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. These traits of hers are commented on often. By friends… by family… even by strangers.
“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 complement 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?
But these words are never used to describe him.
“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.
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’. I am too loud in voicing when I believe people are being wronged. I need to be quiet.
Instead of this strength being framed positively, I have more often been told I am ‘opinionated’. I am ‘argumentative’. I am ‘hard-headed’.
Opinionated. Argumentative. Hard-headed.
I have not been left feeling praised. I have been left feeling unattractive. I have been left feeling out-of-place. I have been left feeling like I do not fit in the hole shaped for me by the society in which I live. I have been left questioning 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.
As this wound was being sutured, the nurse who was with me 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 engrained 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.
And 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’?
What happens when my version of ‘pretty’, does not align with yours?
I know what happens. Because it has happened to me.
I am faced with 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 makes people sick. How many people are experiencing mental health issues simply because being them is ‘unacceptable’?
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. And you become an oddity by default. You are disapproved of anyway. You disappoint and embarrass regardless. You are looked at like 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? Do I want to belong in 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 are inadvertently taught that they should view girls as objects? Do I want to belong in a society where my self-worth is measured by how I am viewed by others, rather than how I view myself?
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 am still scared of 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.
Because no-one really looks pretty in grey.