You Don't Have to Be Pretty


[image is by Andy Warhol © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

So the other day, folks in the comments were talking about leggings. I’m pretty agnostic about leggings, but the whole discussion (which centered on the fact that it can be *really* hard to look good in leggings) got me thinking about the pervasive idea that women owe it to onlookers to maintain a certain standard of decorativeness.

Now, this may seem strange from someone who writes about pretty dresses (mostly) every day, but: You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.

I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T be pretty if you want to. (You don’t owe UN-prettiness to feminism, in other words.) Pretty is pleasant, and fun, and satisfying, and makes people smile, often even at you. But in the hierarchy of importance, pretty stands several rungs down from happy, is way below healthy, and if done as a penance, or an obligation, can be so far away from independent that you may have to squint really hard to see it in the haze.

But what does you-don’t-have-to-be-pretty mean in practical, everyday terms? It means that you don’t have to apologize for wearing things that are held to be “unflattering” or “unfashionable” — especially if, in fact, they make you happy on some level deeper than just being pretty does. So what if your favorite color isn’t a “good” color on you? So what if you are “too fat” (by some arbitrary measure) for a sleeveless top? If you are clean, are covered enough to avoid a citation for public indecency, and have bandaged any open wounds, you can wear any color or style you please, if it makes you happy.

I was going to make a handy prettiness decision tree, but pretty much the end of every branch was a bubble that said “tell complainers to go to hell” so it wasn’t much of a tool.

Pretty, it’s sad to say, can have a shelf life. It’s so tied up with youth that, at some point (if you’re lucky), you’re going to have to graduate from pretty. Sometimes (as in the case with Diana Vreeland, above, you can go so far past pretty that you end up in stylish, or even striking (or the fashion-y term jolie laide) before you know it. But you won’t get there if you think you have to follow all the signs that say “this way to Pretty.” You get there by traveling the route you find most interesting. (And to hell with the naysayers who say “But that’s not PRETTY”!)

338 thoughts on “You Don't Have to Be Pretty

  1. Thanks for writing this, and I’m sorry people are miss-attributing your lines about prettiness. They so perfectly capture what I want to say to my daughters every single day. I suppose everyone assumes this wisdom must come from some well-established figure from history. Either they’re wrong, or in a hundred years you’re going to be a well-established figure from history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fenomenal. I think I just might have to tattoo “you don’t owe prettiness to anyone” or “pretty is not a rent you pay for occupying a space called female” somewhere, to remind me every day. It’s become my mantra. Thanks for this! ❤

    PS. It seems people have mixed up your statement as being Diana Vreelands (because people don't read properly, I suppose), I hope that sorts itself out so you get your rightly credit.

    PPS. This would be excellent for a spoken word poem.


  3. This blog post really resonates with me. And a lot of other people (I’m impressed that you really have almost 300 comments!) .
    I know I don’t look as young, pretty, slender or cute as I feel. It’s somehow reassuring that you gave me permission to be who I am.


  4. I LOVE this. I’ve been saying something along those lines. Other people’s opinions don’t pay my bills or buy my clothes…etc. If I’m taking good care of me, it makes it easier to take good care of those I love …just saying


  5. Well written, I suppose. But an absolute lie. As someone who has been told IN WRITING by a group of men at my former place of work that I am NOT pretty and am in fact ugly, your words are hollow. Every woman here is lying to herself if she thinks otherwise. They all want to be ALWAYS looked at as “the pretty one”.


    • Yes, but that doesn’t mean THEY HAVE TO.

      Also, I bet there would be a lot of men who’d tell you the exact opposite thing: you’re pretty 🙂


    • I don’t want to be looked at as “the pretty one”, actually. (: I would rather be seen as the strong one. The empathetic one. The resilient one. Would I enjoy being called ugly! Oh, no! It would hurt me. And I am so sorry that you were spoken to that way. But we are so much more than our appearance.


      • I tried to reply to Veronica, who says men at her workplace told her in writing that she was ugly. This is the year to do something about them.


    • Thanks for commenting on that list! Of course, waiting for Buzzfeed to correct something is probably only slightly faster than waiting for Godot … 🙂


  6. Love this! Being happy and comfortable (and so many other things) are SO MUCH higher on the ladder than “pretty”. Especially as the mama of two girls, I hate all the emphasis on pretty – since it seems like that is often the ONLY emphasis. They are so much more than that.


  7. What a nerve you struck! Nearly 8 years after posting, still getting heartfelt comments! And here I am, back rereading for the many-th time, just to wisdom myself up to face today.


  8. If you’re going to quote Diana Vreeland, then QUOTE her. Dont pop a photo above, sneak in her quote, and not give her credit for it. Because now, lots and lots of websites are quoting YOU, and this was not your genius.
    “You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.” -Diana Vreeland


    • Hi Kylie — you may want to read the comments above yours.

      This quote is being credited to DV elsewhere on the Internets by people who are somewhat lacking in reading comprehension because I put a big picture of DV up at the top. 🙂 I am happy to stand behind my own writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Can I just tell you how much I LOVE this? Thank you for writing it. It is one of my favorite things to reread and to resend my friends. Thought I would let you know that!


  10. Found ya by accident today. I adore this article! Late (as usual) to the party/meme, let me tell you fur shure pretty fades. It may not even go quickly – I was mid 40s before one day *proof* I became invisible. Know what else? The prettier you are, & the longer it lasts, the more cutting it is when it fails. Just about killing. Definitely fatal to self-esteem. UNTIL or UNLESS you are cozy comfy already with who you really are. And know you have a great deal to offer to has little/nothing to do with outer pretty. A shame women for so loooong were just something supposed to be good to gaze upon … that pedestal is very high & unsteady.


  11. You talk today in the New York Times about quotes that have been incorrectly attributed, but not quite plagiarized.
    But stealing, in effect, is what you’ve done with this portrait of Diana Vreeland. There is no photo credit for the portrait. Do you know who took it? Did you get permission to use it? And did the photographer say, “Hey, no problem, take my work, no need for compensation and please drop my credit?”? Not knowing who shot an image isn’t any excuse to lift it for your own purposes. It’s called unauthorized usage and often copyright infringement.
    And why are women still endlessly obsessed with pretty, not pretty, “different” beauty? To begin to break free of the tyranny of beauty, let’s talk about something, anything else.


    • Hi Robin, you’re right! This post was first put up back in 2006 when people weren’t as careful, but that’s no excuse, especially since I license all my own photos CC-BY for maximum use and sharing.

      This photo is by Andy Warhol, part of an iconic set of fashion polaroids he created. I’ve added a credit line.

      But I disagree that we should talk about “anything else” than beauty. Until we acknowledge the tremendous beauty pressure women operate under, we will not be able to get out of it.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Yes, Warhol, obviously. Credit and a hyperlink are good, permission and (sometimes) a fee are also required. Did his estate give you an ok? Highly unlikely.
    It’s great that you license your photos CC-BY. But photographers like to control their work, decide where images show up, get paid, etc. It would be as if I lifted an entire post from your blog and dropped it down into mine, not a reblog, which can be annoying enough, but a total “sharing.”
    Maybe I’m über enlightened (unlikely) but I caught on to the beauty industrial complex a long time ago. It’s almost a decade since you wrote your post and if you think women are still as obsessed (and I’m not necessarily disagreeing), we’re going backwards.


    • Thanks Robin — I can see that this has (rightly) touched a nerve with you, and I appreciate your calling attention to it.

      It looks as if the Warhol estate is very generous with noncommercial licensing. I’ll drop them a line.

      I agree that recognizing the beauty industrial complex is not necessarily a matter of being ‘über-enlightened’ –although perhaps as a very visual person this comes more naturally to you — it’s more that there is SO MUCH in the culture that assumes that the highest goal of any woman is to be decorative that we need to be very vocal in our dissent. Otherwise our voices are drowned out.


  13. No, prettiness is not owed, but just as I don’t want to see an old man bare chested with bouncing man-boobs, a gold chain around his neck, and a hairy back, I don’t want to see a woman’s butt crack and cellulite through her translucent leggings.


  14. Can I just say “Wow”. I loved the piece mainly because now that I am considered a ‘senior citizen’ I am not as skinny or as easy on the eyes as I once was. I still have have my intelligence and wisdom that comes from age. I have mellowed and I am in a happy place. It is too bad that some people feel they have to be on the negative or right side of things as they see them. To them I say if it offends you look away, stop reading or just leave the area. Life is too short to spend so much time missing the adventure.


  15. Back i the late 60s, I often wore a ring on my left thumb in addition to several other rings. A handsome Englishman was visiting my parents. I had a bit of a crush on him, but he pretty well ignored me. Finally, as I was driving him to the airport, he asked about the thumb ring. I remember my reply to this day. It was exactly, “A woman can be either pretty or interesting. And you did ask, didn’t you?” Shut him right down for the rest of the trip. It was a liberating moment.


  16. I first read this three years ago and I believe it resonates even more with me today. Good writing never goes out of style. Thank you.


  17. A friend sent me this link, and I rediscovered it today after a few years. I needed these words, today, more than you can know. Thank you.


  18. Well, it’s now 2018 and I’ve finally stumbled across these lovely words of yours. (I would say I was fashionably late, but clearly I’m just late-late … )

    Erin, thank you and well done and please bless us with more! This was such an enlightening read – I’ll be back.



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