“Oh, it happens all the time. A lot of girls do it,” my student stated, with a bit of a shrug.
The nods throughout the classroom told me that, yes, a lot of girls really are doing exactly what she described.
I was filled with sadness, but not surprise.
We were about four weeks in to my Intro to Women’s & Gender Studies course, discussing the unattainable standards our society imposes on feminine bodies. My student shared a trend I had not yet heard of in which girls post a photo or video of themselves online along with the simple question, Am I pretty or not?
Yes, you read that right: Girls are asking the INTERNET for validation of their physical appearance.
The internet, where the comments section is always deplorable, where plenty of strangers are willing to show their ugliest sides and use their cruelest words. Where it’s all too easy to forget that the person behind the screen is just that: a person.
Girls are requesting scrutiny of their bodies, their faces, and their hair—inviting thousands of strangers to offer opinions, criticism, and judgments of their attractiveness.
Like I said, sad but not surprising.
- Not surprising because we already know that a staggering 80 percent of 10-year-old girls have already gone on a diet.
- We already know that over 90 percent of girls age 15 – 17 want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, usually their weight.
- We already know that young girls report being more afraid of becoming fat than they are of nuclear war, cancer, or losing their parents (let that one sink in).
- And we already know that in one survey, 98 percent of girls—meaning almost every single girl who responded!—said she feels immense pressure from external sources to look a certain way.
So yeah, it’s not surprising that some of these girls turn to YouTube or Instagram to ask for approval.
But it’s also deeply troubling because we know that when these girls ask the internet Am I pretty? they’re really asking:
Am I OK?
Am I good enough?
Am I acceptable in this world?
Am I worthy?
Can I be loved?
Which means they don’t already know the answers to those questions.
This trend my student told me about is one of the reasons I’ve grown tired of the word “pretty.”
It’s a bit of a blah word to begin with, not really all that interesting. It seems better suited for a fresh vase of flowers in the springtime or an elaborate table setting with a carefully orchestrated centerpiece—not complex human beings. “Pretty” to me connotes a neat little package, which a person will never be.
And yet that’s exactly what little girls are being told they should be.
I, for one, don’t want my daughter being pretty. Nope, what I want for her is so much more. What I want is for her to be beautiful.
What’s the difference, you ask? A million miles.
Pretty is buying the trendiest clothing and makeup, constantly changing yourself in order to keep up with the times.
Beautiful, on the other hand, is timeless.
Pretty is based on unrealistic standards that require a specific body composition, number inside your jeans, and type of hair.
Beautiful is inclusive of all different body types, skin tones, and personal styles.
Pretty is perpetually young.
Beautiful is embracing the ways our bodies naturally evolve as we age. It’s refusing to spend vast amounts of time and energy fighting and denying that process.
Pretty is existing for others (usually men and boys) to look at—to consume—and therefore means constantly worrying about how you appear in another’s eyes.
Beautiful is doing the looking yourself—turning your gaze outward and truly seeing other people and the world around you.
Pretty is fitting nicely into a (non-threatening, non-intimidating, pre-existing) box. Add a delicate pink bow around it for good measure.
Beautiful is creating your own box—or throwing out the damn box altogether.
Pretty is doing what other people think you should do.
Beautiful is knowing yourself and honoring yourself. Beautiful is doing what you love.
Pretty is pursuing attention—yes, even from internet trolls—because getting attention is the only way you know how you feel valued and worthy.
Beautiful, however, begins from a place of knowing your value and worth, which then draws others to you naturally.
Here’s another important point: What being pretty ultimately gets you is admiration (or jealousy) from other girls or women.
But being beautiful gets you something far more valuable: friendship.
Because when you’re beautiful, the need to compete with your sisters in this world melts away. Instead of making others feel envious or intimidated, you make others feel more alive—simply because you are wholly alive yourself.
I love how Glennon Doyle Melton explains it to her daughters in her must-read memoir Love Warrior (highly recommend!). She writes:
“Beautiful is not about how you look on the outside. Beautiful is about what you’re made of. Beautiful people spend time discovering what their idea of beauty on this earth is. They know themselves well enough to know what they love, and they love themselves enough to fill up with a little of their particular kind of beauty each day.” (pages 253-254)
She goes on to say:
“You will meet plenty of people who are pretty but haven’t yet learned how to be beautiful. They will have the right look for the times, but they will not glow. Beautiful women glow. When you are with a beautiful woman you might not notice her hair or skin or body or clothes, because you’ll be distracted by the way she makes you feel. She will be so full of beauty that you will feel some of it overflow onto you. You’ll feel warm and safe and curious around her. Her eyes will twinkle a little and she’ll look at you really closely—because beautiful, wise women know that the quickest way to fill up with beauty is to soak in another human being.” (page 254)
You know all of this, of course you do. You know that beautiful is so much better than pretty. But the truth is, our daughters don’t know. Not yet.
And it’s not their fault.
Day in and day out, our daughters are told to be “pretty.”
It’s in the endless compliments they receive on their outfits, compared to the crickets they hear about their creativity. It’s in the validation they receive from meeting the world’s standards, but the disapproving looks they get when they test out an unconventional path. And, of course, it’s in the headlines splashed across the covers of magazines.
The forces working against our daughters are strong.
They aren’t just well-intentioned grandmas who forget that dressing up in pearls isn’t the end-all-be-all for girls today. They’re multi-million-dollar corporations that depend on girls begging their moms for new clothes and jewelry, dieting products, and even plastic surgery at younger and younger ages.
Our patriarchal, materialistic world doesn’t want beautiful girls…just pretty ones.
But the bleeding heart of our world needs more beautiful girls.
We need more girls tapping into their inner strength, their innate curiosity, and their burgeoning passions.
We need more girls pursuing goals they’ve defined for themselves, honoring that little voice inside that tells them to go, to help, to problem solve, to create.
We need more girls who prioritize knowing themselves and treating themselves with compassion—so they can then show that same compassion to a deeply broken world.
Here’s perhaps the biggest difference between pretty and beautiful:
There’s a cap on pretty in this world. There has to be. As with all commodities, it thrives on supply and demand. Scarcity is good for the market because it means we’ll shell out more money for it.
But there’s no cap on beauty in this world. There’s no limit. And when there’s more of it, everybody wins.
So to the girls who are posting videos on YouTube asking, Am I pretty? I want to say this:
YES, you are pretty…
So now forget about being pretty so you can get on to the more important work of becoming beautiful!
And parents, let’s not emphasize being pretty so much that our daughters come to believe it’s the most important thing they can be.
Let’s remember to tell our daughters they’re beautiful, not just when they’re wearing nice clothing or when their hair is neatly brushed, but when they’re doing something—something kind, something brave, something they love.
And perhaps most importantly, let’s show them exactly how they can be their beautiful selves…by being ours.
Here’s to making this world explode with BEAUTY.
[Don’t miss Katie Makkai performing her inspiring spoken word piece entitled “Pretty.” Be forewarned there’s some adult language.]