But You’re Pretty

I was discussing my lack of a love life with an acquaintance and she countered with, “But you’re pretty.” To many, that might sound like a compliment. It isn’t. Those three words negate everything else I am. It’s like my face and my body are all that matters. It’s even more hurtful to me when it comes from a woman.

‘Pretty’ is a word I am very hesitant to use to describe myself. Part of it is because women are expected to be self-deprecating and the other is because I had bouts of cystic acne until my late 20s. So I never relied on my looks. I made my way by being the funny one. Or I was known as the skinny one or the one with the big hair, but rarely the ‘pretty’ one.

Being considered unattractive in my youth forced me to develop a personality. Not relying on my looks gave me time to develop character. I can say without hesitation that I am down to earth and funny, I am straightforward, I have empathy and I am confident enough to be an advocate for myself. I am so much more than ‘pretty.’

Secondly, ‘pretty’ is perceived a certain way. Due to that perception I was encountering men who expected me to be both easy and stupid. This doesn’t land me in the pool of men with which I’d wish to swim. This acquaintance refused to believe me. I left the conversation saying, “You have no idea the issues that pretty brings.”

Because of this perceived prettiness, I have been conditioned to be fearful of going out alone. It starts off innocently enough with a family member or friend asking where I am going, then asking who I am going with. If I dare say I am going alone, I get a barrage of advice. Watch where you park. Don’t put down your drink. Be careful, you’re pretty. Although it’s not intended, saying these things is like telling me I can’t go out to any destination at any time of the day or night without an escort, lest I be raped. But at least “I’m pretty.”

Let me put it like this, ‘pretty’ has taken away my personal space. I have walked home from the bus stop as early as middle school and had random men beeping and screaming obscenities at me. ‘Pretty’ had its hand also, when it was used as an excuse in college in what could have been a circumstance of date rape. I’ve had men come up to me and automatically grab me by the waist. I’ve been sent unsolicited dick pics.

‘Pretty’ also didn’t help me when I was getting beat up by my ex-boyfriend in college who decided I had moved on too quickly. Although he was living with the woman with whom he cheated on me, he thought he should still be able to control me. The day it happened, all his blows were focused on my face as he repeatedly hit me. He thought I was ‘pretty’ too.

I have many more stories like these. So does almost every woman I know.

Nearly a decade ago, during a visit to a restaurant, an older friend joked that his wife thought there was something going on between us. At first I thought he was kidding, until I noticed his eyes as he spoke of our alleged affair. I continued eating, not saying a word as I wondered where the conversation was going. It remained lighthearted, and my ‘spidey’ senses remained at bay. We finished dinner and walked towards our cars. I thanked him for dinner. I was ready to get into my car and drive home. I stood by my car door and nearly lost all feeling in my legs when he asked to kiss me. I felt the color drain from my face and my mouth drop. I could feel my eyes grow to the size of silver dollars and my tears ducts open slightly.

“You’re coming on to me?” I asked.

He immediately apologized for asking, saying he had read me wrong and he thought that was what I wanted. When he apologized, he told me he thought I had been looking at him in a suggestive way for years. He told me that my stare was so intense sometimes he had to turn away. I don’t remember the exact mechanics of how I drove away, but I recall half-heartedly taking the twenty dollars he handed me for gas money. As he gave it to me he politely suggested that I not share the situation with anyone and that everything would be cool because he knew where the boundaries were now.

As I drove home, I replayed the entire evening in my head, wondering when I could have sent him signals. I wondered if I had been wearing something suggestive. Was it my fuchsia top with the beaded detail, or my skinny jeans? I looked him in the eyes as he spoke, did he think I was giving him the ‘look?’

As I thought about his apology, I remembered him telling me he looked at me as a grown woman, not as a family friend. He called me ‘pretty’ too. Me being ‘pretty’ didn’t change the fact that one question erased years of a kinship and mutual understanding that I believed I had.

In hysterical tears I called a male friend and told him what happened. His voice remained matter of fact as he said, “What do you expect? You’re a pretty girl.”