The Pursuit of Pretty
Growing up in the 90s, I always wanted to be pretty. But at an early age, I concluded that I was not. I was average, nappy and brown. My teeth were gapped, my hair was short and my vision was poor. And, on top of that, I was the only dark-skinned woman in my family. I didn’t look like the pretty girls of my day. Light and curly like Tia and Tamera, silky haired like Tatiana Ali or tall and thin like Brandy. But I desperately wanted to be.
Despite our best feminist efforts, many women still desire to be pretty. We can’t help it; pretty offers capital… privilege, opportunity, and validation.
And when you exist in a society that still tells you that Taylor Swift is the ideal, it can be very difficult (but not impossible) to embrace your own beauty, especially if phenotypically you exist on the far opposite end of the “Taylor scale”. We live in a society where the most “beautiful” are all pretty much altered versions of the same archetype, regardless of race or ethnicity. None of which look like me… short, round bellied, dark and nappy. No wonder Black children are still choosing the white doll.
Societal pressure influences self-esteem and identity; with media being the primary vehicle in which these messages are delivered. An unashamed consumer of television, since childhood I have absorbed endless hours of this programming. Taking in images of people living idealized lives, with bodies that look nothing like mine. And when the bodies did resemble mine they were either being hurt, punished, sacrificed, or dismissed. I didn’t want that life, I wanted to be pretty… saved, protected, revered and loved. So I made a decision; with the right augmentation and ornamentation, I could be.
If I wasn’t naturally pretty, I could make myself pretty. I could purchase the hair, paint my face, buy the clothes and shoes to walk the walk and, of course, have the body; and I did. I was so good at it, my transformation could inspire its own 90s, “ugly duckling,” movie.
My efforts were so successful, people treated me differently, whether they want to admit it or not...and I’m not just talking about men. That’s how patriarchy works. But so did friends and family.
I was admired… but not simply because of how I looked… For many, the appreciation and applause was warranted by the “hard work” I put into being pretty. “You eat like a bird. I wish I had that much self control”. “If only I could have the same discipline to hit the gym like you do.” “Wow, you’re always so put together”. Even after a sudden weight loss, and my disclosure that I was having a hard time eating, my own physician said, “Well, whatever you’re doing, keep it up!”.
I was suffering, but all anyone could see was that I was pretty.
I became pretty and my mind and body suffered for it. As my look evolved, my mental health suffered. For years I lived through a cycle of panic attacks and depressive episodes. Debilitating fear that pushed me into dark corners, huddled in a ball, terrorized and unable to move. Followed by hours of endless crying, while laying on my living room floor. This was my life. A life I lived in secret because pretty girls don’t cry, suffer or experience pain. And let’s not neglect to mention the physical pain my body endured, as a result of excessive exercise and ‘natural cleanses’. Being pretty had a cost that I paid, and every time my joints hurt or I have debilitating stomach pains, I continue to pay.
I learned a lesson. Pretty girls do cry, suffer and feel pain. And if their self-worth is completely intertwined with being pretty; they aren’t usually secure, happy or confident at all… and they are most certainly not protected or ‘safe.’ I learned that I hated myself more when I was pretty than when I was average, brown and nappy. I learned that the time and effort I put into starving, exercising and conforming, was stealing precious time from my life. I learned that despite everything, I felt like nothing. I felt like death, so I wanted to die. And I am so grateful that I didn’t.
I am grateful that I got help. I am grateful that I decided to heal. I am grateful that I am still healing.
Recovering from my eating disorder was more than just learning how to feed myself, it was learning how to feed that inner need to conform to beauty standards that were not designed for me. It was educating myself on how and why those beauty standards were created, and crafting my own standards based on ideals that celebrated my culture, my features and my identity. It was reclaiming my identity. It was developing a sense of purpose much greater than myself. It was allowing myself to gain weight and shed years of pain and trauma. It was defining me for me and finally understanding that I may be brown and nappy, but I will never be average. And, guess what… in the end, finally realizing that I have always been pretty.