Pretty; Advantage or Handicap?
I suspect that many of you have seen this picture posted recently on my Facebook page, and I thank all who responded. Now I’d like to tell you the story of this photo, and some thoughts that came along with it when it was taken (I was 15), and when my grandson, Gabriel, recently rediscovered it in his attic, colorized it, and sent it to me.
The picture was taken in my parents’ living room in Elmhurst, Queens. It must have been taken by one of my uncles, as my family didn’t own a camera. It shocks me that they were sensitive enough to pick up on this moment, as my uncles rarely took pictures of me, and were not noted for sensitivity. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe whichever uncle it was was trying out a new camera, but somehow he managed to capture the exact moment that I looked in the mirror, wearing my favorite dress, and the thought crossed my mind for the first time that I might be pretty. That moment is seared into my consciousness, and suddenly it was there as a picture that I don’t believe that I’d seen before.
Like many families, my family was given to categorizing it’s members. My younger sister was the “pretty” one, I was the “smart” one, labels that didn’t do either of us any favor, as my sister was smart, as well as pretty, and I may well have been attractive as well as smart. However, as a prematurely tall (almost 5’8” at age 12), skinny girl with stick straight hair (it was called “dirty blonde” at school), coke bottle glasses, and braces, I wasn’t winning any beauty contests. The family nickname for me was “gawky”, as I wasn’t particularly graceful, either, and was awkward most of the time. It was an era of Hollywood beauty; petite, curvaceous women with curly or wavy hair, upturned noses, bowed, lipsticked mouths. And, when they were blonde, they weren’t “dirty”! And, then, as the finishing touch on my childhood fate, my school administered IQ test came back with results that labeled me as a genius. Everyone understood why I was “four-eyes” ,then.
My sister, who had only two eyes and no overbite requiring braces went on to high school being pretty, and I went on, at 12, to being kind of freaky. The braces were gone by then, but I spent sleepless nights in rollers, and went without my glasses as often as I could manage without being hit by a bus. Fortunately, I went to a high school that tolerated freakiness, The High School of Music and Art (now Laguardia), where I continued to be smart, was allowed to be moody and bohemian, was appreciated as a pianist, and became the lead singer for the dance band. I was 15, in my junior year, when I had my first real boyfriend…he was 24…when I looked in the mirror the day that picture was taken, and thought that, hey, I might be pretty.
A bit about prettiness. David Brooks recently wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled “Lookism”, in which he described attractivness or lack thereof as one of the last great “isms”. Numerous studies have shown that attractive or cute kids are more liked by teachers and other kids, and, generally that attractive adults do better in many aspects of their life. Nora Ephron, in an essay entitled “Pretty”, however, describes the advantages of not being pretty during childhood and/or adolescence; how one needs to develop other qualities when one does not meet the criteria of “pretty”. I have to go with Nora on this one, despite the research. While being considered a pretty girl would have felt great, not being thought of as one made me a student, a musician, a hard worker, a compassionate woman…in short, someone who could not get by on my looks. Even better, it made getting older easier, because never having depended on looks made losing my youthful skin, body tone and all that goes into ageing easier.
I really felt and feel that I am more than those looks, although there are dresses I wish I could still wear, shoes that I wish I could still walk in, bathing suits that I could still feel at ease in, heads that I could still turn. But, I’m thankful, very thankful, that I can still make music, work hard, feel compassion, and, most of all feel loved by my family and friends. That might or might not have been the case had I grown up beautiful.