I read a quote today that said, "You don't have to be pretty like her. You can be pretty like you." It was posted to a woman's instagram account, a woman I often consider flawless or beautiful in a way that I cannot aspire to. It really struck me as a profound thought, something I don't think I have ever heard articulated so simply before. Growing up in this society, particularly as a woman, it is easy to forget that there are over 7 billion definitions of beautiful, that our societal beauty ideal is only meant to perpetuate a white capitalist heterosexual patriarchy. I often wonder what we are trying to achieve from the squats, the pretty clothes, the makeup, the filters, the hours upon hours spent in front of the mirror or just avoiding the mirror at all costs. I wonder what is empty inside of me when I find myself sizing other women up, as though we are in some sort of competition, to be the prettiest, the coolest, the smartest, the most well-liked, etc. But then I read a quote like this, and I remember I am not alone, I am not sick or evil or demented, I am just a girl who grew up fluent in the language of inadequacy, just like all the other pretty little kids in the world.
So what made us inadequate in the first place? It had to have started with our vaginas. Right? Have you ever heard a woman talk about how ugly vaginas are or how she doesn't like to touch it or go near it? I used to think that about myself, like my vagina was some dark, dangerous cavern that I had no business wandering inside of, despite the fact that it was on my body, part of my biology, part of my me-ness. But vaginas don't make a woman, a woman. Some women have vaginas, some women don't. It is really much more than that. It is being taught from the time we are little, that we must compete with other women, that there is somehow not enough love, not enough happiness, not enough smartness/prettyness/successfulness and so on, to be shared, not owned, by all of us. So we are trained to put each other down, to analyze each other's behavior and critique it. If we are busy condemning each other, the patriarchal powers that be can sit back, relax, and watch us self-destruct.
I think of myself at 17, the skinniest I ever was...and the saddest. I weighed 90 some lbs, which I thought would make me feel like I had succeeded in some way. In reality, I felt empty, I felt weak, I felt like I couldn't handle all of the things that were going to be thrown at me in the coming years. And in that body, I couldn't have. My body now is twenty lbs happier. It smiles at me in the morning and flexes its muscles and hugs its curves. I was blessed to attend an all women's college for three years, where the word beautiful is thrown around like confetti, and damn, we really all do find each other achingly beautiful. I came to Chatham and I discovered that the number on the scale had nothing to do with my worth or my beauty, that the way I did my hair or my makeup did not influence in anyway, my capability. I have girlfriends that work out every day and girlfriends that would rather suffocate themselves in Cheetos than touch a treadmill. I have girlfriends that want to be doctors, girlfriends that want to be nurses, girlfriends that think its a great time to be a waitress for a while. I have girlfriends that love boys, girlfriends that love girls, and girlfriends that have more important shit to deal with than love right now. I have girlfriends with six packs, girlfriends with great booties, girlfriends with plenty of wine to share, and plenty of love to shed. And we are all really, really pretty.
And still... its easy to forget. I worry sometimes that a prettier, smarter woman will come along and snatch up everything I love, all of my dreams, all of my goals, because she is just better. I think women are taught to expect that we are lacking in some way, and thus, we will never be able to fulfill ourselves or anyone else. I don't know who this phantom woman is, but a lot of times, she just looks like a manifestation of my insecurities. I worry that I'll never be the woman I aspire to be, that I'll never make the cut, or check all the boxes I hope to check. But when I read, "You can be pretty like you," I remember the truth, my truth. It isn't that I am inadequate or stupid, the world is an ugly place filled with ugly, colonizing ideologies used to oppress and enslave women's bodies. We are forced to oblige it or combat it, and it often feels like a choice between hating yourself and hating everything else.
Sometimes I am really hard on myself and sometimes I am really hard on other women. Isn't it bizarre to realize that we are so often on the same page? So often, no matter how society has categorized us, we are left to feel like we failed in some way, that we are not good enough, and that we never could be. The beauty ideal is just a construct, re-appropriated and manipulated to perpetuate the subjugation of women and minorities, to keep the powerful powerful and everyone else at their feet. We can't trust the beauty ideal; we are all beautiful. Your beauty, your strength, your intelligence as a woman only adds to my beauty, my strength, and my intelligence. Our unity, our shared experiences, are what make us capable. When women free themselves from unjust definitions of beauty, they open themselves to existing outside of the barriers of societal beauty. They are free to be whatever they want to be, and they are empowered by the loving women who surround them. You are beautiful and so am I, and that is what makes us strong.
Being pretty like me looks like a dark, sarcastic sense of humor, a coke in one hand, a book in the other, and the freedom to say what I need to say. It looks like messy hair and long eyelashes and boobs that hate being contained. It looks like an opinion and a loud voice and also the ability to listen and to be self-aware, despite difference of opinion. It looks like being right and being wrong and being too damn competitive for my own good. A lot of the time it looks like workout clothes and sweat and beat up tennis shoes, and sometimes it looks like my boyfriend's face, when he sees me for the first time that day. What does it mean to be pretty like you?