POV: What Pretty Means To Me (Or A Walk Down Memory Lane)

POV: What Pretty Means To Me (Or A Walk Down Memory Lane)

After reading an excerpt from June’s Glamour magazine featuring an interview with Jennifer Aniston where she discusses, among other things, her disdain for the “Rachel” haircut and the moments when she feels her most beautiful (read here), I began thinking: What defines pretty? Not the actual dictionary definition – although for inquiring minds, Merriam-Webster defines it as: “attractive to look at usually in a simple or delicate way” – but the personal, internal association with the word. What is pretty?

When asked by Glamour when Aniston feels her most confident, she responds: ““I feel beautiful when I wake up with my sweetheart. When I leave a photo shoot, because somehow miracles have been worked. When I come home from a night out with my honey and my makeup’s a little smudged. I have many moments when I feel beautiful. It’s all about having that inner confidence.” I find it interesting that Aniston correlates confidence with feeling beautiful, but I’m quite sure that she’s not alone here. Are the two words, in fact, synonymous?

This past weekend, I went to visit my mom for Mother’s Day and she pulled out a box of old photos for me to sift through. Pictures of myself as a baby, toddler, pre-teen, and angsty teenager covered the floor as I took a visual walk down memory lane. So, I will apologize in advance as this post is long and deeply personal.

Baby Sarah was pretty cute, despite the unfortunate bowl cut that emerged at around age two. When I look back at my baby and toddler photos, a wave of love and mushiness washes over me. I know it sounds cheesy – and I’m not the emoting type, so this is a strange feeling for me – but that little girl in those photos doesn’t have a care in the world except to love and be loved, and I recall her with fondness. Sure, she was a kid, but there’s something so blissful about her demeanor. She is the happiest version of myself and, for that, I recognize the beauty – not just the beauty of a child’s innocence, but the beauty of spirit. It’s not an aesthetic thing.

It’s interesting how quickly that feeling fades even today. As I reflect on my formidable years, I notice a photo of myself at around four or five, and it’s as though I can pinpoint the exact moment where my eyebrows took on a life of their own. Of course, at 4-years-old I was blissfully unaware, but when I look at a certain photo – armed with the fluctuating self-esteem of an adult who has lived in a world largely obsessed with outer beauty – I think to myself, “that’s it! There it is. Those unfortunate, unmanageable eyebrows. I had them all along.” I can’t help but wonder, when did I actually notice? When did I become self-conscious of this feature?

Let me digress for a moment. I have a serious insecurity with my eyebrows because they grow in a thousand different directions. As a teenager, one of my friend’s sisters used to call out my brows constantly: “Your eyebrows are sad. They grow down, like they’re frowning.” This carried into my latter years, where I’d spend hundreds of dollars to get my brow shape just-so, but I was never satisfied. I plucked too much, even pierced the left one (huge mistake). Recently, I’ve been trying to grow my sparse and sporadic brows with the help of serums, so stray hairs are more prominent than ever. Of course, if I weren’t so self-conscious about my brows I probably would’ve never noticed these horizontal lines in the photo. But that’s the way that pretty works: When you look back on a life through images, it’s as though you’re even more hyper-critical and that’s kind of sad. Because I can guarantee you that 4-year-old me wasn’t worried about misshaped brows.

At around age 11, I decided that bangs would be a cute look. Looking back, they weren’t. When I mentioned this to my mom this past weekend – more like blamed her: “How could you let me walk around with that haircut?!” – she responded, “You loved those bangs.” I was a gymnast growing up and, according to my mother, everyone on my team had cut bangs. It was a thing. So, following suit, I cut bangs and, somehow, that become my signature pre-teen style. As I peruse the photos of me and those unfortunate bangs, I can’t help but notice that I look genuinely happy; always smiling, which is in stark contrast to many of my latter photos, where I look absolutely miserable. So, maybe my mom is right. Maybe I did love those bangs, and maybe those bangs made me happy, even if reflection on them makes me cringe. But that jovial pre-teen girl is so much prettier than the angsty teenager that I was about to become (bad bang job and all). And, yes, I believe whole-heartedly that this is because I was happy on the inside. I told you this post was going to be cheesy (we’re bordering on Brie-cheesy here, I’m well aware).

At around 15 or 16, I discovered makeup and the magnifying mirror (which I still blame my mother for inciting my love of picking my face). Photos from this time in my life are… scary. I’m not smiling… ever. I’m either wearing dark lip liner and light lipstick (yikes!) like a gangster, or purple/red/black lipstick and dark eye makeup like a goth chick. Looking at these photos (which you’ll notice are not included in the slideshow above) literally puts me into a panic. I was so full of angst, and the pictures reflect that unhappiness.

As I move into my college years, I notice that, while I’m still playing with makeup – usually colors like reds (on eyes), purples, and even glittered magenta – I am no longer dark and moody with my makeup or my overall demeanor. My smile returns (as does a brief stint with a tongue pierce – another embarrassing scar of my youth). I also notice that my face is more round, not fat by any means, but slightly cherub-esque for my usual slender and long face shape. I mention this to my mom: “I don’t remember ever going through a fat phase! What’s up with my face?” “Stop that. You were never heavy,” she responds in that stern voice, almost as if she’s speaking to teenage me. “You were just changing. Hormones.” I also have the thinnest eyebrows, which I know was trendy at the time (but oh the horror today!).

Here’s the interesting part: I remember everything about college. I can tell you what I wore to M-80 on Thursday night in February of my sophomore year (open-toed wooden platform sandals (yes, there was snow on the ground), black shiny skintight pants, a blue crop top that tied in the back, and an oversized vintage black fur jacket), but I can’t for the life of me remember ever looking into the mirror and thinking, “Damn, girl. Your face is plump!” Ever. I thought I was hot (piercings and all), and I rocked that confidence all four years.

Sure, pretty is a word commonly associated with attraction to an object, be it a pair of shoes or a person. Pretty is certainly aided by foundations and lipsticks and mascaras and brow powders. But pretty is also an attitude. It comes and goes, ebbs and flows, and is largely dependent on how you feel at that exact moment in time (which is why when I look back at photos, I see a totally different person than I actually felt I was at the time). It’s a personal perspective, based mainly on the history and baggage that you bring to a situation, again be it a pair of shoes or a person (hence why they say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”). Just as pretty is highly personal and exceptionally unique, it’s also a term that immediately conjures up the most judgement and criticism when we turn the mirror on ourselves.

But that’s the beauty of pretty. It’s all in the way you look at things.


*Thanks to Glamour and the Jennifer Aniston interview for allowing me to streamline my thoughts on appearance, memories, growing up, and, of course, what it means to be pretty.

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