You Don't Have to Be Pretty


Vreeland

[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”!)

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

  1. This post made me cry in the best possible way. It was something I really needed to hear. Thank you so very much for posting it, even if I just found it now. ❤

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  2. Hallelujah, and amen! I don’t know how many times I’ve said to someone I know, not to worry if something is flattering so much as if it makes you feel good. If you feel good in what you wear that will show and count for so much more than wearing something flattering according to traditional thinking that makes you uncomfortable.

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  3. Thanks for your posting. I was just reflecting the other day how impermanent “prettiness” or “hotness” is. We all age, or bodies change, if we become so focused on being attractive to others, we’re going to be disappointed. There’s also the fact that we, none of us, is going to be considered attractive by everyone anyway. I have a man that adores me, and who I adore, yet I still feel like I need to dress for the world.

    But our self-esteem must come from within – and we all have that power, to love ourselves as we are as opposed to relying on outside OPINIONS.

    The only part of your post I had difficulty with was the reference to feminism as promoting ugliness or at the least, “not prettiness.” That a really narrow view of feminism that negates the movement’s ability to affect change. Feminism has many forms and it can as easily be a movement that promotes equality in pay and respect, as well as exploration into differences and into what being a woman means to us as individuals and as a whole.

    I think it is really important for us ladies to realize that inequalities (especially in the workforce, economics – and in our hyper-sexualization as this post affirms!) do still exist pervade our society and rearticulating the destabilizing myths of feminism (hair arm pits, people-holes over manholes, man-hating lore) only hurt us. It destabilizes our ability to stand firm in opposition to policies and attitudes that hurt all our society.

    That’s all. Again, thank you for your posting. I hope it’s read by woman of all ages!

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    • I don’t think she means to equate feminism with ugliness, in fact I think she’s saying just the opposite: Don’t try to be pretty because people want you to be and don’t try to be ugly because people don’t want you to be (which would be the stereotypical view of feminism you described), just do what you want for yourself.

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  4. Preach it lady!!! This is a wonderful addition to the amazing articles that have been popping up this month {The Huffington Post in particular touched on how we speak to little girls} and you have really hit the nail on it’s “pretty” head.

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  5. It’s been almost five years since you wrote this piece and I still refer back to it. This should be required reading for all women and girls. I cannot tell you how many people I have recommended read this essay.

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  6. I know this post is almost 5 years old, but this is how I feel about smiling. I am cranky and I don’t like to smile, especially at random people who seem to think that it is my duty as a pretty woman (and I am) to smile at them and make them feel better. Bull!

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    • A (male, middle-aged) friend of my parents, when told to “smile,” would usually look grimmer and bark, “I am!”
      He had the personality (and unlimited chutzpah) to carry this off . . . I’m not offering it as advice, necessarily! But you sound like someone who might appreciate the attitude?

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  7. I absolutely LOVE this, you have no idea how many times I’ve read it and since about two months ago when I’ve stumbled upon it I wake up and go through my day and go to sleep repeating PRETTINESS IS NOT A RENT YOU PAY FOR OCCUPYING A SPACE MARKED “FEMALE”. You have no idea what it all means to me so thank you thank you thank you for writing this and sharing it with the world. ❤

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  8. I realized the other day that my list of goals for self-improvement includes several that fixate on my appearance. That is to say, I consider my self imperfect and unpleasant unless I can raise it to certain aesthetic guidelines, those set for me, and not by me, (probably) by advertising and the media, which at the same time set guidelines by which others are meant to judge me and how close or far I tread from those standards. This discovery was discouraging. So this was a helpful read. Thank you.

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  9. Lovely piece! My mom would appreciate it. She says that her mission in her older life is to demonstrate that smart, confident, and supremely competent do NOT require hosiery, makeup, hair products, or any of the other things that are foisted on women to look pretty.

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  10. This is such a great article. It serves as a great reminder to just be happy and not worry about what other people think, which isn’t always easy but was a great thing for me to read today. Thank you.

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  11. I needed to see this today. I’m sick and I had to go out to see a doctor and get medicine, and as usual people looked at me like I was some kind of monster for not looking perfect. My somewhat haggard appearance seemed to offend people, and being sick I was very frustrated. leave me alone, I wanted to tell them, I’m sick! But it happens a lot even when I’m healthy. When I’m running errands, my hair gets messy and my face gets red and sweaty, and people are visibly grossed out by it. Sorry guys, my appearance just isn’t a priority 24/7.

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  12. In a perfect world looks wouldn’t matter, but this isn’t a perfect world and looks do matter. If you don’t match up to the ideals of others you will be treated differently for it. More attractive and better dressed women are more likely to get hired, and they are more likely to be paid more. People are more likely to start a conversation with those who match their standards of grooming and looks.

    Sorry, but it’s a fact of the world that if you look nice to other people you’re going to get ahead. Sometimes you have to work at being pretty. Being pretty is something that just comes to anyone.

    Frankly I think you’re just giving people an excuse to be lazy.

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    • Will being “pretty” get you “ahead”? Sure, maybe. But is “getting ahead” really what should matter over self-acceptance, dignity and happiness? Are the two mutually exculsive? Not neccesarily, but maybe so in some cases.

      I think you are missing the point of the article. The point is that prettiness isn’t owed to anyone. If someone wants to dress sloppy, unusal and/or unfashionable that’s their prerogative and ultimately no one elses business. It’s not giving people “an excuse to be lazy” – it’s giving them support for not caring about or having to stress out about the narrow-minded and shallow opinions of other, more insecure people that spend too much time worried about others rather than minding their own business.

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  13. OMG, thank you so much for writing this. These are sentiments that need to be embraced world-wide. I really wish more people understood and accepted this.

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  14. It’s an excellent reminder. It also makes me feel better about dropping my kid off at school today wearing what can only be accurately described as ‘homeless chic couture’.

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  15. I think of “pretty” as more or less satisfying someone’s fairly concrete notions of harmony, appropriateness, and desireability. And not just notions–often there are actual exemplars of “pretty” that can be held up as standards. And while these standards are opinionated and subject to debate and change, they can still be held up and used as a basis of comparison to determine how pretty something else is. Because of that there is an element of objectivity, however controversial, to “pretty.”

    Beauty, on the other hand, is almost purely subjective. St. Augustine of Hippo, writing close to 1,000+ years ago, said that beauty is that quality which, simply by being perceived, gives pleasure. Beauty doesn’t need to be pretty or desireable or useful or enviable or even appropriate, though it could be any or all of these things. Beauty inspires pleasure, and great beauty inspires awe–sometimes an awe so profound that words can utterly fail us.

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  16. You just about said it all: Be yourself and be happy. I can think of another little tidbit that is appropriate here as well: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. There are so many different ideas about what is pretty out there that I have come to understand that “pretty” means a little something different to each of us. Sure we have similarities, but put 100 of us in a room and you will have 100 different opinions on what we consider “pretty”. Your advice is wiser than most will acknowledge: Buy what you like, what makes you happy and THAT in and of itself will make whatever you are showcasing stand bright and beautiful in others’ eyes. If not, dont be offended, they are just different — as my girlfriend often says, “its why God makes 31 flavors — not everyone LOVEs vanilla”.

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  17. Thanks for writing this. I will keep it for my daughter read (when she can, she’s 1).
    I was noticing recently how many people seem to get more attractive as they get older, seemingly against all odds. But the conclusion that I came to is that being comfortable with & confident in yourself is SO much more attractive than mere physical “prettiness”. Those are qualities that are hard to come by in your teens & 20s.
    Feeling pretty is often being pretty.

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  18. A few years ago I picked up a book by Pierre Bennu called “BS or Fertilizer: Inspiration for Artists on the Fence”. One of the things Bennu suggests is to go through your closet and take out anything that doesn’t make you happy, and either sell it or give it away. He suggests that readers puzzle out their “superhero wardrobe and hideout”, surrounding themselves and dressing themselves in things that inspire them and make them happy.

    My super-powered alter ego costume involves purple and glitter. Pretty? Well, to *me*, yes.

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  19. Okay, so I see where you’re going with this and great post, but men are under just as much pressure to look good as women are. At least in today’s society.

    So, when you say: “Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.” I think you unnecessarily bring an element of feminism to the table.

    Overall, I agree with the general idea. Pretty/handsome/whatever is an unnecessary pressure and happiness is much more attractive on a person.

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  20. Hey, the paragraph starting with “You Don’t Have to Be Pretty” is not original. Banksy said that. Verbatim. Do not steal other people’s words, lady.

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    • Jenna, this is all my own original text. I’d love to see where you saw this attributed to Banksy. Could you post a link? (You might also check the date on this — I wrote it back in 2006, and it’s been linked to quite a bit on the Internets.)

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      • You both stole this from Abraham Lincoln! It’s from the Gettysburg address–just in one of the parts farther in than the parts that people have memorized!

        For real, though, I’m going to guess that this has become so widely traveled and repeated that, at some point, it got some celebrity’s name attached to it in attributions. That seems to happen a lot when people who aren’t household names (yet) write something eloquent that touches people the way this has. Someone, at some point, whether intentionally or not, misattributes it to a celebrity.

        Most people probably don’t actually get to see it come back around as accusations of plagiarism, though.

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      • Erin, your brilliant quote is making the rounds on Tumblr now attributed to Diana Vreeland! But of course the very quotable Ms. Vreeland didn’t use this kind of language so googling took me here. While it’s certainly a compliment to be linked to such a legend, I hope your words will eventually be correctly attributed to you.

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      • Um, it’s not all your original text. It’s not Banksy’s, either. It’s a direct quote from Diana Vreeland.

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      • No, it’s not. Perhaps if you want to accuse me of plagiarism, you would be so kind as to link to where this quote appears in any of DV’s works? And which words, exactly, are you saying should be attributed to DV? In your earlier comment you say “the first paragraph” — the stuff about leggings?

        I understand the tendency of folks to want to attribute words to famouser people than actually wrote them (look up “Churchillian Drift” if you have time), but I did actually write this.

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  21. What a wonderful wonderful well-said thing. The line “Pretty, it’s sad to say, can have a shelf life” reminds me of a lyric from a Nanci Griffith song: “When beauty’s all you offer, how soon the world discovers that your beauty’s gone.” I’ve always thought it was tragic that women were valued for something that everyone knows won’t last. I’ve heard guys say, “the prettier the girl, the lower the self esteem.” There’s a reason for that– if you’re loved only for your looks, then when you lose your looks you lose that love too. That knowledge is always there, lurking in the background. Happy, healthy, independent, yes! SO much more important than pretty.

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  22. I wear clothes that reinforce the values of happiness and confidence, two qualities that go much further than prettiness.

    I do not judge other women on their prettiness. I might make judgments on cleanliness or odor, but not prettiness.

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  23. AMEN SISTER! I always tell people, especially women that beauty if confidence, if you feel you are rocking a look than girl, YOU ROCK IT! Being pretty is subject to the person you’re talking to. I find beauty in women who speak their minds, stand for whats right and rock whatever look they love whether thats an insane pattern jumpsuit (my favorite outfit) or just a basic pair of jeans and a T. You were born to dazzle, just as you are just and YOU want to be. Don’t compare to others, it will always leave you wanting more. Set your own rules and listen to your heart. There you will find real pretty!

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  24. I’ve often thought that women who are very, very pretty (or beautiful) have it rougher than it seems. Beauty seems to bring out, in certain types of men, the insane desire to possess. Much in the same way that places which are rich in natural beauty and/or resources seem destined to be pillaged, women who learn to rely on their looks seem to be as well. I’ve tried to get out of the habit of telling little girls that they are beautiful or pretty BEFORE I give them any other compliment. It’s tough conditioning, un-buying the beauty line. Great work, here.

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  25. One of my friends posted this article on Facebook, and I am glad that she did. You’ve done a fine job of encapsulating the way I’ve felt about fashion during the past decade of my life. I’ve begun to feel that dressing in the way that you are comfortable is paramount – while some folks like their sweats and Crocs, there are others that prefer daily corsets, and that is okay.

    You need to dress like yourself and for yourself.

    There are occasions where I think we ought to dress for others: weddings are a good example where one should probably dress within some relation to convention, but even then, one should not dwell too far from one’s comfort zone. You can look as good in cotton as you can in taffeta, and I can say which one I’d rather be wearing to a sunny outdoor wedding.

    My main rule is that once you are uncomfortable, it gets harder and harder to have a good time.

    Fashion, like your life, is something that should bring you joy and comfort in the long run. Once you start slaving to someone else’s expectations, everything becomes less fun.

    Thank you again for the great article!

    -Harry

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  26. There’s one “accolade” missing here….for the mature woman the term
    “handsome” sometimes starts creeping in as “pretty” fades….has a lot more strength to it, and beats the hell out of “well-preserved.” which sounds a bit like pickles.

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  27. This is such a wonderful article and so eloquently written. Kudos to you for speaking the truth! I hope more women adopt your perception of beauty. Keep up the good work.

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  28. So I’m a guy (and not gay) and I stumbled on this blog but all I have to say to women of the world is this. I love when a girl looks confident and knows she looks like the s*it . It doesn’t have to be in a dress, heels, jewelery, etc… Just saying. Also, makeup sucks.

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  29. I love this but I kinda disagree with the idea that prettiness it totally tied to youth. I’ve always thought late bloomers were cool & I think there are different kinds of pretty and I’ve seen some lovely older ladies that at least as beautiful as the prettiest of young blossoms. They’re rare though because everyone is always telling us that it ends and most people shut down as they grow older way before they should in the self expression department. Tulips, for example, are lovely when you first get them from the store but have you ever let them sit there “too long” after they’re supposedly supposed to be tossed? Have you ever noticed the amazing process of them turning inside out and the variety color of color change in the petals? People are like that too. On my way to interview my 89 year old neighbor now…

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  30. Clothing is—color, cut, proportion, textures, patterns, contrast, composition—art. Every day you can create a work of art by the way you combine the pieces that you wear. What fun!

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  31. I loved this! During my last pregnancy I developed some strange dark spots on my face. They just happen to be right under my nose and resemble a mustache just a little bit. They, of course, do not fall into the pretty category. Oh well, I have 5 kids that I love and I am incredibly healthy and happy.

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  32. Many, many thanks for this 🙂 It’s already a rule I live by, but it’s really nice to see someone saying it so eloquently (and publicly).

    Some friends of mine from my university course occasionally point out the fact that I don’t wear heals, dresses, low-cut tops and/or push-up bras. Never to uni, and only rarely to go out. In fact, I dress for comfort and practicallity in an environment where I frequently encounter paint and un-even surfaces. When I go out of an evening I know that if I’m uncomfortable I stand next to no chance of looking good. I find it quite disquieting when they sincerely try to convince me that comfort comes after style, even in clothing that no one but me will see that day – I think I’ll be pointing them in this direction next time it’s brouhgt up.

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    • I would also like to comment that a lot of clothing for larger women (I am a UK size 16-18, not sure what that is in the US) tends to just be clothes for skinny women, with larger versions of the same ratios. Most women I would say have roughly the same shape of skeleton, but as you add on more combinations of fat and muscle the different shapes become more obvious. So giving me trousers with a normal waste and slim thighs won’t work, though it will for other women. Even more so in shirts because women with the same size of waste will have wildly different chest and arm measurements. There is an assumption in most places I’ve tried to buy clothes that everyone who is bigger than a 6 (note, in the uk a 6 is usually an unhealthy size to be) will still have the same ratios as a 6 – It is very hard to find clothes that are both comfortable and flattering if your shape no longer fits that ratio.

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  33. I’m a sixteen year old girl, who wears jeans and a nice top every single day to school. In the summer, it’s jean shorts and a plain colored tank top every day. Why do i stick to this you ask! It’s not because I want to, it’s because at this point, I’m used to not feeling pretty. Until today. Someone told me what they like about me, that they wished they could be with me, and suddenly everything clicked. Why when I read this blog, I get the shivers. Why I never felt pretty. This probably makes no sense, but anyway, thanks so much for writing this. I think you’ve helped to change my life.

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  34. I disagree… a decision tree which always ends in “tell complainers to go to hell” sounds like a great tool.

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