The Price of Being Pretty

Growing up, my friends and I thought being beautiful would make our lives easier. But beauty only made things more difficult

portrait of women with waterdrops on either side
The Walrus

My mother used to comb my hair almost every week. The plastic pick comb would break, and she’d replace it with another one. She’d use oil and rub it into my scalp. I would cry without tears. She would console me with a voice that sounded both threatening and empathetic, “Il faut souffrir pour être belle.” She’d ask me, “Don’t you want to be pretty?” I’d tell her I did. She’d tell me to sit still, then. I sat. She’d tell me to be quiet, and because my mother was my God, I would be quiet. All tears, no sound, a soon-to-be pretty girl coming right up. Twice a week, ages six, eight, thirteen, and on. My sister would yell and fight and kick. My mother would ask the same question, and she’d affirmatively reply “No!” It would take her an afternoon working on my sister’s hair, and afterward my sister would get so angry, as if something truly precious was taken away from her. But I would go on with my day, proud of what I could endure. Running out of the house to show whoever was available what a dash of pain and a pinch of oil could do for you.

Even as kids, we knew this to be true: it hurts to be beautiful. This idea seemed subconsciously woven into so many dichotomies: rainbow after rain, light at the end of the tunnel, a butterfly after a caterpillar, a newborn after labour. I remember when I was growing boobs and would complain about the ache and the Galloway Girls would yeep in anticipation for their turn. They were a bunch of bratty black or brown girls, ages ten to fourteen, who were my neighbours in the government-housing complex in Scarborough. They are part of the greatest moments of my childhood—a carefreeness other children would envy, a freedom that teased the line between child neglect and early independence. I have since forgotten all but two of their names, but how routined we were, how easily entertained we got, how simple it was. They’d asked, “Does it really hurt? Scale one to ten?” and “What if we hug? Will you die?” Every afternoon after school.

We had a friend who introduced us to tweezers. We took turns pulling hair from one another’s eyebrows to mimic the women in the magazines. For another girl, who was older and more adolescent, we pulled hair from her upper lip. It was always a soirée of some sort, the way we were concerned with each other’s vanity and the things we were willing to sustain to achieve it. But it also felt like a distraction. Something to fill our days, since none of us were particularly good in sports and all of us had already mastered house chores. We could spend hours painting our nails, trying on different lip glosses. We felt both influenced and validated by the urban music scene of the early 2000s, Alicia Keys, Christina Milian, and Jennifer Lopez confirming that we were in fact “[The Girls] from the Block.”

During one of those nights, one of us remarked that you never want to be too pretty, and that was the first time I heard the word rape. I was ten. We traded stories like currency. We didn’t even believe that we were pretty, it was just something to do: being pretty, talking about being pretty. The obsession was equal to playing Tamagotchi or Beyblades. It was a light distraction from everything else: school, religion, inconsistent weather, hunger, the fact that our clothes were usually second-hand and often had holes in them.

The summer I turned twelve, “pretty” got divided in three subcategories: (1) pretty enough to marry, (2) pretty enough to fuck, and (3) pretty enough to rape. The contradiction was effective; it suggested this weird and wild assumption that girls who didn’t find themselves in any of these categories would go on to find the cure for cancer, walk on the moon, win Nobel prizes, compete in the Olympics, fight the great feminist fight. It didn’t mean that they weren’t beautiful; it just meant that they weren’t limited to that. The women who did fit into those categories could potentially still do things with their lives, but this pillar of their existence would take centre stage.

I was by then cooking, cleaning, taking care of my four siblings, dreaming of being domesticated. There was no doubt about it: I would work a job in law or in the arts, I would have many children, and I would be somebody’s wife. This was a theory we came up with while playing MASH with chalk on a parking-lot pavement. After MASH, it would be a series of Kiss, Marry, Kill, and we’d be so excited that they all wanted to marry us. And then, in 2008, my family moved out of Galloway.

The next five years in Oshawa, Ontario, were a series of unfortunate events, some of them your run-of-the-mill adolescent theatrics. I went to a predominantly white high school, and instead of being regarded, like in my previous life, I was given a new identity: whitewash. Not to be mistaken for white passing. This was an analytic way for white people to give you the okay to sit at their table. You are supposed to take it as a compliment. To see yourself as an exception in your category of minority. It was also the vocabulary Black people might use in rejection of you. Recently, Nick, whom I was secretly (now publicly) friends with, offered about our high-school experience, “They weren’t saying you were pretty for a black girl—they were saying you weren’t ugly for one.” That’s what happened back then, unbeknownst to me, “being pretty,” got tainted with such negative connotation. It was supposed to be a performance, like playing house, like dressing up, like making Ken and Barbie have sex.

I became notorious for being a ditzy, bubbly girl with tits. I jumped through a series of rumours. Guys would talk to me not out of interest, I felt, but out of conquest. And then, from 2009 to 2012, ages fourteen to seventeen, it became an accomplishment to sleep with a black girl (thank you, rap music?). But it couldn’t be with any black girl. She had to be black but not ghetto, black but not loud, black but not smart, black but not political (as if there is such a thing). I would get romantic texts that read, “Will you be my black belt?” Each time, I’d say no, and each time, I’d go to school the next day and hear that I had been. None of the few other black girls in my grade shared in my experience. They were seen as prudish and smart. They were treated with a certain kind of backhanded respect otherwise reserved for someone who was incredibly ill. They were…I don’t know what, something I was not.

Whereas the physical pain of “pretty” came with a certain amount of maturity and excitement, the psychological and social stigma took away all the warmth. I got attention in ways I didn’t want. Talked about, watched, and followed. Even outside of school, in public transit. A knee grab here, an ass smack there. Logically, I assumed this was the reality of many women, if not all. But I wasn’t a woman; I was a fifteen-year-old girl. I spent most nights googling “boob reduction surgery.” I cried for four years straight but showed up every morning all smiles, personable, outgoing. I was whitewashed; I had to be grateful.

So two things happened in high school: I learned that I was black, and not Scarborough black but white people black. I learned that I was, in fact, conventionally pretty, not Galloway pretty, not mom-and-dad-think-you’re-pretty pretty but white-people pretty. Like a white guy will touch you maybe kind of pretty.

I came back to Scarborough in 2012 for university. I wore this black beanie and dark-brown lipstick, black turtleneck, black jeans, this oversized black scarf that friends later gave me an intervention to get rid of. Some might remember this phase as my Kurt Cobain Rules phase, but I will always remember it as my Please Don’t Touch Me phase. I was dedicated to reinventing myself, aroused by the idea of being known for my smarts and creativity. I was going for a conservative-poet and goth-princess look.

Despite always being late and sometimes being drunk, I participated well in class, could debate an entire lecture length. For a while, I imagined myself as the kind of girl who was worthy of love and education and success. While friends got in serious relationships, engaged and pregnant, I waited for validation, to be made worthy of a conversation, a picnic date by the beach, a midnight scroll down an unknown street. Instead, there was a string of people who interrupted any hopes I had of seeing myself as an nonsexualized body. It didn’t help that I was working as a waitress. Every “you look good today” felt like another advance, every “hello” an invitation to be ridiculed and mocked, squeezed and stepped on. Waitressing suggested a new theory: “pretty” as an idiom to slutty, whoreish, mistress.

Throughout my women-and-gender-studies classes, I made a point to read black women writers. It had only then occurred to me that I was a nineteen-year-old avid reader but had mainly, if not only, read dead old white men from the beat movement. I found bell hooks, Roxane Gay, Dionne Brand, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou. I had an intense relationship with their books, learned about the black woman’s body as a vehicle for trauma, a victim of the male gaze, about how it has less to do with beauty or even individuality and more to do with colonialism and patriarchy. I felt seen, celebrated, and sick. The characters that looked and felt liked me all had this narrative in common: (3) pretty enough for rape. At night, I’d fall asleep hearing my mama’s voice, “Beauty is pain.”

I became obsessed with deconstructing this in simpler or perhaps less superficial ways: being in love is painful, friendship is painful, waiting for that “special someone” to text you back at a reasonable time is painful, waking up at 9 a.m. after a 3 a.m. shift is painful, drinking the required amount of water is painful, motherhood is painful, working full-time and being a student is painful, being poor is painful, being rich is painful, hating your mother for reasons you no longer remember is painful, being happy is painful, being an older sister is painful, being homesick is painful, looking for deeper meaning in people and in yourself is painful, being is painful, laughing too much it hurts is painful. Everything is painful.

By the time I got to everything being painful, I had begun writing my first book, in the summer of 2017. I was twenty-three years old. I based it in Galloway, the neighbourhood I grew up in, because that’s where it all began. I was writing with all of these feelings and one dominating ideology— of a woman who believed that she was an object of the world—and I was unsure if this ideology was the result of my lived experiences or a rejection of them. I was desperate to prove that this thinking wasn’t my own thinking. The book was originally called Notes From a Pretty Woman, in part because I read too much Charles Bukowski as a teenager and in part because I’m obsessed with Julia Roberts. I kept thinking, You must have an argument larger than this. You must have something more to say. There needs to be more to life for you than this. Prove it to me, please.

So I wrote the book and it nearly killed me. I took a three-month break without engaging with the material. In that time, I fell in puppy love (that’s when you’re in something that feels like love, but it’s actually just the first time anything does), I moved out of Scarborough and into a city foreign to me, ended many friendships, called my mother almost every day just to say hi, got broken up with by the puppy-love lover, cried (a lot) but didn’t feel pain, not at all. I began to ask myself: What if beauty has nothing to do with being pretty? What if my life experiences have nothing to do with what has or hasn’t happened to me but how I chose to engage with it?

The Beauty Conversation

Appearance shapes the way the world sees us. But what does it say about who we really are?

There’s a line by Toni Morrison: “Writing is really a way of thinking—not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I experienced what was soft and gentle in dating only after writing this book, that I had the courage to walk away from a fifteen-year-long friendship, that I moved out of that beautiful but troubling city, that I stopped wearing makeup, that my mother became my person. It’s like I was redefining my own thinking by giving it to somebody else—a chorus of characters.

The first time I read my book in human form was on stage. It was like reading some other writer: full of surprises, lines that don’t make sense, debatable arguments, a firecracker but sort of stupid narrator. I had this tingly sensation. The kind you get when you hear a song from your childhood and it makes you smile. I didn’t recognize it at all: the stories, the trauma, the thinking, the self-loathing, the Pretty, the Pain. There is this line by spoken-word poet Britta B. that I read when I was on the train to Montreal in the spring of my book tour. There’s a lot of romance in travelling by train, and especially if to Montreal. My mood was tender, my heart wide open. I read the line over and over and over again—I even considered getting it tattooed. Settled for dancing outside the Via Rail station instead. “If I decide I have no pain, I don’t, I have art….I have me. All I have is all I am.”

Téa Mutonji
Téa Mutonji is the author of Shut Up You're Pretty.