Pretty hurts. These were the words my mother would utter as she’d hot comb my hair on Saturday nights—hoping I wouldn’t sweat my straightened tresses out before Sundays Mass. Of course, like most Black girls with healed scars from hot comb burns, I never looked forward to that ritual. A ritual I did enjoy, however, was watching my mother dress for a night on the town: her polyester pantsuit perfectly fitted, her lips and nails freshly painted. My mother’s main focus was to make herself and her girls “presentable” and “respectable.” And, if there was time and money left, pretty too.
My mother was meticulous about appearance, and her daughter has turned that meticulousness into obsession. When mommy has a babysitter and grown-woman plans, my daughter also watches me apply mascara and dab perfume on my pulse points. I never contemplated what passing on this ritual might actually be teaching her, until her father alerted me to how much time she spends looking in the mirror at his place.
Initially I thought, “Good. Noticing and hopefully loving the brown-skinned, curly-haired, round-bellied Black girl that looks back at her is revolutionary.” But I can’t help but wonder if there’s more.
Of course I remind my daughter, often, how brilliant and amazingly creative she is. I tell her that I love her strength, and her desire to lead instead of follow. I applaud and reward her compassion and love of green living and recycling. What she hears more than anything though, from strangers, is how pretty she is. (And by “pretty,” they mean light-brown skin and “good hair,” mostly. So there’s that.)
We are obsessed with pretty and attempting to make everyone feel as if they are such, instead of eradicating pretty in favor of other exceptional descriptors. Beauty, for instance, encompasses a mixture of characteristics that vary from one’s surface to one’s core. Pretty is just that. No matter how much we try to change the word’s meaning, it’s determined by our outsides. And even with all our work, when contemplating our outsides, mainstream culture defines that pretty very narrowly.
I love Beyoncé’s “What Is Pretty” site and video collections. Number one, she’s Beyoncé. Number two, she’s Beyoncé. And ultimately, it’s wonderful when someone who’s essentially become the standard of mainstream beauty takes a moment to remind each of us that we all have light, value, purpose and a place in the world made only for us. Like Beyoncé’s site, I also have great affection for all “real beauty” campaigns (like those run by Dove, for example) that seek to widen our definition of beauty to not only include draw-dropping beauties like Beyoncé.
But I wonder if we are really shifting beauty standards at all; if we’re actually making spaces for brown girls and round girls and kinky-haired girls, or if this brand of “we are all pretty” is just a new commodity being sold in a capitalist state.
After all, wouldn’t we make a more dramatic change in the world if we taught our daughters that they are “pretty, but also…,” or possibly even presenting the “also” first? Even if we define our own pretty, we’re still presenting that definition with respect to the standard we seem to oppose. And, hell, Black girls need to know they’re pretty, when even their brightest and best are termed “damned dirty apes.”
On the effects of being deemed pretty (or not), author Denene Millner pens, quite gloriously, the following:
…I’ve seen the road girls walk, the path so beaten it could swallow you whole if you let it, steal your sight if you let it, hush your voice if you let it. I’ve seen these dark roads. I don’t want my child there. I don’t want any child there. There are brilliant, young girls who have been forced flat, had their value squeezed out of them (or at least that’s what they think). So, they skip and frolic and pop and twerk to a tune that reassures them they are nothing more than cute.
And, there are beautiful young girls who feverishly pour themselves into academia, almost as a type of punishment. On the outside they seem fine, but on the inside they feel desperately low, convinced at an early age that beauty just wasn’t for them. Because their skin is too dark, or their hair is too short, or their weight is too high—so their everything amounts to nothing. But, at least they are smart.
Pretty politics cut both ways.
To qualify the rape and ruin of enslaved Black women, all human characteristics had to be stripped away—“pretty” being one. We all want to be pretty, and maybe we are, but we are also so, so much more.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and solider of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.