Most people expect that a compliment of, “You’re so pretty” is a compliment, indeed. But the reality varies from person to person, based on what they have lived through and how that simple phrase has been applied to them in their past.
Being called pretty felt limiting to me in my youngest years. I’ve had very negative encounters involving use of this word. I suspect that most women have had these types of encounters at some point in their lives, too. Still, you are supposed to smile through the word’s use and feel complimented, no matter the time or context.
Ugly Foreshadowing of a Not-So-Pretty Crash
As I started a new relationship, my first attempt since the crimes against me six years ago, we started on a footing of, “You’re so pretty.” The subject of my interest kept repeating that for three of our first encounters. In fact, it was almost all we talked about.
I started squirming, in knowing I am not so pretty through-and-through, nor 24 hours per day, seven days per week. I have PTSD and have moments of being very, very unpretty. I knew we did not stand a chance, if everything hinged on my appearance. I redirected him to talk about other things, to go deeper. He saw this as a flaw in itself, my desire to deflect compliments. He kept reiterating over the course of our six or seven weeks how I had him “walking on eggshells” because I did not want to focus on my looks.
Instead, those early calls foreshadowed what was to come – that inevitable moment of unprettiness that a man can either understand and address with compassion – or he cannot. In the end, all he could see was the pretty shell. He could not see the beauty of me, what lies beneath what he perceived as attractive. I guess I saw the crash coming, as I have lived this oh-so-pretty life for long enough to know how these things work.
UnPretty Use of the Word “Pretty”
When I was very young, maybe six years old, I remember being told I was “so pretty” in front of other little girls. As I stood there in my sandals or patent leather Mary Janes, I remember not looking people in the eyes and not wanting to acknowledge them. What I wanted was for them to say the same level of compliment or greater to the girls around me.
I did not like being pulled out from “the crowd.” It felt so unfair to the other girls, for something that matters to any little girl’s psyche. I remember being in my head in these moments, looking down at my shoes and thinking, “Tell her she is pretty, too. She is pretty, too. She is pretty!”
Then I remember being in elementary school and teachers telling me I was pretty. It never felt right. I had skipped a grade, started school a year younger than my classmates and was in the talented and gifted (TAG) program. But I was “pretty.” This actually hurt my self-confidence, as I never felt like I fit into the talented and gifted group, despite excelling in my studies. I felt like I was thrown in for some kind of weird, “Help the ‘blonde girl’ out” diversity.
Then I remember being 11 or 12 years of age, walking down my pristine tree-lined street. It was the “safe” street of that era. It was historic, serene and lovely. Victorian and post-Victorian homes lined each side of the street, block after block. I was walking about four blocks from my own house, headed to my friend’s residence to play.
Two men were sitting on the front steps of one of the homes. They were in their early 20s. I was very small and prepubescent. I looked about nine or 10 years old. The men jumped up and started following me.
They stayed on my heels for about four blocks to my friends house, taunting me the entire time. They kept saying, “She’s so pretty. I bet she will be hot when she gets older. She’s so pretty. I bet she will turn all the boys on.”
It was a nightmare. Either one of them could lunge slightly forward at any moment and I could be lost forever. No one would know what happened to me, on that short walk of about eight blocks on my “pretty” street.
I applied everything I had been told as a little girl, to thwart their interest. I threw my shoulders back, stood straight and tall as I could and walked confidently. My nose went into the air and I acted secure. I acted confident. I acted like I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. My objective? To make them feel worthless, unheard, un-intimidating and invisible. I remember being in my head at that time, saying, “Look confident and strong. Look confident and strong. You are not scared. You are not scared. You are confident. You’re too confident to be pulled off the street.”
I never told anyone about this encounter, as I knew one of the boys was related to one of my mother’s best friends. I felt no one would believe me. He had been sitting on the friend’s front steps. But about 15 years later, I scoured the web for this guy’s name. I found him in the Texas prison system with a mugshot glaring from my screen as a sentenced child molester.
When I was about 14 I started doing television fashion commercials. It was the basic step and repeat type stuff. The opportunity came to me and I took it on a whim, without much forethought.
Then one day I was walking in a Dallas shopping mall. I heard some boys yelling, “There she is! There’s that girl from that commercial.” I looked up, not knowing it was directed at me. Next thing I knew, these four or five big boys were ambling over to me excitedly.
I was a tiny thing, about 85 pounds at most and only about 5’2″ tall. I felt instantly overwhelmed. Very overwhelmed. It overwhelmed me so much that I vowed to never go “front of camera” again. In the coming years, I only sat for the public camera in controlled environments and with my face obscured. “Pretty” felt scary.
As an adult, I learned to enjoy being characterized as “pretty,” although I still did not allow others to take photos of me. I spent a good 25 or more years enjoying prettiness, albeit under certain control. We all have our pretty assets and I enjoyed mine. Is that so unusual? Who knows? I just know I enjoyed being social and being what people considered traditionally pretty opened doors. I am not ashamed to admit that.
The older I became, the more I felt comfortable in my skin. I enjoyed whatever weight I was at a given moment. I enjoyed how my facial features changed with the years and matured into their final positions. Then I enjoyed the first lines and wrinkles starting to form, showing I have lived life and laughed a few times.
I started looking up to women who age gracefully, without injecting things into their skin. But then, part of me looks up to women who know how much of which things to inject into their skin and when to stop.
I began to fantasize about how I will look at 50, 60, 80 years of age. Will I still be “pretty?” Will I be one of those ladies of distinction and grace? Or will I wrinkle down into an angry-faced, scowling old hag? Obviously I seek to be the former.
I want to carry the seasons, life stages, experiences and victories of my life on my face. I want people to be able to tell I enjoy breathing fresh air and feeling the wind blowing in my hair. To me, that is pretty. It is the pretty I aspire to be. It is the pretty of a partner who looks at me proudly at any age and reflects quietly in their own mind of the beauty of my changes and their experiences shared with me. So pretty.
Then this violent crime happened to me. My pretty was used against me, stolen from me and squandered. The serial offender introduced himself by saying, “I always go for women just like you: blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin like yours.” My appearance was my potential death sentence.
Now I have this very “unpretty” side. It rears its head in difficult moments. Not every difficult moment brings it into effect. But unfair ones awaken it from hibernation. If I feel disregarded on something important, I become unpretty. When someone repeats some form of being attracted to me based on my appearance, it is downright painful. I almost died because of my pretty. Now I must live with the unpretty aftermath.
I type this knowing I’ve left a trail of bleeding ears behind me in my journey to healing. At first, customer service representatives saw the unpretty. Then I learned to communicate with them in ways that kept them from going into a negative cycle with me. I became pretty again to these people.
Then I started an unpretty, multi-year journey with the State Department agents working on my case. One deserved it to the hilt. Ahem, Agent JC. You are forever in my verbal cross hairs and deservedly so. But the kind case agent never deserved my unpretty wrath. I just needed someone to explode upon, in that maddening four year journey without crime resolution.
Once that issue resolved itself, I started being unpretty to the State Department, itself. I was unpretty once to the President of the United States I guess, as the Secret Service poked their heads in. That unprettiness was actually me asking for help from the “supervisor” of an oblivious, uncaring Secretary of State who could not have cared less about the criminal in his agency and the crimes I continued to suffer as their collateral damage. One is entitled to take the next step to a supervisor. But in this case, questioning what is right in America was viewed as unpretty.
This trend continued. I learned to cap the ugliness against one demographic and moved onto another, as I filtered through the layers of anger the criminal justice system peeled back. It was a process.
Finally, I started feeling pretty again. It has been six years since the crimes against me. I felt pretty enough to be romantic with one person. But then, you guessed it, a very specific trigger brought the unpretty to the surface.
I beat myself up over this. I’m not fully to blame, but it took time to figure out what was happening and why it kept happening. I have to look at the pattern, identify the pattern and find a resolution to the pattern. There was no time to do that, before we had to end things – since I shattered his pretty mental picture of me.
It is sad. I guess I am supposed to be expert in my own unprettiness and not let anyone see it. But I am not yet an expert in this, as I am evolving into my new skin.
Cycling Back Into True Beauty
I thought at first that I am the problem. But then, I woke with clarity. That is, somewhere out there is a man who will see what I have been through and survived. He will regard the mere survival as the prettiest thing he has ever seen. He will honor that survival and help me hold it closely.
When I discover new ways to be unpretty, he will help me identify the cause, effect and solution. He will continue to honor my strength and prettiness on the surface, by honoring the pretty left in my soul. He will not choose to hide from it, but to hold my hand through it.
That will be pretty. It will be a pretty made for two. Perhaps it is the romantic side of me dreaming or fantasizing. But I believe it exists. It warms my heart and makes me feel pretty again, in this moment when I am reeling from having several unpretty episodes.
I see now that the unpretty is actually a pathway to behold. It is the very essence of real, authentic beauty, the flowering of a soul designed to achieve, rise up, survive and succeed. It is the evolution of what will be one of the greatest love stories ever told, one that starts with “pretty” and takes the time to see beneath that surface – turning everything we are together into eternal beauty.
As I learn about my PTSD and overcome it, just like I overcame my offender, I am starting to feel less hindered by what people see. I actually find myself wanting to show my face and all of my struggles to the world. At the same time, I fully realize I need to not let people in when all they can see is my exterior – as is true for anyone. But I think the fear of being seen diminishes as I expose and overcome what no one wants to see.