Writing Samples

not a pretty girl, pt. 1

[Originally posted on Coming to the Edge. This series of posts has been viewed over 2000 times since its publication in Oct. 2013, and was picked up for classroom use by several teachers, including a professor at Duke University.]


God help you if you are an ugly girl
‘Course too pretty is also your doom
‘Cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
For the prettiest girl in the room
And God help you if you are a phoenix
And you dare to rise up from the ash

-Ani DiFranco, “32 Flavors

There’s a trope in YA lit that I’ve seen get called out a fair amount in recent months on the tumblogs, arising in part from the boom in YA speculative fiction aimed at girls that followed Twilight‘s success. Our heroine, introducing herself/being introduced, describes herself as roughly this:

  • i just never felt attractive even though by some standards i’m kind of okay i guess i’m thin and white with shoulder length brown hair and big eyes
  • i’m very mature for my age very grown up yes yes serious

That’s from Tumblr user delladilly’s list of tropes that are getting too much play in YA lit at the moment. (The first part is also well worth reading, as are her follow-up posts on how hard it is to find diverse characters and plotlines in YA and why YA is great in spite of the work it still needs to do on itself.)

Bella Swan (and her adult counterpart Anastasia Steele) is by far the best example of this. She describes herself as plain, pale, brunette, klutzy; she has trouble connecting with her peers and prefers to bookworm away with classic literature like Wuthering Heights. She wears flannels and drives a pickup truck and doesn’t like to shop:

(By far my favorite part of this clip is that Jessica is characterized as shallow, chatterboxy, and attention-seeking and yet is in there (1:07) providing a reasoned critique of zombie movies. Apparently Anna Kendrick improvised most of the lines. Props to Kristen Stewart for not losing it at the line “My cousin had leprosy? It’s not funny, y’know?”)

Bella, in short, is Not Like Those Other Girls.

ME: 5 min hairstyle, backpack, hoodie, jeans, running shoes. GIRL: 30 min hairstyle, makeup, earrings, blouse, handbag, skirt, boots.

This is — I guess I’ll call it a phenomenon? — a phenomenon that welled up on Tumblr a while back, the Me vs. Other Girls meme. (Related to the “White Girl” meme, about how white (teenage) girls love to instagram their Starbucks drinks and take selfies with their phones while wearing Uggs and reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower. lol what a bunch of inauthentic hipster wannabes amirite.) A lot of people, like the artist above, were tapping into the Me vs. Other Girls idea out of genuine sentiment, a true feeling of being out of the loop with Other Girls.

And so it becomes a point of pride:

Row upon row of blonde girls applying makeup; in the middle is a brunette girl reading a book with the word ERROR on her forehead.

And eventually Poe’s Law kicks in:

Other girls: fake boobs, orange, makeup, facebook, skinny, trashy. Me: REAL boobs!, white, natural, tumblr, just right, nerdy
This was created as a parody, but most people couldn’t tell.

(And then the parody takes on a life of its own, because fandom is occasionally amazing.)

Anyway. The critique people made about images like the ones above is that it sets up a false dichotomy: it suggests that some girls are more “genuine” and “better” than other girls, and that you can tell the difference between the genuine girls and the fake girls by external appearances. Of course, the truth is, appearances tell you very little about how “genuine” or “good” or “real” or “fake” someone is. The girl in the floral dress with the blonde ringlets spending an hour on her makeup might like Led Zeppelin and Ernest Hemingway and pwn at Halo; the girl in the hoodie and the low-maintenance ponytail might like Taylor Swift and America’s Next Top Model and spend all her time on Pinterest. Not only is there no way to tell by appearance, the distinction doesn’t matter: both girls’ choices about their looks and their pastimes and preferences are completely legit.

Me: Good music, I like my clothes, I have feelings, want to be respected. Other girls: Good music, she likes her clothes, she has feelings, wants to be respected.

But I think teenage girls in particular who are latching onto the idea of “I’m not like the Other Girls” and making that rivalry vitally important are expressing a genuine feeling.

I should know! I was one of them! I was the kid in late elementary school and middle school who made disdainful comments in my head about how the Beatles were so much better than the Backstreet Boys, who prided herself on wearing T-shirts and jeans and sneakers instead of skirts and heels, who would disclaim my abilities with makeup with “Well, I only wear it when I’m in a show.” I read books and drew pictures instead of watching TV and was militantly quirky and SO not about to change my appearance just to attract boys like all those other girls did. (What other girls those were, I’m still not sure, as attracting boys seemed to be remarkably low on the list of priorities for almost everyone I knew. Not to mention that I was being extremely disingenuous to myself about how much I wanted to attract boys. But anyway.)

Thankfully, I eventually came to the conclusion that rejecting every little aspect of femininity isn’t how I want to live my life; I wear jeans more than skirts, sure, because that’s what works for me in my daily life and what’s comfortable, but I look forward to the chances to wear a cute dress and heels. And I even wear pink sometimes. And what I want to do with my look and life has nothing to do with what any other woman wants to do with her look and her life: just as I don’t want anyone to judge me because I don’t (and often can’t) live up to a traditional ideal of femininity, I don’t want anyone to judge the people who do and can and choose to live up to a traditional ideal of femininity.

But whatever, bully for me, that’s not really the point here. The point is: where do we women get this Me vs. Other Girl idea in the first place? How do we rehash and re-confirm that idea? And what can we do to combat it?

That’s what I’ll get at next.

Part 2
Part 3