The Pretty Police


I’ve been mulling over the above quote since I saw it on Pinterest a few months ago. (It’s attributed to Erin McKean from Dress A Day – I purposely haven’t looked up the source post to ensure that my thoughts here are my own. But I did make this new graphic for the quote.) These words hit me hard, because until recently, I subconsciously took for granted that I did owe prettiness to everyone.

I’ve written before about my ugly-duckling youth. I’ve always been aware of my appearance in a way that naturally beautiful women don’t have to be. Discovering my own style in my 20s was a very positive process, but knowing I could be pretty also turned up the pressure. Once I finally learned to make the most of what I had, it felt wasteful and lazy if I chose not to do so. I discovered fashion and beauty blogs, and they echoed the voices in my head. Don’t go to the store in yoga pants or without makeup, you’ll run into someone you need to impress. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have (aside: what if the job you want is a freelancer or SAHM?). Don’t look sloppy at home, even in pajamas, because your loved ones deserve to see the best you.

The Christian community isn’t immune to this message, and it doesn’t stop when you get married. There’s an unspoken implication that “letting yourself go” is like writing your husband a hall pass. If you expect him to make the sacrifice of staying faithful to you, you owe him your ideal appearance. (Needless to say, this rarely goes both ways.) The longer I was married, the harder I worked to look my best. I never felt secure or good enough just as I was. Deep down, I knew something was really wrong with my marriage, and maybe I could fix it by trying my hardest to be The Perfect Woman (of whom beauty was just one facet). If I failed, I needed to know I’d done my best and ensure that no one would be able to say, “No wonder he cheated, have you seen her lately?” I never verbalized this effort even to myself, but it was always there.

After my divorce it was a huge relief to be liberated from this pressure. Looking cute and staying in shape became something I did just for myself, not a losing battle to live up to impossible expectations. I felt great, and much more attractive than I had in my early 20s. But the longer I’m single, the more the pressure creeps back in. I fight paranoia that if I run into The Right Man and I’m not in perfect hair, makeup, and wardrobe, he’ll walk right past me. I know that’s ridiculous on multiple levels. Sure, when I have to run up to the store in the middle of yard work and a cute guy makes eye contact, I wish I was more put together and, you know, clean. But any man who expects a supermodel 24/7 isn’t someone I want to be with anyway. In any case, it’s not the end of the world. Yet I can’t totally dismiss my fears, or the nasty little voice that says See, you’re not trying hard enough, and that’s why you’re alone.

As McKean points out, beauty obligations aren’t only tied to relationships. Even though the days of parasols and hoop skirts are far behind us, there’s still an expectation on women to be decorative and pleasing to the world in general. Personally, I’m still overcoming some crazy random standards of what is and is not “phoning it in” (examples: wearing pants to work or church; neglecting to apply lipstick). But if I have more important things to do than put forth an all-star fashion effort, who cares? Last time I checked, no one was paying me to be beautiful. The vast majority of us aren’t walking a red carpet every day. We have to stop judging ourselves and each other like the world is one big Who Wore It Best? column.

Don’t get me wrong: I love fashion. I take pleasure in a beautiful pair of shoes. I’m a regular at Ulta and the makeup aisle of my local CVS. To me, these things are a form of artistic expression. Primping and selecting clothes I feel attractive in is a huge mood and confidence booster, even if I’m going to be alone all day. To a degree, I agree with the philosophy that care for one’s body is a statement about one’s general worth – sadly, many women suspect deep down that they don’t deserve to look or feel good. I also believe that the pursuit of personal beauty can be a gift to those around us, and can reflect God’s beauty and even honor Him. But it shouldn’t be an obligation. It shouldn’t be a weight hanging around our necks, or an impediment to living well-rounded lives, or an instrument of shame. It shouldn’t be the cost of admission to society as a woman. The only way to change this is to convince ourselves, first, that we don’t have to be pretty. I’m already fighting the fight. Join me, won’t you?

About Brenda W.

Christian. Memphian. Reader. Writer. True blue Tiger fan. Lover of shoes, the ocean, adventure, and McAlister's iced tea. View all posts by Brenda W. →
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16 Responses to The Pretty Police

  1. Jamie Bagley says:

    “It shouldn’t be the cost of admission to society as a woman.” Boom. You nailed it!

  2. Laura says:

    That’s an excellent quote – and I love the graphic you made!

    When I was thin and wore cute clothes regularly, I had confidence in myself, and I enjoyed looking my best. It wasn’t a bad thing. Confidence and enjoyment are both good things.

    Now, I don’t often feel cute, but I don’t feel much pressure to always be beautiful. I think the bigger problem for me is being on the other end – judging those who go out in public looking unkempt or wearing ill-fitting clothes. It’s a different mindset. I don’t have to be pretty, and neither do they!

  3. Kati Rose says:

    Yes, yes, yes. “See, you’re not trying enough, and that’s why you’re alone.” Oh how often do those poison words lurk around the edges of my mind. Thank you for speaking this, in reminding me that I am not alone. And for giving voice to the idea that we don’t HAVE to be pretty. I love it.

  4. Carol says:

    I fight the battle on the opposite end. While I don’t hate my appearance like I used to, I still struggle to feel pretty, so often I don’t make the effort to look better. I’m not very good at putting on make-up, or my clothes aren’t the nicest, or I’m not as pretty as fill-in-the-blank. The list could go on. You’re right one one thing, though; sometimes in my mind, my appearance is tied to my self-worth, and it shouldn’t be.

    • Brenda W. says:

      I think most of us struggle with that. We can’t do much about it until we’re aware of it!

      BTW 1. you have every reason to feel pretty and 2. good clothes can be found anywhere – I get a lot of my stuff at Goodwill!! Next time Bethany visits me, you should come too and we can shop. She’s the queen of thrift finds.

  5. I love this post. And I know what I’m about to say next isn’t the theme, but they were my initial thoughts while reading this. The pressure women feel to “try” to be pretty “all the time” and “forever” is crazy. I know it’s all our culture, but women are particularly critical of one another…over everything. It’s maddening to me. Life would be so much better if women were better at building each other up instead of tearing each other down. I totally don’t get it. I don’t hear men attack their peers over the same kinds of things. Sad.

    Oh…and YOU ARE PRETTY! Even when you’re not dressed up and in full make-up. I agree with your quote…and I love this post…but I also think we need to talk to ourselves differently. Our internal voice is so critical…and it’s often wrong. I find this is so common among my women friends. I do it too. But I’m working on it. We should make a point to talk to ourselves the same way we would talk to a favorite friend. With kindness and compassion. Imagine how much better everyone would feel about themselves if we could just silence that internal critic. I also think if we could somehow magically do that, we would automatically be less judgmental of others. I think our judgments about how someone looks are really only a reflection of how we feel about ourselves…if it wasn’t something we were concerned with, it wouldn’t register on the radar. Just my 2 cents.

  6. Danielle says:

    A million thumbs up to this post.

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  8. Caroline says:

    Yes, yes, amen! Thanks for posting. This is something I struggle with – and not just with physical appearance, but also with housekeeping, decorating, etc. Thanks for the reminder – your posts always encourage me!

  9. Bethany says:

    I don’t know how I missed this post originally but wow! Really, really good stuff. How you are not yet paid to write I do not understand.

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