Monday, June 2, 2014

A Father of Two Teen-aged Daughters Ponders "Pretty"

This image is making the rounds. Have you seen it yet?

Image of Diana Vreeland by Andy Warhol. Words by Erin McKean. Image and words are from Erin's 2006 blog post

A friend of mine, a poet named Suzi Q, posted what you see above, and I was immediately taken in--captivated--by the confident defiance and unconventional wisdom of the words laid over the unflattering yet artful photo of a homely and intriguing woman. 

As it happens, I have two (count them TWO) teen-aged daughters. And as a Modern Dad in the Modern World, I do my best to spark conversations about beauty, happiness, body image, why boys are jerks, why no boy will ever be worthy of either of my daughters, why I have a shotgun mount on my Road King, why I have evidence of my prowess with a pistol posted prominently on my garage door, and so on. I can only imagine how hard it is to be a teen-aged girl these days with all the media attention paid to skin-deep beauty and hyped-up sexuality.

My first reaction was to my friend's post was to write the following comment on her wall:
This is very thought-provoking post, Suzi Q., and as a father of 2 teen-aged daughters, I am soaking it in. Thank you!
The very next thing I did was I looked up Diana Vreeland. OK, I can admit it, I did not recognize the image or the name. I guess I have done other things during my 28-year Army career besides read fashion magazines--so sue me! Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) was not gifted with classical beauty at birth, but she parlayed an eye for beauty into a career as a tastemaker and fashion icon whom a great many people still admire and respect after her passing. 

Then I searched for the quote itself, and to my surprise, I found that it was actually blogger Erin McKean who wrote those words. It was also her choice to adorn her blog post with this iconic photo. 

Warhol's unadorned portrait of Vreeland as it appears on McKean's post

Erin's fiery words speak to breaking free of social conventions and pressures regarding standards of feminine beauty. Ironically, the anti-fashion sentiment would never have been uttered by Vreeland, the pre-eminent fashion mogul of her day. I am not sure what led McKean to pair her words with Vreeland's image. "Pretty" is not the first word that comes to my mind when I see this photo. However, I do see elegance, class, style, personality, and defiance.

I still do not know the identity of the third person who overlaid McKean's words upon Warhol's image and began circulating the resulting image appearing at the top of the post.  All of this gave me pause about proper attribution, but I suppose giving credit where it's due and not putting words in someone's mouth are the topics of a different post. 

Suffice to say, the poster version got me thinking. I went back to Suzi Q's wall and thought some more about prettiness and beauty in the context of modern society. If "pretty" is not rent you pay for occupying a space marked "human," then what about other attributes and socially-constructed values? And is McKean advocating slovenly behavior and appearance? I added the following comment, in which I modified the original statement to be gender-neutral and removed the various versions of "Pretty / Prettiness":

You don't have to be ____. You don't owe ____ to anyone. Not to your spouse or partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random people on the street. You don't owe it to your parents, you don't owe it to your children, you don't owe it to civilization in general. ____ is not rent you pay for occupying a space marked "human."

Fill in the blank! Does the paragraph make sense if you substitute any of the following words for PRETTY? You don't have to be NICE. You don't have to be POLITE. True?

  • NICE
My belief is that rewarding beauty is different from punishing ugliness. I think it is great when people care enough about themselves to eat well, get plenty of exercise, manage stress appropriately, and devote their productive energies to worthy causes. I feel that a person's intentions and alternatives should be taken into consideration when evaluating fashion, grooming, and appearance.

Meanwhile, the social graces of politeness, cheerfulness, and humility are undervalued in today's skin-deep society. We should try to be attractive, pleasant, decent human beings. We should deploy our gifts as best as we are able. Elegance is not about random beauty inherited at birth. Elegance is about attitudes and aspirations.

As for my two teen-aged daughters, they are both beautiful and smart. No boy will ever be worthy! And as long as I continue to have anything to say about the matter, they will never be merely "Pretty!"

Related post: "Pretty" by Kate Makkai

H/T: Suzi Q.