It can be an uncomfortable truth: I’m unpretty. Always have been, although the extent of it has varied throughout my life.
Of course, our culture values a certain aesthetic, not only being attractive but displaying wealth and status. It’s easier to reject such notions and practices from the middle of the pack than the bottom, I suppose, but for me, navigating it has been the key to finding healthy self-esteem and healthy relationships.
A few examples to show what I mean:
I didn’t even understand what was happening during a conversation that crystalized this for me the most. In my mid-20s, I lost maybe 30 pounds using appetite suppressants prescribed by a doctor. I felt awesome, working my way up to doing 90 minutes of aerobic exercise most nights and delighting in shopping for clothing at stores that didn’t sell sizes big enough for the old me. I got more attention and become more confident.
I was a journalist covering local courts for a smallish daily newspaper, so I frequently talked with local prosecutors but had less established relationships with defense attorneys. One day, I approached a defense attorney I had spoken with months ago for a quick interview in the courthouse hallway. He was talking with a prosecutor, so I figured I might as well talk with both of them at once.
The prosecutor introduced me and the defense attorney said something to the effect that I was much better looking than the last reporter, making a noise of disgust in reference to the last reporter’s appearance.
Nevermind the inappropriateness of evaluating a professional woman’s looks in comparison to her colleagues’ appearances: I was confused because my predecessor was male. I made a comment to that effect, and the prosecutor tried to smooth things over and push the conversation toward the case at hand.
Hours later, it occurred to me that he hadn’t recognized me: The “last reporter” he was referring to was me before I dropped weight, started wearing contacts regularly and changed my hairstyle. At the time, I was mortified.
Now that I’m a little older, I’m embarrassed for him; it wasn’t the only incident in which his behavior toward women was outdated, at best. (He called me “honey” a few times in an offhanded way that revealed he thought that, too, was appropriate in professional environments.)
Fast forward a few years to an exchange between two pretty ladies. One was a gorgeous being inside and out who embraced me when I was lonely after moving to a new city. Another was a woman who honestly wasn’t a great mother or friend but who was very attractive; striking, even.
The first was precise in defining friendships as non-romantic: She’s call men and women she had been palling around with a lot “brother-man” or “sister” prominently on social media. She was explaining how she tried to put another woman at ease by messaging her to explain who she had invited to an upcoming event; she emphasized that she went to high school with a man this woman was interested in but hadn’t been close with him in years.
The second woman commented, “You wouldn’t even have to go to all this trouble if you weren’t cute.”
She nodded. “I know.”
As a non-cute woman myself, I had realized that pretty, sexy women had to navigate unwanted or inappropriate attention from men that, honestly, doesn’t come my way. It hadn’t occurred to me, though, that their looks complicated interactions with other women and group social situations. It was something that colored more of their lives than I ever considered. I had spent far more time thinking about how being unpretty affected me.
Over the years, the weight crept back on. I started a serious relationship, moved in with him and then got engaged. As some people tend to do, I got busy with life and stopped working out.
My heart sank when I saw my wedding photos: I, indeed, was almost the biggest I had been in my life and well, professional makeup and hair styling didn’t really cover that. I typically take 30 or so selfies before choosing to post one on social media, so it might have been easy to ignore some of the changes in my appearance.
We got our electronic proofs just a couple days after the wedding, and I confessed to my new husband that I didn’t really care for many of them. I looked horrible. To me, the photographs were just evidence of how far I had let myself go.
His response was to express hurt. He thought I looked beautiful. He genuinely was upset by my reaction, and I realized that by putting down myself, I was putting down something he loved and valued. It wasn’t just about me any more.
Another year slipped by, and I’m back to counting calories and working out, much of it with a supportive husband by my side. I miss the confidence I had when I was 50 pounds lighter, but my biggest motivations are health concerns that might worsen if I don’t lose weight.
When I’m feeling insecure, I have to remind myself that spending time on my hair and makeup is an investment in self-care, not a frantic attempt to cover the unpretty. I remind myself that everyone has a characteristic that is stereotyped and affects how strangers approach them. And, honestly, I put less importance on strangers’ opinions than I did when I was 25.
Now, I don’t feel shame saying I’m unpretty.
It’s a truth but not a judgment.