The Paradox of “Pretty”

You can never flank “pretty” with enough scarequotes. “Pretty” is a nothing-word.

When you’re raised female, you learn that “pretty” has little to do with the skin protecting your flesh or the flesh protecting your bones. Even when a guy notices the acne on your chin and surplus carbs on your thighs, he’ll grant you “pretty” so long as he wants to be talking to a pretty girl. But when that girl doesn’t want to talk to him, he’ll take it right back off her.

That’s one example of the link between projections of female sexuality and the exercise of power. Here’s another: revenge porn. Last February, 200 men at University College Dublin were accused of setting up a private Facebook chat to view and rate footage of former sexual partners. An inquiry dismissed the claim based on a lack of first-hand evidence, but the tepid response from the university top brass was telling in itself.

If guilty, the students fall into a violent tradition of violating women’s consent as a way of expressing dominance. When a woman leaves a man – or otherwise upsets him – she shreds his authority over her. Sometimes, he restores it by tossing her image to the public. It’s a “pretty” production she never opted into, and that’s the point.

This connection between appearance and control doesn’t always happen so explicitly, but hold a microscope to our culture and the cells emerge. Darcy doesn’t surrender “pretty” to Lizzie because her features have somehow undergone a 400-page-long mutation to better conform to his ideal of beauty; no, he lets her have “pretty” once he no longer wants to put her in her place by withholding it. Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” paramour might think she’s “pretty without any make-up on”, but I’d venture that all the cosmetics in the world couldn’t wrest the word from him if she showed him the door.

That’s why Miss Universe emphasizes that they don’t just judge on “pretty.” On the surface, you might think they throw us that spin to avoid accusations of sexism for judging women solely on physical appearance. But does anyone believe it’s less sexist to have contestants peddle infantilised poodle tricks so they can pass as not-just-pretty? Please. Miss Universe won’t own up to “pretty” because “pretty” is precarious. It makes even the most placid viewer just a little bit anxious.

The worrying indeterminacy of female beauty comes through whenever a male love interest in a chick-flick goes: “You’re really pretty, do you know that?”. Even when I was twelve and had barely heard of feminism, I had a gut instinct that this was a terribly formulated question. You can’t “know” a quality that other people temporarily confer and then snatch off you at a moment’s notice.

The closest gender-neutral equivalent might be the impossibility of “knowing” funny. “Are you funny?”, too, is an it-depends. Are there people present, and are they laughing? But “funny” differs in one key aspect: you can think you’re funny without that making you unfunny. You’re “pretty” only until you start buying into your own hype (thanks, One Direction, for letting us know that “That’s What Makes You Beautiful”). The next time a guy compliments you on Tinder, try politely concurring; if the exploits of Claire Boniface and Gweneth Bateman are anything to go by, he’ll be mortally offended that you agree with him.

That’s the other reason Miss Universe needs to have qualities besides “pretty.” When “pretty” is the only thing letting the winner win, she has it on good authority that she’s got a victor’s level of “pretty” going on. The moment she accepts the compliment, a paradox is born. World-class “pretty” is simultaneously that ugliest of things: a woman who knows she’s world-class “pretty”.

The only way to crack this chickenless egg is to give “pretty” a baton to twirl or a poem to recite. Next, tell “pretty” you picked her because she twirled the baton or recited the poem. Especially sharp is the trick of never elaborating how many points went for baton-twirling and how many for poem-reciting and how many for “pretty.”

From where I’m standing, the job market looks a lot like Miss Universe. A 2011 study found that employers are empirically more likely to view me as competent if I wear lipstick (but crucially, only if I don’t overdo it; patriarchy is picky like that). As Deborah Cameron highlights in Good to Talk?: Living and Working in a Communication Culture, anything pink-collar includes a million unspoken requirements that won’t be covered in my wages and that mostly involve being really really nice to male customers. No matter how much they stress that they only want a picture for administrative purposes, I make sure to pick one where my hair is behaving.

That’s not to say “pretty” is anything as reductive as being valued solely on your appearance. I don’t think it’s really about sexualization, either. For my money, it’s a power thing – a willingness to cry uncle when the world irons a signifier onto you. Being categorised over your appearance might chafe more than other forms of label-slapping because you have less ability to change it, but “pretty” definitely doesn’t stop there.

And obviously, “pretty” wouldn’t be a party without random capitalists rocking up. From the view of someone who wants to make money, low self-esteem isn’t a cultural accident; it’s something you create via advertising so that your products can patch it up. In 2013, the cosmetic industry in the US spent $3.59 billion a year feeding and gained $56.63 billion a year milking the cash-cow of female insecurity.

Definition power over “pretty” is central to this business. To sell whatever you’re hawking, you need to alienate a woman from herself. First, you come bearing procedures and powders and pastes. Second, you convince her that she’s her better self plus said products, and/or her worse self sans same. Third, the more successful you are, the more you do an ouster on her self-ownership. She only controls the means of self-production for as long as she can access the next tub of lip gloss.

In the real world, this doesn’t always work. Some women don’t wear make-up at all, or apply it in full awareness that it’s not doing anything but making their face look a bit different. If you’re someone who stands to lose from female liberation, that’s an anxiety-inducing state of affairs. No wonder female beauty is such a cultural pressure point.

If we conjugate this capitalist fretting, we can see it takes a related form in how we treat female celebrities. Like women in general, celebrities are more palatable to commodity culture when they depend on others for aesthetic validation – but because there’s more money to be made (and, relatedly, to be lost) over them, the anxieties reach top pitch. The idea that someone like Jennifer Lawrence can have a private sexuality not included in the package deal she offers to consumers is petrifying to anyone committed to her monetisation. That’s obviously not the only reason the public greeted her private selfies with such prurient relish when they were leaked last year, but it did contribute. Somewhere in the world, a shareholder trembles every time Kim Kardashian posts a nude selfie without having the courtesy to attach it to a magazine, an advertisement or some other saleable entity. Their bodies haven’t changed; what’s different about these privatised expressions of sexuality is that they’re not doing it to make money for someone else. Under patriarchal capitalism, that simply will not fly.

From here, we can resolve quite neatly the apparent contradiction of our culture both praising women for how we look and then shaming us for owning it. The praise comes from a desire to exercise power over us, while the shaming is a response to our trying to claim that power for ourselves; no paradox there, just unfairness. Nor do all women carry the same burden in the same way: for two non-exhaustive ways that other oppressions define the role of beauty as a power mechanism, we can turn to Maverick Smith on cissexism and Maisha Z. Johnson (or, indeed, Obama) on racism.

Whether it’s make-up, an image of a woman’s naked body, or the simple act of calling a woman “pretty”, we find female beauty a lot more unsettling when no-one’s making money off it and when she gets to define it. This is what happens when capitalism and patriarchy bro up to play Mario Kart: they take women’s consent out of our own hands. It’s just too threatening to their interests to let us take the wheel.

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