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”!)

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

  1. I love this post, I think it says an important thing and I’d never want to see this message silenced.

    At the same time, I want to acknowledge that prettiness is a rent which some of us are forced to pay for occupying a space marked female, and that if we don’t pay the rent, we are not allowed to occupy that space.

    Rejecting compulsory femininity is super important, but so is acknowledging that for some people, it’s so compulsory that it’s practically impossible to reject without first achieving a structural change to society (i.e.: smash patriarchy, white supremacy, etc.).

    Thankfully the two really go together, in that as more people reject it, the difficulty bar for others to reject it is lowered. 🙂

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  2. Thank you for this. Growing up my mother frequently told me that I owed it to the world to look good. “Other people have to look at you.” It was a long time before I had the courage to follow my instincts and be the eccentric person I was meant to be.

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  3. Great article, thanks for posting! I loved this quote, “Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.”

    About a year ago I made a commitment to wear dresses pretty much EVERY day. I am pleased that I have stuck with it! It pleases me, and I don’t care whether or not it pleases anyone else!

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  4. “that’s presumptuous”, “that’s not my concern”, “that’s not my problem”, “speak for yourself”, “how about you?”

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  5. ❤ ❤ <3!!
    There's just one part I completely disagree with, that prettiness is directly related to youth. I can guess that this was an attempt to disassociate the important of longevity in prettiness, but it's total rubbish. I think you can be pretty at whatever age, if you want to be. Fuck having to "graduate" from that by someone else's standards!

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  6. Amen. I think also that when you feel good in what you wear, truly good, you radiate that. And it’s beautiful, or striking, or even “just fine,” even if it’s not pretty. Cheers.

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  7. I agree with the sentiment of this post, but a “Jolie laide” in France is a woman who is ugly but is pretty because she takes time and effort to try and dress nicely, do her makeup and look good.

    This also means avoiding stuff that is unflattering on you and making a good effort.

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  8. I may be 6 years late, but this article makes me so happy. I have recently started weight-lifting, and have been dismayed by people’s reaction to it. Instead of being impressed at my enthusiasm for my new sport, almost every woman I have told about it has questioned why I would want to look like a man, or why I’m willing to let myself become repulsive to the opposite sex. They don’t understand that body-building and weight-lifting are quite different thigns, but the point is the same: I’m not doing it to look prettier or to gain a mate of the opposite sex. I’m doing it primarily for sport. I want to compete and I want to be incredibly strong. Yes, it’ll change how I look. I’ll probably look a lot stronger once I’ve done it for a while. I don’t believe that this is an ugly look. Nor do I believe that it is a masculine look. But even if it were, I wouldn’t stop doing it, because my reason for doing it is not based on how I look, but how I feel.

    Likewise, women who do body-building should never be criticized for their choice to look the way they do. They work on how they look and achieve the bodies that they want to have. Other women may not want those bodies, but it’s none of their business.

    It’s time people stopped assuming that “losing your looks” is some sort of tragedy. Our bodies and images tell a story; why should it always be one of false beauty?

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  9. Great point ! If, as a society. we gave teenaged girls as much positive feedback and recognition for being HAPPY as we do for being PRETTY, they would grow into much more centred and confident women. There is way too much “reward” for being attractive …no wonder so many women define themselves by this criteria !

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  10. I have always avoided the whole ‘pretty, beautiful ‘ thing, I hid under the radar . I am 43 now and want to be beautiful in my man’s eyes (( together 6 years). Although I learnt to sew early I have had jobs where jeans and t-shirts have been the uniform. I really like the chance to dress up and feel feminine now. I need the balance – being me with the occasional ‘pretty’moments.

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  11. Wonderful post, Erin! I’ve shared it with all my friends and my Twitter followers. I started to quote it, then I realized that practically every sentence was “quotable” and deserved to be on a T-shirt.

    This is something I’ve been struggling with a lot lately. As I move into my 5th decade, I’m dealing with the fact that being “pretty” is taking more and more effort – I’m not sure it’s worth it, but I feel bad for not doing it! Like somehow I owe it to the world to not let my hair go grey, or some such.

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  12. Aren’t you negating your point by saying that beauty is tied to youth and that women must “graduate from pretty?” That seems to imply that the elderly cannot be pretty, which is far from the truth!!

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    • I think that elderly women can be (and often are) pretty, but that it’s not the expected case. And no one should feel pressure to be pretty.

      Like

  13. “Pretty” is a decision. I can feel pretty regardless of what I’m wearing. I can also feel “ugly” in the most beautiful of dresses. “Pretty” starts with a thought, and the thought creates the feeling.

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  14. Great post!!! I arrived at this decision a few years past. As I head to official old age and not exactly skinny, I wanted to wear what I wanted to wear. So I dress how I like and how the weather dictates and I don’t care if people think I am not young and sexy. I enjoy the fabric that swirls around my ankles and is a pretty color.

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  15. A perennial favorite of my mother’s during my years of living with my parents, and even after I moved out: “You would be so pretty if you X!” where X was one of several: pulled your hair back out of your face, wore skirts more, put on some make up, didn’t wear jeans and sneakers all the time, etc etc. That was so totally the first thing I wanted to hear in the morning! Ugh.

    Life is so much more positive when you live with someone who accepts you for who you are, jeans and sneakers all the time or not.

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  16. Thank you so much for this post. Am definitely sharing it with my female friends on Facebook. Every woman needs to hear this repeated to her all through her life. Though I would like to add one thing. Pretty shouldn’t be about the clothes one wears or how one looks on the outside. That’s all superficial. All that matters is what YOU feel on the inside. Showing & sharing how you feel inside to the outside world is what will attract people to you. There is nothing more prettier or gorgeous than a woman – or even a man for that matter – who isn’t afraid to let their true spirit out despite what the outside world says to them.

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  17. The thing about being pretty is that it is not who you are but that you are… pretty that is. You can’t help it. So when parents friends and family praise you your whole life for something you had no control if you really begin to realize deep down inside that they don’t love you for who you are that they don’t care who you are… They may not know who you are… At least they don’t show it because all you hear is that you are pretty… “Stand up and twirl, so everyone can see your new dress… Oh isn’t she so pretty.” And then one day for whatever reason you aren’t so pretty and when your entire sense of self is based on this … because people can’t help but point it out when you were pretty…you are now sure you are no longer of value and that your worth along with your beauty has faded and you no longer bring something special into the world. I wish so many people had not told me how pretty I was in my youth.

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  18. I’m not pretty. I wear v neck or scoop neck tees, stretch waist pants, and pretty shoes? Not easy with size 10 wide feet. Heels are out of the question with my messed up back. I wear men’s shoes because women’s aren’t wide enough. I love my Crocs. I’m a loving wife & I have great friends. Good enough for me.

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  19. Came across a quote from this from another tumblr I reblogged and was struck in a capacity I almost never am. Definitely moved me to comment which I find to be a fairly uninteresting enterprise. Couldn’t find an email to write to but decided to awkwardly make a public comment.

    Reposting my comment on tumblr :

    “Economical and exceptional articulation of a singular resistance that approaches the universal. In a separate cosmos of literary feminism than one generally finds anywhere really.”

    [Not that I’m ascribing this to your intentions, just my own reading].

    I haven’t explored the blog yet [almost never read blogs and barely read tumblrs] but I’d be honoured if you could point me in the direction of more writing or otherwise share some of your writing with me.

    Cheers,
    z

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  20. I was very lucky to have a mother who always told me to wear what I wanted. So I did. I have been thrifting as long as I can remember. It’s funny too because so many people growing up thought what I wore was weird and would make fun of me then it’d be ‘in’ two years later 😛 I’m 22 now and I still do what I want. Moving to NYC has made me stick out even more but at the same time, more people appreciate that I dress for myself. It’s why I get away with wearing such crazy clothes 😀

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  21. I love this. This is the most perfect essay on the subject I have ever seen.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am printing this, and packing it away to give to my daughter when she’s older. In the meantime, I’ll be saying it in some form or another whenever appropriate. Thank you.

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  22. I stumbled across this and I’m so glad I did. I have become obsessed with my looks and try to look flawless all the time. It’s to the point where I’m at sick of my reflection. This post is very freeing

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  23. I stumbled very randomly across this post, and while I very much like the content I really think you need to put the Diana Vreeland quotation you use in quotation marks and give her credit. Especially when, in the below paragraph, you appear to indicate the above idea is in fact your idea. I think it is a great quotation to pass on, and it is great your post provides agreement with her sentiments, but credit needs to be given where credit is due.

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    • Hi Jane, that quote is actually mine, not Diana Vreeland’s. I used picture of Diana Vreeland to illustrate that you can be stylish without being “pretty.” Somehow many people seem to think that the picture means that Diana Vreeland is being quoted, but that is not the case.

      I hope this clears this up for you. Thanks for commenting.

      Like

  24. Hi Erin,
    Thanks for clarifying. It actually wasn’t because of the picture that I was confused, I have before heard the quote:
    “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’”
    however it was always attributed to Diana Vreeland, but I was looking into it and apparently that fact is disputed. Do you know how it came to be misattributed to her? I would be really interested to hear more about this! Regardless, I think it is a brilliant quotation!

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    • Thanks Jane!

      Well, since this is a very old post (from 2006, which is ancient in blog years) it has been linked to a great deal. There is a phenomenon called “Churchillian Drift” which is basically the tendency of any quotation to become attributed to famouser people than the person who actually said it. So this post from non-famous me + HUGE PICTURE OF DIANA VREELAND = quote attached to Diana Vreeland. Pretty simple.

      It’s “disputed,” because since I wrote it there is no evidence of Diana Vreeland ever writing it. 🙂

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  25. most..eerrh sorry! every feminist are ugly women and they never got attention from men, thats why they came up with these theories to make their own situation look less hopeless, and those who agree are not blessed in the looks department too! Since when looking pretty is a crime??? how??
    if someone is pretty it is because they are, not because society ask them to be, it is not very complicated.

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  26. This is a great thought. With this in mind I will continue to dress like a slob (i.e. sweats and/or jeans and/or flip flops) when I fly because I do not owe it to anyone to dress “nicely” on a flight. I’d rather be comfortable than follow someone’s belief that one should dress nicely for flying…while sitting in a too small, too tight seat for many hours at a time. I love your blog but totally disagree with you on the idea that one should dress up to fly….I don’t dress up to drive my car, ride the bus, or any other thing why should I for a plane? I generally do not leave the house in jammies or anything though–I do think that’s wrong…ha ha.

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  27. Hello,
    I got here dur to some friend of mine, who postet this entry on his FB page. So I found it rather randomly and thus was much more astonished of your entry.

    Despite the fact, that I think, certain body types, which are the target of L-Size clothing should not wear S-Size, because it gives them no good reference in the public, even if they are happy with that… I have to add, that I only think this as my personal oppinion and taste and I don’t go around telling them. I let them be the way they wanna be, but I cant help thinking, they should not wear it, cause it just goes against my taste and sense of appeal… (I don’t want to give contribution to a disscussion about this. The have their oppinion and I form my own…)

    So despite all this, what I actually wanted to write, is that I very much like the way you write, how you use words and how you combine them to represent your oppinion. For me, this blog was floating with something some people call “Orm” (see the bock “The City of Dreaming Books” if you don’t know it).
    It was a pleasure to read and I agree with what you said (beside this one little thing).
    Wow

    (If something I wrote feels like I wanna attack certain people, I wanna say: English is not my mothertounge and I don’t know for each word, if it has an offensive meaning. No offense are meant.)

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  28. I associate the word “pretty” with something young and adolescent. So I’m fine with pretty being for the young. At some point we have to graduate from “pretty” to words far more descriptive and interesting. Striking, sophisticated, elegant, beautiful, commanding…just a few of many. Let the young have “pretty.” I’d prefer the word with the grown-up salary.

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  29. I read all of the comments, and I wanted to say I’m sorry that quite a few of the posters, well…didn’t get it. You can’t change someone’s opinion from a mere article, but I do hope you erased some of the prejudice in people’s hearts. I don’t always feel pretty. I have deep scars on the sides of my face from years ago. Society would dictate “cover that shit up!” but I just can’t force myself to put on makeup for that kind of reason. I am a “girly woman”, I love to dress up and look nice, but when I chose to do so, I do it for me. There are days I dress to the nines and never leave the house just because it makes me feel good. We don’t owe society “pretty”, and thank you for sharing that.
    I found your article on Offbeat Bride where thankfully you were given credit for your wonderful quote! I need to stick that to my bathroom mirror.

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  30. My best friend does not shave her legs. It does not bother me. Why should it? She is also the most beautiful woman I know. Not because she is “pretty” but because she has the self confidence to not shave, wear shorts and skirts, AND can put bright colours together and wear them in a way that I can only dream of! On top of all of the external stuff, she is intelligent, creative and fun. Hairy legs quickly become a moot point when a woman has more personality than a blue beaver on speed. 🙂

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  31. Dear Erin!

    I love the lines starting with ,,you don´t owe..”. I am confused a bit as I thought it was a quote of Diana Vreeland. Is it your line or Vreeland´s? Thank you for making my confusion clear!

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    • Hi Alexa, thanks for asking.

      No, it is not a Vreeland quote. It has been attributed to her on the internets by people who came here, read the post, saw ENORMOUS PICTURE OF VREELAND and jumped to conclusions. I’ve talked about this in the other comments, if you want to skim through them that would be great. Or just search on this page for the words “Churchillian Drift”.

      I used the picture of Vreeland as an example of someone who wasn’t conventionally pretty and yet who led an amazingly stylish and beautiful life.

      Like

      • Thank you, Erin, I already wrote a note to Goodreads (imagine, your quote was there as Diana Vreeland´s – now it is corrected!). What a beautiful, revolutionary thought! Thank you for this!! You put in few sentences (and one whole post) very important message to all of us!!

        Like

  32. But what does this ave to do with leggings?
    Even dressed in leggings with appropriate accoutrement, a female can look pretty as a total package, no matter what age.

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  33. Thanks for posting this. It’s an important reminder. Myself, I go through moods, and one of them is “pretty”. There are days (sometimes several in a row) where I work at pretty. I choose the right clothes for the day, take time to dry my hair right, wear a little make-up, smile when I meet someone’s eyes. Those can be fun days. But just as often, I leave the house not giving a damn what I look like, and I don’t mean just to walk the dog. I’ll grocery shop or write at a coffee shop or go to a movie sans make-up, dirty hair in a ratty bun with those weird little hairs at my temple spilling out every which way, wearing god knows what. And it’s so liberating. I buy just as many groceries and write just as many pages and enjoy the movie just as much as on a “pretty” day, but I can rub my eyes and sit cross-legged as much as I want. Be who you are. Ugly, pretty, spunky, weird, whatever. And you don’t have to pick just one.

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  34. A fantastic message communicated with such a wonderful writing style – lovely! Keeping this for when my two daughters are older. Thank you xx

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  35. Exceptional writing.
    You nailed every nuance of the sentiment in perfect economy of words.

    For years I wondered why in Western culture, makeup is considered feminine. I mean, fundamentally all we’re doing with it is accentuating our individual features and men want to be attractive too so why don’t they highlight their eyelashes or accentuate their cheekbones? It took me a while to understand: it’s because they are not VALUED on their attractiveness the way women are. Historically men are measured on their ability to provide and it’s primarily women whose worth is determined by their attractiveness. Hmm.

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  36. Please Please Please PLEASE create a graphic of your handy prettyness decision tree! The very fact that all branches end in telling complainers to go to hell is the best reason I can think of that it needs to exist!

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  37. OH MY GOSH! Absolutely loved it!! It was just what I needed to read today (actually what I needed to understand). Thank you so much for opening my eyes to something that was already there but I just could not grasp it as a whole. I’m totally reading it to my two daughter today at lunch, be certain of it. You’ve made history in my memories of the best things I’ve read..

    Like

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