The classics of yesteryear, brought to you today: From the 2002 National Poetry Slam, Katie Makkai on “pretty.”
When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, “What will I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be pretty? Will I be pretty?” What comes next? Oh, right! “Will I be rich,” which is almost pretty depending on where you shop. And the pretty question infects from conception, passing blood and breath into cells. The word hangs from our mothers’ hearts in a shrill fluorescent floodlight of worry. “Will I be wanted? Worthy? Pretty?”
But puberty left me this funhouse-mirror dryad: teeth set at science-fiction angles, crooked nose, face donkey-long and pockmarked where the hormones went finger-painting. My poor mother.
“How could this happen?! You’ll have porcelain skin as soon as we can see a dermatologist. You sucked your thumb, that’s why your teeth look like that! You were hit in the face with a Frisbee when you were six, otherwise your nose would have been just fine! Don’t worry, we’ll get it all fixed,” she would say, grasping my face, twisting it this way, then that, as though it were a cabbage she might buy.
But this is not about her. Not her fault–she, too, was raised to believe the greatest asset she could bestow upon her awkward little girl was a marketable facade. By 16, I was pickled with ointments, medications, peroxides; teeth corralled into steel prongs; laying in a hospital bed, face packed with gauze, cushioning the brand-new nose the surgeon had carved. Belly gorged on two pints of my own blood I had swallowed under anesthesia, and every convulsive twist of my gut like my body screaming at me from the inside out, “What did you let them do to you?!”
All the while this never-ending chorus droning on and on like the IV needle dripping liquid beauty into my blood, “Will I be pretty? Will I be pretty?” Like my mother, unwinding the gift wrap to reveal the bouquet of daughter her $10,000 bought her, “Pretty. Pretty.”
And now, I have not seen my own face in ten years. I have not seen my own face in ten years, but this is not about me. This is about the self-mutilating circus we have painted ourselves clowns in. About women who will prowl 30 stores in six malls to find the right cocktail dress but who haven’t a clue where to find fulfillment or how wear joy, wandering through life shackled to a shopping bag, beneath the tyranny of those two pretty syllables. About men wallowing on bar stools, drearily practicing attraction and everyone who will drift home tonight, crestfallen because not enough strangers found you suitably fuckable.
This, this is about my own someday daughter, when you approach me, already stung-stained with insecurity, begging, “Mom, will I be pretty? Will I be pretty?” I will wipe that question from your mouth like cheap lipstick and answer, “No! The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine will be contained in five letters! You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing. But you, will never be merely pretty.”