As inherently communicative creatures, human beings' relationship with different words and labels is profoundly shaped by our experience (or lack thereof) with having those labels applied to us over the course of our lives. Not everyone is going to share intense feelings about the same words, but there is one label that almost every English-speaking woman has a complicated relationship with, even if she doesn't explicitly realize it: the word pretty.
Recently, we discovered that this thousand-year-old word has enjoyed a long and colorful history, evolving from a word meaning "crafty" to "clever" to "good-looking" to a diminutive version of attractive, specifically applied to women.
Today, pretty is a word we hear tossed around rather flippantly in the beauty industry, whether it be to describe a product, like a shimmery pink eye shadow; a physical feature, like long, shiny hair; or a person in general. But as our culture becomes increasingly more conscious of problematic language, we thought that it was time we take a moment to suss out our feelings about the word pretty and decide whether or not we think that this diminutive way of describing female beauty is troublesome, positive, totally benign, or a mix of all three depending on the context.
To get a diverse array of perspectives on how women really feel about the word, we decided to put together a live roundtable featuring three women from totally different backgrounds. First, we found Claire Wineland, a vivacious 20-year-old cystic fibrosis patient and activist with a robust public speaking career, a devoted social media following, and her very own nonprofit called Claire's Place Foundation, which aids other families dealing with cystic fibrosis. Then we called up Tiffany De Silva, a wellness blogger and founder of Simply Silva, who focuses on eco-friendly beauty and self-care. And last, we invited Maye Musk, dietitian and model for over 50 years, to join in as well.
Together, the four of us hopped on a Skype call and got deep into the weeds about the word pretty, challenging ourselves to analyze what the word represents to us, whether or not we think it's sexist (or at least insecurity-provoking), and what language we could possibly use instead. Read on to see what we discovered.
What was your first experience with being called pretty?
Claire Wineland: I was born in Austin, Texas, and my mom is a hard-core Southern belle. I love her—she's amazing, strong, and wonderful—but growing up, I wasn't allowed to leave the house without my hair being combed, a barrette, and some lip gloss. It was more so about being presentable. 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. It's pleasing to the eye. So that was a big deal for me. Because on one hand, I was really sick. I was a mess. I would have horrible fevers for weeks on end where I would be sweating. I was just a sick kid. But on the other hand, I wanted to be presentable. I wanted people not to have as intense a reaction to me, as I knew they would if I weren't put-together. So I think I used the notion of being pretty and cute as a way to detract from being seen as sick. I think I wanted to be pretty and to focus on my looks because it was much better than being sick and having people be jarred by me or the state of my health, which is something that happens when you're sick like this. That's the first thing that registers for people.
Tiffany De Silva: I remember the first time that I was called pretty. I was very young, maybe 3 or 4 years old. I was on my way to an event for school, maybe a Christmas play, and one of the crossing guards said, "You look really pretty." She made a comment about my dress. So I think from a really young age, the word pretty to me was something used to describe a thing. There could be a pretty sunset, or a dress could be pretty. But I didn't really attach that word to the way that I personally looked. It was a word for things. "Beautiful" was a word I tied to people. But anything could be pretty.
I'd love to hear more about the difference between when you'd use the word pretty versus beautiful.
Maye Musk: I would say that beautiful is quite stunning. If it's a person, beautiful can also apply to their personality. Somebody can not be beautiful in looks but have a beautiful personality, and that I find more beautiful. So they may not be pretty, but they are beautiful.
That's an interesting distinction. I also want to talk about the gender aspect of the word. Often, to determine whether or not a word is sexist, I look to see if there's a male equivalent. Do you think there's a male equivalent of pretty?
CW: Well, something that Maye said that I think is interesting is the notion that beautiful is stunning. What popped into my head there is that beautiful, for which I think there is a male equivalent, has this connotation of depth to it. There are things that are beautiful that are very complex. I can define things to be stunning and beautiful that are very multifaceted and deep and make you look extra hard, pick out the details, see the intricacies. And that's what makes it beautiful. A painting isn't beautiful just because it's pleasing—it's because you could stare at it for five hours and constantly find new things. I think there are a lot of equivalents to that for masculinity. I think men are prided a lot more on being complex and multifacted—strong but gentle and fatherly and such. But I don't know if pretty necessarily translates because pretty is considered to be simple.
Right. Because women are so often considered to be simple.
CW: Yeah, and I don't know, because handsome isn't necessarily the same as pretty, either. I guess you could interchange them. But handsome also has a connotation of strength.
Like a prince.
CW: Yeah, exactly. And pretty is more like a child. Pretty is infantile in a way. It's not something you could call a woman who's been through a lot. Your first instinct wouldn't be to call them pretty. Same with men. We kind of assume that men have been through a lot and are more grounded, so there's less of an instinct to call them something so simple. So I don't know if there's a good translation there.
Do any of you remember feeling concerned growing up with wanting to be pretty? What did that mean to you at the time?
TD: It took me a long time to accept the word as being something you'd call a person. It took me a long time to understand the concept because I wasn't raised with words like pretty and beautiful being thrown around a lot. Most of the women in my life just lived as they were and didn't care about how they were perceived, as beautiful or ugly or whatever the case was. All of the women in my family were really just individuals and very independent in that way. So it wasn't until I got older, around high school, that I started to get attention from boys—that's when that word became more attached to me. Once those compliments started to apply to different physical features I had, or maybe something about my body that someone found attractive, I remember feeling a pressure to keep those things that made me pretty, whether that be someone liking the way I did my hair or the way I was dressing at the time. I remember wanting to be considered consistently pretty, if that makes sense—like not wanting to fall off and then suddenly not be pretty.
Do you sense a difference between when a man calls you pretty versus when a woman does?
CW: I have a very specific relationship to all of that. It's a little bit different when you're sick because there's this added layer that you have to break through with people. Men will automatically feel like they're being wrong or inappropriate if they hit on you if you're sick. That was really weird when I got to be a teenager because I thought there was something wrong with me. Like, why aren't guys into me at all? But it wasn't that they weren't into me, it was just that added layer they had to go through. They didn't want to be too pushy. People tiptoe around people who are sick. Because of that, I was always really, really forward with men. I think I discovered my sophomore year of high school that guys weren't going to do anything if I didn't show that I wasn't a flower and that I wasn't gonna break if they were into me, you know? So I was always really aggressive with men. Not aggressive aggressive, but flirtatious and open about how I felt. I think because of that, men never called me pretty. That was never the first go-to word for me. But I think that's kind of telling that I got a lot of personality adjectives because I was always so open with my feelings toward guys. I don't think they ever felt the need to tell me I was pretty. Because no one ever questioned that I was confident in myself. And that wasn't always true. Of course, there were times when I wasn't confident. But I was really good at projecting that I was.
But I think there is a big difference between when men and women do it because I think women have a lot more of an aesthetic eye. When women call each other pretty, I think there's actually something kind of sweet in it. Women are very good at spotting aesthetics. It's like when you're with a friend and you're helping her choose an outfit and you say, "Oh, that's really pretty." But when it's from a man, there's something about it that feels like it's trying to make you into something that's easy to handle. Like you're a "pretty girl." That's easy. I can handle a pretty girl. But there isn't much more to it.
In each of your lives at this time and place, do you like the word pretty? Is there a word you'd prefer to be called?
MM: I like pretty. I will use it. But I don't use it often. I prefer intelligent, interesting. That's what I like. And I enjoy people like that. Because I'm a science nerd.
Do you think one can be intelligent, interesting, and pretty all at the same moment?
MM: Well, pretty, to me, is simply physical. It's looking at someone and deciding they're just pretty. And then they can open their mouth and become not so pretty, or they can become fascinating. So sure, they can be both. But I don't tend to describe people as pretty. I describe people by the strength of their character.
TD: I have a love/hate relationship with pretty. I don't think I know yet what my relationship with it is. But I do use the word. I think I use it more to spread positivity and to bring self-love to other women. Like if I'm out and I see a woman who has a really nice dress, I'll tell her, "You look really pretty today." So I think I pass that word on as a way to celebrate women. That's what it's turned into for me.
CW: For me, it's very rare that I ever get complimented on my looks without it being a double-edged sword. The thing I get told the most, more than anything else, like if I were to go through the comments on videos I've made or people's reactions to me after I give a talk, what people say to me is, "Oh, you're too pretty to be sick." So I never just get told, "You're pretty." So I think I like it in the sense that it can be empowering for me to look a certain way, to look beautiful, and to inspire feelings of attraction in people because that's way better than making them feel sad for me or pity me. But at the same time, I would much rather just be seen as intelligent, human, strong, or interesting. I like it much better when people say I'm interesting.
This month on Byrdie, we're doing a deep-dive into the history, etymology, and current-day perceptions of the word pretty. For more, check out our letter from the editor.