Reasons to be pretty: the tyranny of beauty


"So how do I look?" I desperately asked my husband during one of the early years of our marriage. This was after a marathon session in front of the bedroom mirror, with my trying on every dress in my wardrobe in a tempest of frustration and insecurity.

Who can remember the occasion all these decades later, or why it mattered so much?

But this I have never forgotten: My husband looked at me, looked impatiently at his watch, and said something like "You look OK. Now let's get going."

Alternating between fury and deep, deforming hurt, I burst into tears, cried until my eyes were puffy, and then had to redo my mascara.

And there was my dazed young husband, not understanding what had gone so wrong so fast.

He didn't know that at that moment, I needed to hear other words, words like "You look beautiful," or "I love you in that dress!" or even "You'll be the hit of the party."

I am a woman of a certain era, one before Betty Friedan's clarion call to action beyond the kitchen. I was groomed on the notion that it was part of my job to be attractive. For the world. For other women. And certainly for my man.

Never mind about for myself.

Yes, it was a long time ago. But the emotions don't go to college, and old messages die hard.

So yes, I was needy when it came to flattery. And I'd married a man who was kind, funny, smart, loving — but not overly prone to compliments, especially about looks.

And all that came flooding back to me last week when I sat in my seat at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre watching the Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of "reasons to be pretty," a play written by Neil LaBute — yes, a man. And there must be a reason why that play's title is not capitalized, but I don't know it.

What I do know is that the opening scene of that play was a pitched battle between a young woman and a young man about … well, her need to be told she was pretty. He had told a friend that she was "regular," and she knew that.

It made me wince, smile, feel sad and yes, yes, yes, identify.

I must hasten to add that this is a play, which ends on Sunday, about a lot more than that, and full of messages about identity and pride and the courage to change.

But in so many ways, it was about "everywoman" for whom pretty matters — and for every man who doesn't fully understand the depth and scope of that need.

The American obsession with looks is hardly new. My immigrant grandmothers both drummed into my head that I'd better be pretty if I was to get that brass ring on life's merry-go-round: a proper/good catch/menschy husband.

My mother skillfully and steadfastly reinforced that message through the ragged years when I didn't meet the magazine ideal of perfect skin and hair and a body that curved — but not too much.

I wanted to look like Cousin Betty, the family beauty, who got the exquisite green eyes and silky-smooth hair. Or like Debbie, the girl in my eighth grade homeroom who wore cashmere sweaters and knew exactly how to toss her streaky blonde hair so that it seemed to float.

At Beeber Junior High, at Overbrook High School, and then at the University of Pennsylvania, looks mattered. There were indeed "reasons to be pretty" if you wanted to go to the prom, get into the best sorority, sit at the cool cafeteria table, and then — the ultimate coup — catch the best guy, the finish line back in 1960.

And I sometimes think that not all that much has changed in that arena as women struggle to meet the unattainable.

But with age, this beauty obsession stranglehold does lighten. As a woman in my book group, one in which almost no one is on the sunny side of 60, recently observed: "We're invisible anyway, so who cares?"

She's right. In the land of flat bellies and unlined faces, we're grotesque reminders that it doesn't stay that way, at least not without the expensive ministrations of the wizards of nip and tuck. As a demographic, we elders of the female tribe can exhale … and not even bother to hold our stomachs in at the beach anymore.

It's a relief — and a renunciation.

And in my own life, there are currently far fewer of those standing-in-front-of-the-mirror moments waiting for affirmation from the man who still checks his watch because the woman he married 51 years ago is chronically, pathologically late.

"You look OK, so let's move!" is still about as lavish as the praise gets.

But now, as arthritis invades my hands, he helps clasp my necklace with a certain tenderness that's easier felt than explained. He reminds me to take my glasses. And now, he guides me down the two tricky steps on our front porch because he knows I'm a klutz.

And at long last, that's more than enough affirmation for me that I am loved. And that the really important kind of love doesn't involve "reasons to be pretty."

What a relief.



Sally Friedman can be reached at