“Will you help me find a new orthodontist?” I casually asked my mother at the beginning of my junior year of high school. I’d had a light set of braces as a preteen, but one day at the age of 16, I looked in the mirror and decided that the slight tilt of my upper right front tooth just wouldn’t do. After all, I would be starting college soon. I needed to look good.
College represented the ultimate fresh start for me. At Duke, I was going to study something I was passionate about, meet my best friends for life, and, perhaps, finally become popular. But I knew that I had some work to do before I could achieve these goals. I assumed that at a school like Duke, everyone would be incredibly impressive — that one couldn’t possibly get by on brains or looks alone. To be considered attractive, I figured, I would have to be “pretty and witty and bright.” I knew that before I left home, in order to live my dream, I needed to up the ante. I needed to “get pretty.”
When I was a teenager, many elderly women at my church often complimented my appearance, but I didn’t attract quite as much attention from the cool football players at school dances. After watching many seasons of America’s Next Top Model, I deduced that I had potential but lacked polish. So I did everything in my power to fix this. I went to a dermatologist and left equipped with a prescription to smooth away the last hints of puberty lingering on my skin. I started getting my eyebrows threaded and learned how to maintain them in between sessions. I became cognizant of my wardrobe, exchanging graphic tees and jeans for sleek ensembles. Last but not least, I successfully beseeched my orthodontist for an extra year and a half of braces in order to erase any trace of nuance from my smile.
Somewhere between July and August, between sleeping in my four-poster bed and moving into a dorm room, between high school and college, my moment came. I looked in the mirror and saw that my acne was gone, my braces were off, and my hair was the straightest it had ever been. I had gotten "pretty."
Many women remember a specific time in which they crossed this threshold, when they became aware of and began adhering to mainstream beauty standards. Maybe they stopped parting their hair in the middle, started wearing mascara, or adopted a signature look. We regard pictures from before this turning point as an embarrassment, only to be shared with close friends or for tongue-in-cheek #TBTs. While puberty does most of the work for boys — they get a few muscles, some facial hair, and then are good to go without undergoing any major changes in wardrobe or grooming — teenage girls often feel that they must start making drastically different decisions. They begin wearing makeup, dress in new styles, and further modify their already changing bodies in order to look like the cool girls at school, who themselves are trying to emulate the women they see in the media.
The expectation of this transition has a tendency to reduce young women’s adolescent self-esteem from slim to none. While I was aware of this likelihood, I couldn't help but realize that my own shift in appearance had produced positive effects: My new look was undeniably accompanied by a corresponding shift in my attitude and self-confidence. For me, “getting pretty” meant finally feeling comfortable in my own skin — even if I knew that comfort was based on a beauty standard that shouldn't exist in the first place.
I spent my entire adolescence hiding the most emboldened version of myself because that was the way the world made me feel I should behave based on my appearance. But when I went from being the nerdy Quiz Bowl captain at a rural high school to being a sorority girl at a private university, that changed. In high school, my dry, irreverent sense of humor was seen as awkward. Now, though it’s still viewed as a little eccentric, my broadly acceptable appearance leads many to interpret it as cute. The comments people used to meet with eye rolls and whispered insults are now met with laughter. In the past, my bad dance moves and somewhat naïve worldview were considered overwhelming and annoying. Now they’re endearing.
My personality itself didn’t change, but the change in my appearance affected the frame of reference that others use to understand my behavior. In high school I was shy, because often when I spoke up I was mocked. But after I exchanged my wire-rimmed glasses for sorority letters, my voice was amplified.
I recognize that this is all so problematic. I shouldn't have to be pretty to be heard. Changing my physical appearance caused others to treat me the way that my personality and true self had always deserved to be treated. While the self-confidence I’ve gained from this physical change is, again, undeniable, I do sometimes look back at old pictures and wonder how my current friends would react to the old me. Sentences like “They’re gonna kick people out of the party, but only ugly girls” are accepted as logical in Duke’s social scene. What would college have been like for me if I hadn’t gotten pretty? Would the old Jaime be as accepted as the new Jaime?
We all know the answer: Of course not. While I don’t believe that my true, close college friendships are predicated on physical appearance, I wonder if, realistically, they ever would have met and gotten to know me if I still looked like my old self. While discussions about how college campuses are often stratified based on students’ socioeconomic status are prevalent, there has been less conversation about how attractiveness is a very real determinant of campus social scenes.
I have admittedly been complicit in and benefited from this type of stratification. While the way I look ought to be one of the least important things about me, it has, in reality, drastically changed my life. I still remember my experience before “getting pretty,” though, and I’m convinced that we have to do better to keep our own implicit biases in check — whether in terms of classism, racism, or beauty standards. Addressing the advantages associated with women's attractiveness, and the ways that so many of us have benefited from these advantages, is the first step toward getting rid of them.
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