One of the few quote-worthy things Daisy, the title character’s love interest, says in The Great Gatsby is that she wishes her daughter would grow up to be a fool because, “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world”. You would hope that, being a teacher in the 21st century, it would be difficult to explain to my students why Daisy would say of her daughter, “and I hope she’ll be a fool“.
I remember being a little girl and hearing someone say, in not so hushed tones over my head, “she is going to be a knock out when she grows up!” to my mother’s waiting ears. This was my first introduction to objectification, although I didn’t know it. I spent most of my early childhood in the entertainment industry mecca of Los Angeles, California which inadvertently has had bearing on my adult life; I still suffer from the vanity imposed upon me during my formative years. As women, we are groomed to become hyper-aware of our appearance and the affect it has on others.
The objectification of women is not something into which we are thrust as adults. Even fledgling women are subjected to statements which will later mature into full-on sexist remarks. I was always called pretty and exotic as a child. My mother and some select teachers were the only ones who called me smart. As I grew up, I became acutely aware that sexuality was currency. My mother is an artist, so I was taught to see everything from an artistic perspective, including the human form. There is a special strength in seeing your body as a natural piece of art. I am thankful to my mother for gifting me this (among other things) as I never went through any of the awkward self-hatred of most teens.
Evidently, being confident is difficult. Not because it is difficult to create internal confidence, but because of what that confidence stirs in others. It is an unfortunate fact that too many females see other women as competition. In high school, girls create rumours about one another in an effort to slowly erode the other’s confidence. As adults, women are quick to condemn or criticise. His new girlfriend is not as pretty as me. We, as women, measure ourselves against each other and when we feel threatened, we try to even the playing field. If he cheats on me, at least let her be prettier so I can understand why.
Pretty is as pretty does, though. So what does “pretty” do? For me, pretty disarms people. It takes over the space. It makes people incapable of recognising what is sitting on the bench right next to it: smart. In the wave of #MeToo I have seen so many comments online relating to allegations of sexual misconduct. Some even say things like “I can’t imagine he would do that to her, she isn’t even pretty”. In the West Indies, we would be able to take over Twitter with the amount of #MeToo moments which occur daily. It is a part of our society the way the appearance of tarnish is a part of owning silver. No matter how often we work it over with the cloth of equality and education, it will eventually corrode the shine again. On any given West Indian day, someone makes a remark that would be considered harassment in America.
I was walking the halls of work the other day and a visiting male professional said, “Wow, you’re a teacher?” I replied in the affirmative to which he said, with an appraising once-over, “I need to get you in a classroom so you can teach me something; I’m a very good learner.”
I laughed. Pretty is as pretty does.
The consumerism behind women’s daily self-assessments is probably the most profitable industry. When I turned thirty-three, I began obsessing over losing the pretty. It was, I discovered, as much a part of me as my torso or my neck; a physical attribute that would literally mean the end of my life if removed. I saw some small imperfections creeping their way onto my face, threatening to banish my illusion of youth. I purchased $70 creme to stave them. My metabolism didn’t win the battle with time and I found myself having to actually work hard to maintain my 125lb figure, changing from eating whatever-whenever to Intermittent Fasting, and Netflix binging to daily cardio and strength training.
I started to look at photos of myself and see an adult. I actually began to like the pretty I possess now more than the iteration that lived with me during my younger years. It’s comfortable and an equal to my experiences. I feel more confidence now in features which used to plague me (small breasts, big forehead…) which means that I don’t expound energy on bemoaning imperfections. Instead, I welcome the wisdom that each crease or streak represents.
What’s funny is that something which began to create the perfect breeding ground for confidence in mature femininity also stirred resentment in those who couldn’t form such opinions of themselves. In a world where we purchase $1,000 rectangles of glass to stream a web of information at our waiting minds, we also brace for the inevitable weakening of the silk-strength facade: perhaps we have become our own worst enemies in the struggle for beauty or a position of self-happiness. What is wildly unfortunate is that when some see it manifest in others, the default action is to try to tear it down, fibre by luxuriously silky fibre. In that way, perhaps we are all simply beautiful little fools, waiting at the end of a dock for a gilded party to which we will never be in attendance.