"Go Inward, Be Gentle": What We've Learned This Month About the Word "Pretty"

Amanda Montell
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Imaxtree

When Byrdie's editorial director, Faith Xue, announced that our monthly theme for February would be "a deep dive into the history, etymology, and current-day perceptions of the word pretty," our team of editors collectively winced. It's interesting how a short, seemingly innocuous collection of sounds can carry such weight; and with pretty, we all had personal stories and images that came to mind.

Personally, I pictured my middle school best friend, a lanky tween with bright green eyes, unfairly shiny hair, and flawless milky skin, who was known far and wide as the "prettiest girl in school" (which, at the age of 12, gave me a fierce inferiority complex). For our wellness editor Victoria Hoff, the most popular girl in her high school, a svelte brunette who seemed to have entirely skipped the awkward puberty phase, informed her lifelong vision of pretty. "I didn't feel pretty until like last year," Victoria told me with a melancholy laugh.

Indeed: Whether it be the subtle messages we've gleaned from advertisements or the direct feedback we received about our own beauty during our formative years, for each of us Byrdie editors, the word pretty (when used to describe a person, anyway) inspires a tinge of insecurity that we try so hard every day to tuck away. And yet, it's used so casually in the beauty industry. There was a disconnect there.

Our favourite way to fight off uneasiness or self-doubt as reporters is to analyse the living daylight out of the thing that causes those feelings—to unpack it, to expose it—until it's so naked that it can't sting us anymore. So that's exactly what we did with pretty… and we learned so much.

We started with an excavation of the word's history in the English language. With the help of linguists and literature scholars, we learned that pretty, which can be traced back 1500 years, started out with surprisingly negative connotations, meaning "crafty" or "deceitful" in Old English. As the centuries passed, the word evolved in meaning, disappeared from use, and was ressurected—at a point during Shakespeare's time, it was even used to describe men. But eventually (and a literary scholar named Gerit Quealy thinks this has to do with the theory that "pretty" is related to an early spelling of "precious"), the word came to describe women and children as a sort of diminutive or depreciative form of "beautiful." In this way, it struck us as profoundly gendered, sexist even, so we decided to explore that next.

"Pretty has always had this link in my brain to being squared away properly—palatable, almost. Easy to come across, to look at, and to deal with," commented Claire Wineland, a cystic fibrosis advocate and public speaker, during a roundtable we hosted about the word pretty the following week. But, she said, "beautiful, for which I think there is a male equivalent, has this connotation of depth to it." As Wineland put it, beautiful is a word we use to describe things that are complex—"multifaceted and deep and make you look extra hard." Pick out the details; see the intricacies. Since men are often perceived as and prided in our culture for being more complex, more thoughtful, and less frivolous, it makes sense that the word wouldn't apply to them. Pretty is an uncomplicated term for uncomplicated women—and yet, because our society wants women to be uncomplicated, we still lust after it.

But that's not all the baggage that pretty carries. Because the word is so connected to the beauty industry in particular—to the models and skin tones that brands choose to represent—there is also a hierarchy within pretty itself. "I used to think that [pretty] meant being light-skinned and having small lips with silky hair because those are the standards of beauty I grew up with in my country," Senegalese supermodel Khoudia Diop told Byrdie assistant editor Maya Allen for a feature we published this week about three models of colour working to redefine beauty in their industry. Diop recalled feeling deeply un-pretty growing up because of her deep skin tone: "I remember the moment I started overthinking what I look like and how much I hated my skin. It was when one my best friends told me I looked like a ghost because I was so dark. That affected me for a while. … I really struggled getting comfortable in my own skin."

Different cultural standards across the world, and even the subtle nuances from language to language, can definitely inform our image of "pretty." Last week, we investigated translations of the word in 12 different languages and found that in Mandarin Chinese, pretty literally translates to "bleached bright" while in Turkish, the word's meaning is closer to sugary sweet, like a dessert—both of those meanings inform the image the term conjures for its speakers.

For all these complicated reasons, pretty is not the first compliment most English-speaking women would choose to receive. We know this for sure after polling 49 women (both Byrdie editors and readers) and discovering that brave, inspiring, funny, interesting, radiant, smart, well spoken, and genuine are all among the words they'd rather hear.

Despite all this complexity (and negativity), many women still actively like the word pretty at the end of the day. All of that has to do with their chosen interpretation of it. "Now, when I hear the word pretty, I think of power, respect, happiness, strength, acceptance, struggle, fight, tears, and joy," Khoudia Diop told us. "I think I pass that word on as a way to celebrate women. That's what it's turned into for me," wellness blogger Tiffany de Silva shared in our roundtable.

So… to honour all that we've learned about the word pretty this month, having spoken to dozens of brilliant women from models to activists to linguists to many of you readers, we decided to share our final thoughts. Here are the important lessons Byrdie editors have learned about what pretty really means:

Byrdie Editors' Final Thoughts on the Word Pretty:

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