In defense of the “before” girl
In some ways, I look like the “before” girl in romantic comedies. You know, the one with the frizzy hair and the chunky glasses? If only I would straighten my hair and take off my glasses, then I, too, could be beautiful! At least, so says romantic comedy logic.
As Rachel Paige at Hello Giggles points out, the glasses-wearing “before” girl is irritatingly common — as is, I would like to add, the removal of her glasses without the substitution of contacts. Nothing’s hotter than a girl who can’t see!
I’ve always resented the “glasses-wearing-ugly-duckling” trope because it tells me that I need to be “fixed” in order to be attractive — and I know I’m not broken. Is my vision awful? For sure. Does that mean wearing glasses should hold me back? No way!
The Bellejar mentions that “ugly duckling” themes are also dangerously common in young adult literature. Young female protagonists’ appearances are frequently “fixed” so that they can be pretty in addition to being smart, capable, and other worthy things.
Hermione tames her hair, Katniss gets a makeover, etc. The exception, according to the Bellejar, is Tris from Divergent. Tris is markedly “not beautiful,” and it does not matter to her or to the story’s plot. Even Tris’s love interest values her actions and character much more than he values her appearance.
A novel with a female protagonist who never becomes conventionally attractive — and who, not to mention, has a love interest who accepts her unconventional looks — is a radical departure from the media’s “ugly duckling” archetype.
This, according to the Bellejar, illustrates the problem with arguing that all women and girls need to feel beautiful:
When we promote this idea that all women are beautiful, what we are really doing is emphasizing that it is important for women to be physically attractive. We are telling girls that, as females, the way that they look is a huge part of who they are — that we expect prettiness from them, and that we expect them to want it.
Tris demonstrates that a girl can be “un-pretty” throughout her whole story, and she can still be happy, successful, and loved.
Skepchick’s Elyse Anders takes this line of thought even further, arguing, “It’s okay to not love my body. It’s okay to not even like my body. They’re my feelings and it’s my body and I will use those feelings to feel however I want to about my body.”
What is not okay, Anders says, is being told what type of relationship she should have with her body, whether she is told to love it as is or change it to conform to other people’s beauty standards.
Anders equates telling women that they should feel beautiful no matter how they look to telling women that they should meet socially determined beauty standards: Both are ways of regulating women’s relationships with their appearances, and both place more value on appearance than on personality.
On one hand, it’s an interesting argument. I certainly agree that girls and women should not be told how to feel, and that we don’t need more ways of saying that women’s appearances are more important than their personalities and accomplishments.
On the other hand, I know that it can be hard when you don’t like your physical self, and it can help to hear that it’s okay to love your body regardless of how it looks.
All in all, I believe that loving your appearance should not be a prerequisite for happiness. Thinking, “Whatever,” when you see yourself in the mirror — and being happy with that — should be a viable option.
As for me, I suppose my mentality as a glasses-wearing lady is somewhere in between. It makes me happy to feel pretty in my glasses, and it makes me happy to like the way my face looks while I wear them.
But on the other hand, who cares? I have terrible vision, and my glasses help me do things. They let me ride my bike and bake cookies and type this blog post. My glasses let me be a complete person. I don’t have to like how I look when I wear them — I just have to like who I am.
Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and participates in reproductive health and justice activism in the Boston area.