By Nicola Anne
I have a five-year old niece.
She is absolutely stunning.
She has gorgeous blonde curls, big blue eyes, and the most gorgeous pink lips. Friends, family, even strangers, often comment on these traits of hers.
Pretty, Beautiful, Gorgeous
“Aren’t you pretty?” they ask her. “Look at those gorgeous curls!”
Pretty. Beautiful. Gorgeous. These are the words that are used to praise and compliment my niece, and these have always been the words to praise and compliment her – ever since she was born.
I also have a four-year old nephew. He is equally as gorgeous. He has a cheeky grin, big brown eyes, and, funnily enough, he loves playing dress ups in pretty frocks – which look adorable on him.
Pretty? Beautiful? Gorgeous? Absolutely. But people never use these words to describe him.
Funny, Polite, Intelligent
“He’s so funny! What a developed sense of humour he has!”
“He is so polite!”
“He is a very intelligent little boy!”
Funny. Polite. Intelligent.
Unlike my niece, I could count on one hand the number of times my nephew’s appearance has been the attribute most praised. The qualities most valued in him are his fundamental personality traits. The strengths in his character.
And I, like most people, am guilty of being party to reinforcing this gender divide. I too, make these off-the-cuff comments to the girls and women in my life. And, as a woman, I have experienced it myself.
I am confident in one thing about myself. Just one.
I am intelligent. And I like to tell myself that I use that strength in a positive way.
But this strength that I have identified in myself is not a valued trait by many others. I have too many ‘opinions’. When I believe people are being wronged, I voice it too loudly. I need to be quiet.
Instead of this strength being framed positively, I have more often heard that I am ‘opinionated’. I am ‘argumentative’. I am ‘hard-headed’.
Opinionated, Argumentative, Hard-headed.
I have not been left feeling praised, instead feeling unattractive, out-of-place, feeling like I do not fit in the hole shaped for me by the society in which I live. I question what it is about me that makes me so undesirable.
When I was in hospital receiving treatment for my mental health issues, I had an episode of self harming that required a number of stitches. It will leave a scar. It is a permanent addition to my appearance.
The nurse who was suturing my wound said, “You should get more tattoos instead of doing things like this – the boys at the beach much prefer the tattoos than the scars!”
And there it is. My mission, as a female, in life. To impress the ‘boys at the beach’ with my body.
I do not think that, as a society, we realise just how ingrained and normalised this objectification of women has become. We do it without even thinking. We make comments without even considering the message they are sending. And it is so subtle that the impact of one comment is so minimal. But I am now thirty years old. I have heard these comments over and over and over. Repeated in every form of communication.
Pretty. Pretty. Pretty.
What happens when I don’t conform?
What happens when I do modify my body, but in ways that I find attractive – not ‘the boys at the beach’? When my version of ‘pretty’, does not align with yours?
I know what happens. Because it has happened to me. I face a choice. I can either hide those pieces of myself that the world considers flawed, or, I can be unapologetically myself, and try not to let the waves of disapproval that follow wear me down.
In general, I go with option A. I go with option A because I cannot bear the disapproval. Because I don’t want to disappoint. Because I don’t want to embarrass or upset anyone. I don’t want anyone looking at me like I am an oddity that does not belong. And I wonder just how many people, like me, choose option A. Because it is draining. It is dis-empowering. It is painful. And it also makes people sick. How many people are experiencing mental health issues simply because being them is ‘unacceptable’?
Brightly coloured in a world of grey
The reality for every one of these people, is that option A is near on impossible. Who you are, what you feel, how you love… these are things you cannot change about yourself… you ooze them. You are brightly coloured in a world of grey. And that leaks out. It doesn’t matter how much you desperately try to cover it, it shows through – even if only a glimpse here and there. So you become an oddity by default. People disapprove of you anyway. You disappoint and embarrass regardless. People look at you as though you don’t belong… And it’s true. You don’t.
But, the question I have now come to ask myself, is whether that – not belonging – is such a bad thing?
Do I want to belong in a society where a woman being pretty, is valued more highly than her being intelligent? A society where we reinforce this view to girls from the moment they are born? Do I want to belong in a society, where young boys inadvertently learn that they should view girls as objects? Where my self-worth is measured by how I am viewed by others, rather than how I view myself?
Words of the highest praise
No. I don’t want to belong to that. I’ll take opinionated, argumentative, and hard-headed. Because to me, those are words of the highest praise.
And yes, I still hide parts of myself. I still fear people discovering every piece of my misshapen self, and maybe I always will be… but those parts that leak out anyway? I hope that they leave rainbows in their wake, and I hope that my nieces, and nephews, get glimpses of colour amongst the grey, and they grow up with the knowledge that the mould can be broken.
That the mould is flawed. That the mould is the thing that is unattractive.
Not them. Because no-one really looks pretty in grey.
Reproduced with permission, originally published here: Pretty in Grey