Is 'Pretty' a Bad Word?

03/27/2015 09:43 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015
Leslie Kendall Dye

"You're so pretty."

I'm typing into my broken-down Android, letting my husband know that I'm still at the clinic with my mother. We're waiting for blood work. It's dreary and boring here and the wait has made me grumpy.

I look up, feeling as cracked and ancient as my phone, and laugh. My mother's opinion strikes me as hilarious. I think about the toddler and the dishes and the dust waiting for me at home. I think about the subway commute and some nagging pain in my hip and the frigid wind outside. I think I've aged 20 years in the space of two.

"Mom, it doesn't matter how people look."

"It does matter."

I look over at my bird-like mother.

My mom learned early that pretty matters. Remember that lyric from "A Chorus Line," "Different is nice but it sure isn't pretty/Pretty is what it's about"? My grandmother burned this concept into my mother's brain, and years of working as an actress did nothing to shatter this wretched myth for her.

She had a lot of boyfriends. She was voted "Best Legs on Broadway" one year. She played seductresses on lots of TV shows. None of it mattered. She never felt pretty. Doesn't that prove that "pretty" doesn't exist?

She counseled me on sex appeal, as her mother had done before her. It was essential, she thought. It would make your life easier. Except I don't think it made her life any easier. Her life was marred by a sense of inadequacy, both inside and out.

I've spent my life knowing that I had to shake off my grandmother's nutty obsession with looks. It is dangerous, it is wrongheaded and it undervalues those things that do matter: our intellect, our rights to pursue meaningful work and to be compensated equally, our abstract passions and our concrete talents.

When I had a daughter, I wanted her to know that you cannot separate a person's beauty from her charm and wit and intelligence and any other attribute born of personality. It's all a jumble. One day, when someone falls in love with her, that person will think she is exquisite for all these reasons combined. People are not pretty because of their faces.

I arrive home late. I feel sticky with hospital residue and I peel off my clothes for a hot shower. My mother has her medication; a hard day of being a daughter is over, and now it's time to resume motherhood.

It is after eight o'clock when I step out of the shower. My daughter has so much to tell me about her day. She wants to know why her grandmother took so much of her mother's time today, and why she couldn't be with me for it. She is full of questions and longing for cuddles.

She falls asleep at eleven o'clock. A light from the alleyway shines onto her face, like artificial moonlight in a play, dancing past the curtains.

I whisper to my husband, who can hear me on the monitor.

"C'mere," I say.

He wearily opens the door and joins me at her bedside.

"What is it?" he whispers.

"She's so beautiful. I don't mean the whole person. I mean her face. She is so beautiful, isn't she? She takes my breath away."

And with that, I give in. I think my child is beautiful and would be even if she weren't remarkable in any other way.

And then I realize it: All mothers think this about their children.

My mother told me I was pretty all my life because she never would have thought otherwise. She didn't insist I was pretty because she was obsessed with looks. She insisted because I was her daughter. And I'm pretty sure parents of sons feel the same way about the faces of their offspring.

To my mother, my sister and I were the most beautiful girls in the world. And so it has been since time began. Whether or not I think it is healthy to tell my daughter so, I now recognize my right as a parent to think she is the most beautiful creature ever to have walked on two legs.

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