For a woman who grew up geek, being called “pretty” feels pretty weird.
Recently I reached out to a writer I admire over a social media channel. We’ve never met, and I was looking forward to changing that. Her reply was lovely. In it, she complimented me and called me “pretty.”
But she didn’t say anything about my work. And it stung.
I instantly felt ridiculous for having that reaction. After all, when people call me “pretty,” that’s a good thing, right? This writer wouldn’t necessarily know anything of me beyond my social media profile photos, because those are what I put forth next to my words. Naturally, I choose only the very best photos of me in those places, not the ones that show my everyday look: The Haggard Work-At-Home Mom.
Still, when someone compliments my looks or my hair or my photos, I tend to share the credit with the hairstylist or the photographer or I confess how little I spent on the cute dress. I can’t just say “Thank you” and move on. It’s as if I don’t really believe I’m pretty.
I’m surprised when people point out my looks instead of my words, since I relied on words to get attention for most of my life.
When I was growing up I was always “smart.” Good grades. Avid reader. Top of my class. Extracurricular activities. High test scores. Advanced interests. Ambitious. Those are the attributes one would have used to describe me.
I was never “the pretty one.” My best friends were thin and blonde and beautiful. They got all the boys’ attention. I was goofy and hairy and I used snark to overcome what I thought was my weakness: not pretty. With my witty humor, I flirted and I dated and I even had a boyfriend, but I felt this lack of “pretty” through college, even through adulthood.
When I was in my early 20’s I met an older woman who told me “You’re so beautiful, but you don’t even know it. That’s the best kind of beautiful.” But when I looked in the mirror I saw only my too-wide thighs, my plethora of freckles, my bushy eyebrows. My blemishes. All of them.
I’m 40 now. Last summer, while hanging out with my old friends, one of them was trying to think of the name of a particular author. “Ask Kim,” someone said. “She’s the smart one.”
But I don’t feel as smart as I once did. I believe I lost many of my smart brain cells during my two experiences with childbirth and the last 7 years of parenting. And the world holds much more knowledge than we can learn from school or books or even Google – I’ll never know more than anyone about anything.
Once upon a time everyone said I was smart, when all I wanted was for someone to call me “pretty.” Now that people call me “pretty,” I’ve been wishing they would click through to my blog and read my words and think I’m smart. What I’ve been doing here is missing the point.
The truth is that any of us are so much more than smart or pretty or whatever we’re called. I’m joyful or anxious or overtired or proud or in love or vivacious or logical or organized or kind. I’m what I believe myself to be and I’m also what other people see. It’s a glorious and frustrating combination.
I still have many days when I feel like that awkward 16-year-old with an 80’s mullet who was never very good at anything besides school. But I am learning to embrace the smart kid in me while also appreciating the beauty that comes with age and experience. I can be smart, pretty or all of those other things. But mostly what I’d like to be is grateful.