Is “Pretty” A Privilege? Thoughts From #BlogHer14

“A consequence of female self-love is that the woman grows convinced of social worth.” — Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

This isn’t an easy post to write, and certainly not one I imagined writing after BlogHer—but when you’re surrounded by inspiring women sharing their hearts and vulnerabilities, sharing what yours says only makes sense.

The conference was one of the most phenomenal events I’ve attended. Thousands of bloggers gathered to learn, laugh and mingle with likeminded others and have an overall uplifting time. On the second day, I read My Big Brindle Heart: A Love Story, the post I wrote about my bulldog Zoe, along with other Voices of the Year recipients.

As soon as I met fellow winner Ashley, aka The Baddest Mother, I was smitten. Her wit, contagious laugh, glowing smile and warmth put me instantly at ease. When they lined us up beside each other, I thought, “I’m so lucky to sit next to her!”

Voices of the Year crew

VOTY: Warming up for the show!

Little did I know until afterward that Ashley had a far different initial reaction to me. She hadn’t wanted to appear by me because I’m “so pretty,” she explained, then promptly added that the thought derived from personal insecurity. She was one of the first to hug and congratulate me after my reading, and I adore her even more for her openness and willingness to shift stances.

What “Pretty” Means

Being “pretty,” which I define as fitting society’s definition of physical attractiveness, is an odd thing. Writing about it feels even odder, particularly since I don’t feel more attractive than others. For many years, I felt ugly and awkward. I still occasionally feel that way.

Throughout my youth and into my twenties, I judged everyone’s appearance, especially my own. Because I struggled with body dysmorphia and poor body image, I often misinterpreted other girls’ and women’s discomfort regarding my appearance for dislike. I wanted people to like me, and felt few did—so much so that when I was nominated for Ice Age Queen during high school (so Minnesotan!), I thought it was a cruel joke.

Overcoming an eating disorder and empowering myself helped me reach a point of self and body acceptance I feel too few women, sadly, do. I no longer judge others or myself by aesthetics. I don’t look in the mirror and think, “Wow! You’re gorgeous!” (Does any woman?), but I do see beauty—real beauty, the kind that radiates from within and shines in the uniqueness we all have. I have “good hair days” and bad like anyone else, but I’ve learned to keep it all in perspective; in the grand scheme of things, our looks don’t matter—at least, they shouldn’t.

Here are some of the remarks I’ve heard women make about me, some frequently and from well-intended friends, in recent years:

“I want to hate you, but I can’t, because you’re too nice.”  OR simply, “I hate you.”

“I’d never let a woman who looks like her live near me.”

“Must be nice to be beautiful. You could write anything and people would buy it – it doesn’t even have to be good.”  (Said in response to a successful promotional event I ran for my novel.)

“You’re too pretty to be a writer.” 

“I’m so glad I’m not as pretty as you. It’ll be easier for me to get wrinkles, because I’ve never cared about my looks.”

“No one wants to hear ‘positive body image talk’ from someone who looks like you.”

“You look so much better now!” (Said to me after anti-depressants and binge-eating added 25 pounds to my naturally thin frame, mostly around my middle.)

Why It Matters

Trust me, I don’t mean to complain. I know that these comments have little to do with me, that many women face harsher criticism and that “prettiness” has advantages. “Pretty” women often have an easier time getting dates, make greater salary and receive better job performance evaluations, for example—largely because of the way we, as a society, perceive them, in my opinion. We’re not bullied for our appearances the way many females are. Without my looks, I never would have traveled the world as a model. As my first theatrical agent told me, “Pretty won’t get you jobs, but it will get you through the door.”

But “prettiness” also brings discrimination that goes beyond snap judgments. A study published in the Journal of Social Psychology in 2010 showed that when photos are included with resumes, “pretty” women are significantly less likely to secure interviews from female HR representatives than less conventionally attractive women. We’re also less likely to be taken seriously for jobs considered masculine and less expected to be intelligent, good lovers or nurturers of the self.

I’ve held back from openly addressing these issues due to my own insecurities—not wanting others to deem me vain, feel somehow shunned or that all of this seems trivial. “Attractiveness” has more perks than downsides, you may think, and you could well be right. Thanks to Ashley and other bold women who spoke at BlogHer, however, I’ve realized that they matter. If women can’t support fellow women, how can we move forward? Or expect negative stereotypes that affect all of us to change?

After speaking and serving on panels at BlogHer, I was blown away by people’s warmth. Many women rushed to me with open arms and shared stories of their own pets. A few cried on my shoulder. I reacted similarly to others’ posts and stories, including Ashley’s gorgeous piece, It’s All One Life. Connecting with other women in such personal ways strengthens all of us, and I feel so blessed.

Although this was my first BlogHer experience, I’m convinced it will be far from my last. Bloggers are a special group of folks, many of whom feel compelled to share their unique voices and stories. What a powerful way to change the world.

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Fabulous related posts:

Baddest Mother Ever: The Woman Inside the Mirrror  (Ashley’s take on our shared experience. I’m sure you’ll fall in love with her, as I did!)

It’s a Dome Life: I’m Prejudice Against Beautiful Women

Jess Witkins’ Happiness Project: Top 5 Reasons to Go to BlogHer

Good Day, Regular People: BlogHer Timeline: Five Years of Gratitude (recap. 2014)

Leave a comment

38 Comments

  1. My friend. Brave post. And think about submitting it to BlogHer for syndication, because it’s important. And yes, not spoken about. http://www.blogher.com/marketplace/opportunities/syndication/apply

    Reply
  2. Aww I love this! So inspiring. I knew we immediately connected for some reason. You’re a gem. 🙂

    Reply
  3. When I think of your beauty, August, it’s in this way – your words, your wisdom, the way your smile is as much from your eyes as your mouth, your love of Zoe and Via, your acceptance of others, your candor, your bravery, your forthrightness….

    This is a lovely birthday gift for me, on a day when I half-dragged myself, post food-poisoning, to the DMV to renew my license and have what I’m fairly sure will be a rather rundown and sweaty picture taken…ah, but I also chatted with several interesting others, commiserated, and felt well enough to belt out Jewel tunes and take the long way home just because it felt good to be out in the world again.

    The picture will be as it is, but it’ll always remind me, in a way, of this day, and this post, too.

    Thank you for writing this. =)

    Reply
    • Oh, Shan Jeniah. You just made MY day. Thanks for the beautiful thoughts — a gift to me on your birthday!

      I love that you belted out Jewel songs. Ha! Wish I could’ve joined you. 😉 I hope you’re feeling fully better soon, and that the coming year brings you as much joy as you deserve.

      Reply
      • I love giving others gifts on my birthday…it makes me feel a little like a hobbit!

        17 years ago, when my husband and I met, we listened to Jewel’s “Pieces of You” album a lot, and I learned to sing every song on it…I love the way her voice soars, and how I feel when I challenge myself to sing her well.

        I bought “Spirit” as a CD when it first came out, but I hadn’t heard a lot of these songs for years – until we bought my used car last fall. It lost its radio antenna elsewhere in its life, and I dug out the last remaining CD wallet we have…and, since the kids also developed an affinity for her music, I’ve played it a lot…

        Now, while I’m singing, I’ll also be thinking of you, and a potential future day when maybe we really could belt them out together. =)

        I’m nearly all the way to better, although, after days of not eating, I can only eat a few bites at a time, and applesauce is still the current mainstay of my diet. I’m getting closer to a more typical level of activity, and the kids and I have Shakespearean plans for tomorrow night, with a potential swim beforehand.

        I will be looking for joy in each moment, and for more ways to spread it. That’s worked very well for me, these last few years.

        Always a joy to read your words, and to chat with you. ❤

  4. Reblogged this on kristin nador writes anywhere and commented:
    Visit my beautiful bloggy friend August McLaughlin and read her brave and thought-provoking post on women’s body image issues. Maybe how we perceive others has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with how we see ourselves…

    Reply
  5. YES!!! This is a gem of a piece and I totally agree with Alexandra Rosas–this is a conversation that should get the widest audience possible. I am sooooo glad I got to sit beside you, August. Thank you for accepting my honesty with grace and meeting it with your own.

    Reply
  6. I’ve shared on FB and Twitter as well!

    Reply
  7. Lance

     /  July 29, 2014

    Great post and great to eat lunch next to you.

    Yes, I think pretty is a privilege like being tall or tan or whatever else. I’m short. Big deal. I can still write….sometimes.

    I think people who depend on their looks hurt themselves in the long run. But those who use them to open doors then let their brains and talents take them to success are gold.

    Reply
    • Great meeting you, too, Lance! I agree that our happiness and success lie in where we place our values – and whatever attributes we have can help, if we let them.

      Reply
  8. Raani York

     /  July 29, 2014

    What an amazing post, August! I love it! I will try to spread word about it as far as I can!!

    Reply
  9. Isn’t it fascinating how we miss what makes ourselves beautiful? I know the speaker who you mean and when she walked out on stage, my first reaction was what a gorgeous woman! I saw confidence and talent and beauty. We are always our worst critic.

    Brave post, August. And you bring up a good point that you never know how “easy” someone has it because you aren’t walking in their shoes. People assume that good looks or money = happiness, but that’s not always the case.

    BlogHer inspired my own vulnerable post. It goes up Thursday. 🙂

    Reply
    • It sure is, Jess! I reacted similarly to Ashley’s appearance. She’s radiant — and we’re so darn hard on ourselves. I can’t wait to read your post!

      Reply
  10. I love these moments where we can stop, recognize our own prejudices, push through them, and connect. I’s such a huge moment because you realize what you have been missing out on. Beauty is such a tough issue for most women and we often don’t see ourselves the way others do.

    Thank you for sharing my piece.

    Reply
    • I’m so with you there, Lillian. If Ashley hadn’t shared with me, I never would have had such a moment. You showed similar honesty and thoughtfulness in your post — really enjoyed it.

      Reply
  11. August, you have a wonderful ability to articulate thoughts and feelings many of us experience (in one way or another) but can’t quite find the words to share. Thank you for that. I hope you realize you often speak for many. It was great fun following the adventures of you and Jess (Witkins) and I smiled when I saw the photos of the two of you together. These conferences are priceless!

    Reply
  12. laurie27wsmith

     /  July 30, 2014

    A great post August. The one thing we can’t escape is how the world sees us. No matter what we look like people will always make judgements. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but it’s the first thing we see.
    Laurie.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Laurie. You’re right about our tendency to judge others’ covers. A bit of that’s okay, I think, as we don’t use it against someone or close ourselves off to learning the truth. (Well, unless someone’s dangerous. I’d hate to learn that the hard way!)

      Reply
      • laurie27wsmith

         /  July 30, 2014

        It’s all we have in front of us to make a decision on whether we want to interact with the other person. When you think of it life is a lot like Lotto, there’s always a surprise or two, especially with people.

  13. I remember how hurt I was when I ran into a former classmate mid freshman year and was told, “You know that although I was always nice to you, I hated you in grade school and junior high.”

    “But I never did anything to you,” I told her.

    I was shocked and hurt as she continued. “Yeah, most of us girls pretty much hated you, but we kissed your butt because all the boys liked you and we knew that if we showed how we really felt, we wouldn’t stand a chance with any of the boys.”

    For the first time, I began to put up walls and question the sincerity of my friends. It took me a while before I realized that these feelings spoke more to who they were than who I was. After a while, I finally moved past it, but as you can tell, I never forgot.

    Just so you know, I thought you were beautiful long before I saw your face. 🙂

    Reply
    • Wow, Kitt. It’s remarkable, the way such memories can stick with us long term. I definitely relate there. It’s far tougher to understand where such statements and behaviors come from in our youth. I love that we can now look at both with compassion.

      Aw, thank you! I felt the same way about you.:)

      Reply
  14. It’s interesting for me to think about my own reaction to this subject, as a man who attended BlogHer. And that is how LITTLE looks matter to me in the context of blogging, writing, and creativity. That’s not to say that if I was in a singles’ bar, one woman might catch my eye over another, or that I don’t notice a beautiful woman entering a room.

    We always hear the cliche about “inner beauty” and most of the time it is a term that is overused. However, in the context of creativity, it is totally true. There were women of all shapes, sizes, and ages reading at the VOTY, and the last attribute that stands out for me is the person’s physical appearance. I noticed that you were a blonde, “California type,” b it didn’t make me more interested in you than any of the other readers. My wanting to meet someone at the reception was completely related to the passion of the story. Maybe that is what I find special about writing, and blogging. I have had crushes several times with women online over my nine years of blogging and it was always related to how they wrote rather than their looks. If we are going to really be jealous of a blogger or writer, it should be for the size of their vocabulary.

    Reply
    • Excellent points, Neil. The more we focus on our passions in life, the less physical appearance matters — which definitely (perhaps particularly) holds true in writer-ville. When we stop judging others and ourselves, we also have more energy to invest in those passions.

      I’m with you on looks mattering least at VOTY! Thanks so much for weighing in.

      Reply
    • TheAnimatedWoman

       /  August 8, 2014

      I agree with you Neil on everything up until the last point. It’s not the size of their vocabulary, it’s how they use what they’ve got.

      Reply
  15. It’s too late for me to make coherent thoughts on this page, but I feel like this is a conversation I would love to be a part of. It is weird when people say things like “I want to hate you, but you’re so nice” or something like that. Often they are harmless, but it’s still confusing to me because I don’t think of my physical appearance as weighing that heavily into my identity. I have never been a “pretty girl,” until recently, apparently. I don’t blog about past self-esteem issues (perhaps I should?) or dealing with weight and depression and all the other things that make a person feel unattractive… but… all that is to say, I appreciate this post.

    Reply
    • I know exactly what you mean, Aussa. I’m not sure I know any women who deem themselves “the pretty girl,” and others’ comments, while well-intended, are often a bit backhanded. The fact that your appearance doesn’t much influence your identity is a great sign, IMO. When we don’t place too much value on our own looks, we judge others less as well. Makes life much more wondrous!

      Reply
  16. What a wonderful post. I remember years ago hearing or reading about a book that dealt with body image and race, and what they found was white women had the same ideal of beauty and didn’t like the women who looked like that while black women tended to use a lot of their own features as part of the ideal and liked her if she was a nice person. I wish I could remember the name of the book. Anyway I think we forget that everyone is judged on how they look and no matter what we look like some of those judgments are hurtful and mean. But the people who bother to get to know us and love us those are the ones that count.

    Reply
    • You’re so right about that, Alica! It’s sad when women beat themselves and others up, particularly when the standards are set by media and societal ideals. I also have compassion for those who most judge; it’s not easy or fun having that much insecurity. If you recall that book name, I’d love to hear it!

      Reply
  17. TheAnimatedWoman

     /  August 8, 2014

    Wow, so many layers to this issue…and I’m cautious about how I approach the subject, lest I be judged myself as a pretty person. Not that I’m a great beauty, but I do feel awkward when people tell me I am pretty (this happens once in a while). Why is it so hard to take a compliment? Because I don’t want them to hate me. So I say, “oh it’s only paint.” But why do I even think they will hate me? Why do I even bother with paint?

    Okay, that first paragraph was totally loaded with self-deprecation.

    As an artist who is always looking at people to draw, I’m inspired more by their personality than their looks. And when it is their looks, it’s the curve of a cheek or the way the light hits them. People do come in all shapes, sizes, colours and textures, and one can see and appreciate physical beauty everywhere through an artist’s lens…

    At what point does this appreciation turn into judgement? When we see “pretty” people, we might feel admiration or jealousy – is this actually a reflection of how secure we are within ourselves?

    I’m rambling now, sorry! Great post here. Worthy of much discussion.

    Reply
  18. I feel like I’m so messed up and a bundle of walking contradictions in this department that there’s no way to explain it in a comment. But let me at least say that being able to connect with you and Ashley backstage after you each read was one of the most memorable parts of that night. I feel lucky to “have” you both now.

    And I love this picture.:)

    Reply
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