“Will I be pretty?”

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.”

14 comments for ““Will I be pretty?”

  1. joel
    August 28, 2012 at 7:00 am

    Gripping except for the final sentence:

    ” You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing. But you, will never be merely pretty.”

    So it’s ok if you are not pretty but you had better be intelligent, creative and amazing. Redeeming qualities? Why must there always be qualifications? Can we be allowed to just ‘be’?

    • August 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm

      Yeah, that was a thing that got me, too. “You don’t have to be pretty! You’re smart/funny/creative!” is still a lot of pressure on a girl. What if I’m not smart or funny or creative or pretty? What if I’m absolutely, completely, utterly 50th-percentile average in every way? What if my best personal quality is that I’m really organized? Am I still good enough?

      • Jen
        August 28, 2012 at 12:46 pm

        I hate this idea that people can be utterly without talent or merit or drive and still expect to be considered “special”. If you’re at least a good person, then that’s great. Bring some joy to the world; that’s pretty special.

        But if you aren’t intelligent, creative, kind, talented, interesting, useful, or in some other way better than a lump of skin and bones sucking up oxygen, why should people consider you special or worthwhile? You don’t deserve a gold star just because you have delicate feelings and want to feel special. Respect isn’t GIVEN AWAY, it’s EARNED.

      • August 28, 2012 at 2:11 pm

        … Wow.

      • August 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm

        “Special” =/ “worthwhile,” and “not special” =/ “not worthwhile.”

      • Brandy
        August 28, 2012 at 3:26 pm

        Did you intend to say that only “special” people were deserving of respect?

      • Echo Zen
        August 28, 2012 at 4:04 pm

        Ten years ago that may have been true. But nowadays, simply avoiding being a selfish, rape-supporting Randian is a notable achievement.

  2. boredclerk
    August 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    If someone does actually figure out where to find fulfillment, please let me know.

  3. boredclerk
    August 28, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    I loved the piece, though

  4. Meg
    August 28, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    @ joel:

    What I got from the last line is that “pretty” isn’t the be-all, end-all word she wants defining her daughter, that it’s too limited as a word/concept and not nearly as important as having a personality and a sense of yourself – which makes it my favorite line in the whole piece.

  5. Tamara
    August 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I see that line as aspirational and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s also reactive. I have two daughters who are constantly being told they are pretty and cute. I can’t fight that with “you are just you”. I need more ammunition.

  6. August 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm

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