Prettiness: Telling Complainers to Go to Hell

I received an unsolicited message from a stranger today:

Please change that picture. What popped into my mind is […] this is a sour person that looks down on its followers. I can hardly imagine that an intelligent creature like you intentionally would depict herself in this way.

Dear Stranger

You aren’t the first person on Fetlife to complain about my face. Women spend their lives being told how they should look, not only online but on the streets; not only as adults but teenagers; not only by strangers but family members and friends. We’re told what clothing to wear, how much makeup to put on our faces, and how often we should smile. Trying to please those who feel we owe prettiness to is a losing battle—give complainers makeup and they’ll ask for no makeup. Wear long hair and they will ask you to cut it. Wear short hair and they will ask you to grow it. Be slim and they’ll tell you to eat. Be at the top of your ordinary BMI and they’ll tell you to lose weight.

By the time I turned 20 I had learned that, when it comes to what I look like, I can only make myself happy. It took me another two decades to learn that I didn’t owe anyone in this world prettiness.

But in the hierarchy of importance, pretty stands several rungs down from happy, is way below healthy, and if done as a penance, or an obligation, can be so far away from independent that you may have to squint really hard to see it in the haze. – Erin McKean

It took me 10 years to recover from the eating disorder that almost killed me: one that was rooted in my psyche but also the agony I used to carry around with me about the way I looked.

There were days when I despised what I saw in the mirror. Looking back, I see a beautiful woman in photographs, but when they was taken, I remember feeling ashamed. How dare I give those around me such an unsatisfactory landscape?

It’s impossible to please everyone who wants to be pleased with what we as women look like, but it’s even harder to please yourself. We’re criticised for our looks for enough years to internalise all the hateful comments that you believe are helpful.


Part of recovering from my anorexia entailed taking my focus off my looks. There are days when I’m deep in thought, taking a walk alone when strangers shout, “Smile!” They’re implying, as you have, that they are entitled to a pretty picture from someone they’ve never met when they’re wondering through the streets or online. Fortunately, recovering from anorexia helped me to silence those voices, if only in my head because you and your like will never stop requiring prettiness from the women around you.

I notice that you called me ‘it’ instead of who. I am not a Christmas tree ornament.

I’m well aware that many people would call the face on my avatar pretty, but women rarely see their beauty because comments like yours are thrown at them from the second they’re old enough to dress themselves. If you were subjected to it, you would feel as we do. It’s my responsibility to overcome that, and largely I have. Part of that entails telling people like you that you do not get to have a say in what I look like because I am not your walking decoration.

I was going to make a handy prettiness decision tree, but pretty much the end of every branch was a bubble that said “tell complainers to go to hell” so it wasn’t much of a tool. – Erin McKean

My body does not belong to you. It is not available to be debated about. The only thing I have to offer the world is myself. This face. These hands. This body. More importantly, I have compassion. I have intelligence. I have talent and, for people who’re unlike you, I have laughter and smiles. Underneath my skin, I’m more beautiful than you’ve probably ever been because I don’t have the cruelty you have so thoughtlessly thrown at someone you’ve never met.


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