Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Month Without Mirrors 5.25 Update: You Don't Always Have to Look Pretty

When I was walking around wearing my glasses the other day (in public! gasp!) and not caring a whit about how I looked, I had a thought I'd never had before. It is so elementary that it's embarrassing to let you know that this thought had literally never, ever crossed my mind before, but here goes: You don't always have to be pretty.

Mind you, I don't walk through life always believing that I am pretty. But I do walk through life believing that I should be, always, without exception. I'm not talking well-groomed and hygienic; I'm talking pretty. Every day, to some degree, involves considering how close to my standard of personal prettiness I get. Some days I hit it; others I don't, and on those days I  have to reconcile myself with knowing that I don't look the way I'd like to. I'm thankful that I have the ability to make that reconciliation most of the time, for it's certainly better on the brain than a negative cycle of berating myself. Still, it is effort. It's a state of unease: I am reconciling, not being.

But then, there it was, that little kernel of a thought just popping into my mind: You don't always have to be pretty. On this particular day, I was makeup-free, with my hair tied back into a bun, wearing loose, comfortable clothing. I looked perfectly normal, but I didn't look how I normally do—which is hardly glammed to the max, but I'm nearly always wearing light makeup and contact lenses, and with my hair either down (which gives me a vaguely bohemian look, I fancy) or in an updo (which, the other day, elicited the best compliment ever: "You look so French"). On my glasses day, I imagine I appeared as someone who just didn't give a second thought to how she looked—I was sporting all the signals of, say, the frumpy friend on a sitcom.

Well, here I look more like the unhinged/sweaty sitcom friend, but since I can't view new photos of myself this month and this is one of exactly two glasses photos I have, you'll just have to trust me.

That's just the thing, though: I imagine I appeared in such a way, because without looking in a mirror, I really have no idea. I've seen myself plenty of times without makeup and wearing my glasses, but it's happened so rarely in public that I had no idea of how I looked on that particular day. I could only go on feel. As for that: I felt...comfortable. I felt an ease in my movement, a looseness in my joints. I felt frumpy, yes, and a little clunky, a little adolescent (my recent seventh-grade snapshot on Before You Were Hot can let you know what my adolescence looked like). I was freed from the ever-so-slight but constant irritation my contact lenses bring this time of year due to seasonal allergies. I was freed from wondering if I was observed: I was pretty sure I looked unremarkable, veering on invisible, and instead of feeling slighted, I felt open. I noticed people noticing one another, and in my observations of their sly looks I realized I was removing myself from the equation altogether. People may have looked at me, but since it was harder for me to form any notions of what they were thinking, I felt a distance from social interactions—a freedom from the quiet, constant social game we all play.

The feeling was new (and fleeting, I might add), and for people who struggle to feel visible in this world, the sensation might be unwelcome. But traditionally I haven't feared feeling invisible; I fear being seen in a way I don't wish to be seen. That is: I fear a loss of control over how others see me—a control that none of us has to begin with.

Letting go of the imaginary control the mirror gives forces me to not only replace that control with trust—in myself and in the world around me—it forces me to lift the controls I believed I have over my physical allure. I thought I always had to look pretty because I thought it was something that was within my control, when it isn't. Yes, I take various measures to meet a certain standard of attractiveness. But I can't do a damn thing to ensure that you think I'm pretty; none of us can, really. Clean, groomed, and reasonable, yes. Beyond that? It's up to you, not me.

I've learned that lesson, somewhat harshly on occasion, in the course of publishing beauty pieces elsewhere. Previously, I've attributed people's occasionally negative comments about my looks as being a reaction not to my relatively inoffensive face, but to the audacity of a woman talking about how she looks without apologizing for her myriad flaws. Truthfully, though, that's only part of it. The other part is that some people are just going to think I'm un-pretty, and that is completely beyond my control. When I relinquished that imaginary control by giving up the mirror, I also slowly began to relinquish what I had come to believe was my responsibility as a woman to be pretty at all times. I can't control it to begin with, so saddling myself with that responsibility is like studying for the craps table. You can learn how to maneuver the odds, but at its heart, it's a game of luck.

The second of two glasses photos in my possession. (Here, I am sporting my
outrageously terrible attempt at a fishtail braid, hence the expression of forlorn defeat.)

Make no mistake: I'm not saying I don't want to look pretty. I do. But in that sliver of a moment when I heard my head whisper You don't always have to be pretty, I saw a momentary respite from the self-imposed duty that doesn't cease. I saw a way that maybe I can treat the performance of femininity as a mantle I can ease into when I wish, and shrug off when I desire, turning my small, constant efforts into a tool box instead of a rote daily checklist that keeps me occasionally pleased, occasionally disappointed, and never satisfied. I saw that just as much as none of us ever have to choose between smart and pretty, that there can be power in opting out from pretty at will, just as there can be a power in opting into it at times.

I saw that glimmer of possibility, felt it slither through my brain. And just as quickly as it came, it left again.


  1. "That is: I fear a loss of control over how others see me—a control that none of us has to begin with." Spot on observation! It's funny, but in a way I equate your mirror experiment with my GSD diagnosis - because I came to a lot of similar conclusions, observations and epiphanies when I was forced to let go of controlling my life via exercise which, when it boiled down to it, was an effort to control my personal "pretty." I remember when I had that AHA moment - the, I" don't have to look any certain way, EVER!" And, then the more bitter, "No one gives an eff what you look like - they are all too busy worrying about what you think about the way they look!" Which is sort of sad but true. I am going to go on a limb and decree that the only time one needs to look "pretty" is: First Impression Situations (so, a party full of strangers, job interview, first date, etc...but only if you really care about those people's opinions of you.), Job Interview - let's be honest, good looking people get the job, On Camera - because it's going to become a permanence of sorts, so you might as well have your best foot forward, Weddings - tons of cameras, again, permanence. Hmm, I guess my philosophy comes down to permanence. Without evidence, will anyone really remember you wore glasses?

  2. Cameo, I love this point about permanence! And now that I think about it, my "beauty routine" really doesn't vary for special occasions versus everyday. I'll take more care with my hair and that's about it. But you're totally right--most days nobody is noticing whether I'm wearing glasses or makeup. News flash: I'M THE ONLY ONE WHO CARES. And that can definitely be liberating! It can also feel confining. It just highlights the strictures I'm putting on myself, you know?

    That also makes sense about the parallels between this experiment and your GSD diagnosis. There's a sort of restriction that we put on ourselves (that's a different restriction than feeling overly concerned about our appearance) that comes from these outside forces that can bring a sort of relief. It bites that yours came with, oh, severe physical pain and hospital visits, of course!

  3. I too JUST had this realization - that it's not my job to be pretty all the time! Whether or not I'm actually successful at said "job" is different point... ; ) And doesn't that say a lot about what women are taught that I/we had to come to a conclusion at some point that it's okay if you're NOT pretty?! Maybe it's okay to possibly even be "ugly" - gasp!! Oh the humanity!!

    Love your blog! Long time reader, first time commenter. ; )

  4. There is a lot of really thoughtful writing that deserves commenting on in this piece. But I am going to skip right to a little know scientific* fact, that I wanted to mention during your last mirrors update: People are 10% more likable in glasses.

    I can't explain it. But I've discussed it at length in the past. And I really don't believe it makes one more or less pretty. On some people I think the number can be as high as 30%. Weird right?

    *not scientific really. but more of a loose poll often taken at bars.


  5. Hey, ModernSauce! Seen you on Twitter; glad to see you here! And you're spot-on about it saying something about being schooled in womanhood that we both had to "learn" this. I'm thinking of 19th-century novels in which there was always a beautiful girl and a "plain" one, and though the plain one might envy the beautiful one it wasn't necessarily seen as that the plain one should be striving to reach a certain bar of beauty. I suppose there's the beauty myth coming into play right there, eh?

    Sarah, I am more than happy to serve as your research aide in future studies. We may have to factor in beer, but that's a variable we can easily measure. (Also, I should clarify that I don't think glasses inherently make someone more or less pretty--I don't feel pretty in them, but that's the problem of me, not a problem of glasses.) I think there's a thesis here.

  6. "You don't always have to be pretty."

    I LOVE THAT! Or you can look at it another way and ask, "What do I want to be in place of pretty?" It's very rare I wake up, look in the mirror and think, "Today I want to be strong and confident!" I think this project is great because you get to see yourself in new ways without constantly focusing on what you look like.

  7. This post reminds me of another "aha" moment I had, some time back. I've lived a lot of my life as a perfectionist, thinking that my relationships and career success would somehow be more "safe" if I were perfect... in personality as well as looks. On a logical level, I knew that "perfect" was an impossible standard, but on an emotional level I worked my ass off to be as close to "perfect" as I could be. Then, one day, a friend of mine pointed out something kind of obvious: perfect people are annoying! NOBODY wants to be friends with a woman who is prettier, smarter, more successful, etc. and doesn't have any problems. I, myself, wouldn't want to be friends with this woman! Spending time with "perfect" people isn't really that fun... it makes us feel worse about ourselves! Realizing this was freeing! Instead of seeing my imperfections as threats to a happy life, I started seeing them as necessary for having healthy relationships and, ultimately, a happy life. On the other hand, perfectionism (and the obsessiveness that accompanies it) is actually a threat to these things. This frame-shift was sooooo amazing, and something I return to when "perfectionism" rears its perfectly-ugly head!

  8. I think you'd really appreciate this old post from A Dress A Day. I've turned to it many times in hours of need:

  9. Courtney, ha! Good point! Yeah, even when I'm more focused on how I feel than how I look (which, actually, is most of the time), it's not like I look in the mirror and feel anxious about feeling confident...

    Kjerstin, love it. Love it! And it's true. I have a "perfect" friend who I like plenty but who I never felt I could get that close to, and when she finally let me see some chinks in her armor I was able to see that we weren't that different in many ways.

    Rebekah, that post is fantastic (and thanks for the turn-on to the blog overall)--thank you!

  10. love this experiment... i think everyone should do it... its funny because i am normally glam if I can be bothered but if i decide to take a day off and go out make up free I actually get people who know me asking "are you ill/tired" NO I'm taking a day off my obligation to be constantly glam. I am quite confident and I dont really care what people think of me but for someone who was a little bit insecure, being told that you look ill when you simply have not put any make up on could shatter any confidence they may have.. I just think its ludicrous that people have audacity to comment on the amount of make up I put on and mask it as concern.. If I shaved my head would people think I had cancer? If I decide to change my image people are concerned because if I CAN look so good why would I choose to go out looking bad... because I cant be boithered looking glam on that day!

  11. Hi Anonymous--Thank you for reading! And you hit on something important here: Glam can be a helluva lot of fun, but not if it's something that people expect of you. Then it becomes work, you know?

  12. How do we interpret this if we have never "looked pretty" ?

  13. Futurebird, that's a good question, and I suspect it's more layered than just being conventionally pretty or not. (Certainly I'm not a "pretty girl" in many ways.) I think that other visibility issues come into play, and excuse me for being self-promotional/self-referential, but I'm going to point you to this post I wrote for Already Pretty about beauty and visibility.

    I'm guessing that while the root of much of this is the same, the issues are different for women of color and other women with different visibility issues than I face as an able-bodied, middle-class white woman. And those visibility issues can transfer over into our own relationship with the mirror. Certainly I've talked with conventionally beautiful women who have tortured relationships with the mirror--it's not exclusive to any one group, whether that be women of color or white women. But I think that the feedback loop we get about visibility is going to come out in the mirror. You mentioned in another post that you had troubles at one point looking in the mirror--it seems like your experiment, then, was finding a way to look in the mirror without shrinking away. And that's a victory, and if you write about that in the future I will most certainly be reading.

  14. I know this comment is a little late but, I just want to say thank you. This is really inspiring!

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