There was an article on Jezebel recently about the various reasons that women don't (often) describe themselves as "pretty," e.g., they think they're attractive but they don't photograph well, or they think they're attractive but not by accepted cultural standards, etc. A lot of it, of course, can be explained by fear of looking vain, or someone contradicting you (thinking you're attractive doesn't mean you're free of insecurities). It touched on a lot of things I've blogged about before: how surprising it is when women self-identify as "beautiful," even if they obviously are; my belief that most women have a good sense of how attractive they are to the outside world, but are conditioned to both obfuscate and question this knowledge.
I became sort of obsessed with the comments, some of which critiqued the premise and some of which were just confessions, women explaining how they felt about their own looks. A few pointed out that beauty is a privilege, and calling attention to it is tantamount to announcing that you're rich. (But isn't it better to acknowledge your privilege than deny it?) Some addressed the difference between "cute" and "pretty," "pretty" and "beautiful," "beautiful" and the all-elusive "gorgeous." One woman wrote:
Women tell me I am beautiful all the time. Like older woman will stop me in the supermarket to tell me, friends constantly tell me (one friend stopped a conversation with about 6 other people I didn't know as well to tell me how strikingly beautiful I was and forced people to concur, it was horrifyingly embarrassing because how is one supposed to respond to that?), and I've caught women at bars staring at me only to come up minutes later to tell me how beautiful they find me. Men, however, not so much. It is confusing. I think it is because I am black, and women are more likely to tell me because they don't feel intimidated because most men (as I've been told by men I am friends with) I've encountered would choose a white "5" over a black "8".
Jesus. Is that true? (Of course I immediately wanted to see this beautiful woman.) Once at a bar in Houston or Austin, I overheard a woman (a stranger) approach my friend and former roommate Kate, who was talking to some guy (and smoking, I believe; I think you could still smoke in bars then), and say, rather forcefully, "You are a beautiful woman." Kate handled it well, I thought; she said "Thank you" in a "That was weird/awkward" kind of way and went back to her conversation.
Another commenter said: "Women don't say 'I'm pretty' because I know what I look like, and presumably so does anyone looking at me. So why would I be telling someone how pretty I was, when they could see that perfectly well for themselves?" Hard to argue with that, but I don't think anyone is suggesting that women should walk into a room and declare, "I have arrived, and I'm pretty!" There are contexts where it comes up. When we talk about how we relate to the world, and how it relates back, we often state the obvious, e.g., "They were clearly uncomfortable because he was black," or "He never would have treated me that way if I was a man," even though everyone who's sight-privileged can see who is black and who is a woman.
I half-joke tweeted that "Women know how attractive they are, but they don't know how attractive OTHER women are." I kind of believe this? Like, I know how people respond to me, but I don't really know what it's like to be anyone else and what kind of response they get, so I'm not sure where I fit in the "rankings," such as they exist. There are the people that everyone talks about (as in Autumn's comment about her stunning coworker) but surely there are also people that are secretly lusted after, because they don't fit the culturally agreed upon beauty standard but are oozing sex appeal nonetheless? And maybe I'm just not privy to that. I've always wondered what it would be like to be one of those women that gets hit on in bars. Not that I want to get hit on in bars, for Christ's sake, just that I don't have that kind of beauty. At trivia the other night, the name of some divey Irish bar came up and my friend Erin said that a guy once said to her there, "I want to fuck the shit out of you." Classy, I know, but the point is, I suddenly realized she has that kind of beauty. What I had noticed about her is that her clothes always fit really well.
Image via Wikipedia Commons