Pretty Is a Lie
Updated: Mar 21
A small child with blonde hair and blue eyes, I fit the white privileged mould of ‘pretty’. I was frequently informed about it - by my parent’s friends, old ladies on the bus, the weird school photographer with the Sooty puppet. I remember holidays abroad feeling the curious eyes of men, then the protective arm of my Dad. I couldn’t have been more than about five, but I quickly surmised that pretty was a good thing. It got attention from grown-ups - whether I wanted it or not.
I carried this information with me to secondary school in the 90's and it found good company, Kate Moss chiming in with ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ and Pamela Anderson sharing tips on how to stop hunger pangs (brush your teeth, apparently). Heroin chic was the goal and hip bones were hip. For girls, skinny was better than strong, sporty, funny or kind. As pliable teens, giggling behind More magazine’s 'Position of the Fortnight' and crash diets, we thought skinny would make us popular, fancied, successful. Happy.
Alongside the Spanish subjunctive, we learned delightful rating systems used by schoolboys to rate girls’ bodies. The ‘thigh gap’ and ‘the pencil rule’ are etched into my teenage brain. We continued to receive unsolicited feedback on our appearance, from building sites, white vans, outside pubs, and by the harshest judges of all: our inner critics. After all, if you weren't interested in male attention, you were 'an ugly fat lesbian anyway'.
Pretty and skinny culturally determined the self-worth of the millennial female generation, from early on. Despite our mothers entering the workforce and women smashing barriers in music, politics and space travel, the 80's and 90's created false hope for feminism. The more women claimed power, the more power was taken from them in a process of sexist subordination, or 'bitchification'. Pre-‘me too’ with the patriarchy sitting fatly on its throne, even the Iron Lady was softening her voice and face to appease her male critics. The Spice Girls were judged brutally on their looks, however loudly they shouted about Girl Power. Disney put big-eyed, tiny-waisted princesses on the big screen, asleep or miserable until a handsome prince came along with a kiss. It’s no huge surprise that girls raised in the 80’s and 90’s grew into women whose inner value was rooted in outer appearance.
For me, things got wobbly in my 20’s; a messy parental split and too many short-lived relationships to mention. The standard shake-ups and break-ups of life when you’re trying to figure out who you are. I changed my hair colour, my clothes, my behaviour, all based on helpful suggestions from men. Losing weight felt like the secret to being desired and happy, and something I could control. I slipped quietly into an eating disorder while living alone in another country. I have coping mechanisms now which make it manageable, if a bit mentally exhausting. Far from a magic ticket to happiness, being a slave to impossible societal standards can be a self-built prison.
I have my own daughter now, and like most parents, want to break the cycle of passing on our bad habits. Weirdly this means re-parenting myself at the same time - giving the younger me a cuddle and saying ‘you are worth more.’
Jameela Jamil’s ‘I Weigh’ inclusive activism movement was founded in urging people to reconsider their worth in terms of positive achievements, personality, what they bring to the world and give to others - not on looks or a number on the scale. As guiding forces to the next generation of women, we need to re-wire ourselves to this mindset, speak kindly to our inner girl and remind her of all the other kinds of wonderful she is. It’s so crucial that the special little girls in our lives grow up hearing that they are strong, kind, genuine, brave, funny and determined. And knowing that they must find validation within themselves, not from other people’s well-meant compliments.