain to me that she was ugly and his new girl was beautiful. I had to point out to my friend that this girl had scores of makeup on. She, too, could put makeup on. This girl was not better than her.

I love this example from Philly burlesque performer Hayley Jane.

She says: “what I look like 75% of the time & what I look like 95% of the time people take photos of me.”

Pretty is like good design. It is a skill, or rather, a set of skills. You may be attracted by the aesthetic, but, like wandering through Target and picking up beautiful kitchen gadgets of whose function you’re wholly unaware, it is important to remember that such artifice holds no intrinsic relationship to the value of the person, or the gadget, it adorns.

26 thoughts

  1. Great story, I completely agree. One thing needs to be added. Personality is pretty. I have seen some of the most beautiful women act like snobs and it just ruins the pretty. Conversely, I have seen women with no make up…just laugh and laugh and laugh and laughing/smiling is one of the most beautiful things in the world. It can make you instantly forget the downside of their looks and just be someone you want to talk to, to get to know.

    Also, to add to the no make up thing. When I first got my job at a Creative Agency in upstate NY I started off wearing dress pants, make up, accessories, and over time I adapted to the casual atmosphere there. When I initially came in without wearing make up the census was in, I looked sick. BUT I kept on not wearing make up…and still don’t, and now it is what people are used to. When I wear earrings or a necklace I get complimented because its above and beyond my usual “base” of no make up and a smile.

    1. This is absolutely true. I used to wear eye makeup all the time. I had a reaction to my makeup one day (I had a freaking box of different shades, sticks, mascaras – all old as hell) and had to stop wearing all of it for quite a while. At first I was really bothered and felt “ugly” without my makeup – it’s as if I didn’t know my own naked face. I grew used to no make up (at first begrudgingly, after a few failed attempts of makeup-ing, which caused my eye to swell – which was pretty ugly), and now I rarely if ever wear make up. It is as you say, people used to ask if I was sick, or “you look tired” but over time it was normal. I wear mascara when I want to feel a bit dolled up, and people take notice when I do my eyes full of make up. Same with clothes. Screw the heels though – they mean pain, and I’m not into that.

      Emily, this is a really terrific post. Really well written. Will share on my blog. 🙂

    2. I have to agree wholeheartedly with this. I can’t even say I’ve dabbled in make-up. As a child I remember dreading the idea of having to wear it and thinking that, like my period, it would be an inevitable fact of life. I have worn make-up a mere handful of times and probably, without realising it, have considered myself not much to look at because I put in no effort to accentuate my features with blush, mascara or lip-liner.

      However, I have recently been told by many people that I am unequivocally ‘attractive’. This has been a strange shift for me as I realise I have a ‘look’ which is currently fashionable – simply due to my genetics. To be seen as attractive with little effort confuses me but I’ve come to realise that my attractiveness seems to be more directly related to A) The fact that I smile a lot, B) the confident way I present myself (despite often feeling a strong lack of confidence) and C) my ability to converse easily with almost anyone regardless of age or background.

  2. In a world where spending time on oneself causes others grief and freedom of speech is frowned upon, we find our antagonist plotting her next move. Betwixt the fingers sing upon the machinery of man, and a blog post rises! However, no terse young strapping thing laying down reason matched with anecdotal experience, neigh, instead one that informs none of the credited ‘wrong doers’ and only spreads word among those who are in presupposed agreement.

    The helpless are left to wonder, one day – somewhere if not somehow – will she instead discuss and interact with the community itself this antagonist detests in gender half? The social zeitgeist awaits with baited breath.

    1. My goal here is to inform people, especially women, that pretty isn’t something you have or you don’t have. Pretty is a set of skills, and it doesn’t make your person any more or less valuable. Who are the helpless? I’m hoping that this line of thought is empowering for those people, especially women, who’ve compared themselves to others, unfavorably, in terms of appearance. If you think this is a war of genders, I think you’ve misunderstood something I’ve said. Feminism is anti-sexism, anti-patriarchy; not anti-male. I know a fair number of men who consider themselves feminists or feminist allies who understand that, and who have had conversations with me about the issues you’ve referred to in code. Who are the wrong doers? I do indeed believe that the problem is rooted higher up, in a patriarchal system that (in this day and age) financially benefits some large corporations. I don’t think it’s simple enough to declare war on a specific group of people, but I think changing (or at least questioning) expectations at the ground level is key to making progress and empowering those who are negatively affected by them.

      If someone from an oppressed people group is doing something to try and make their experience of the world a bit more positive, and that puts you on the defensive, you might want to stop criticizing that person and start listening and examining your own actions and attitudes.

  3. I absolutely LOVE what you’ve said here. Pretty/Sexy is something from a bottle. We learn as we get older what looks good and what does (fitting into the norm), what makes us feel sexy and what doesn’t. This topic has been a close one to my heart most of my life, but even more so now that I’ve had a child. With my baby came extra weight, stretch marks almost to my breasts and sagging breasts. It’s been a rough road getting back to a place where I love myself and my body, and what you said here is perfect. Pretty is a social construct. Thank you!

  4. I am a guy.
    I always say that I prefer girls without makeup. And I mean it too. I will however concede that the ‘natural’ makeup looks pretty decent as well.
    I will continue to be fairly repulsed by the ‘heavy’ makeup – the lipstick, raccoon eyes, blush so thick it looks like somebody was in a fistfight, makeup so cakey that you can’t tell what shade their skin is, etc.
    And I find it very difficult to respect somebody who will cause such pain to their own feet by wearing high heels (after a point), that any prettyness they may have gained is outweighed by pity and confusion.

  5. Do you know how much time it takes to get super “pretty”. I can’t keep up with that. I agree that personality make you pretty, it makes you more than pretty, it makes you beautiful. If you need to spend hours upon hours to make someone like you (or make you like you), it’s not worth it. I like makeup, I just don’t like makeup making you. You are beautiful without all the makeup.

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