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Personal is Political: Thank You So Much for Telling Me I’m Pretty – The Feminist Wire

Personal is Political: Thank You So Much for Telling Me I’m Pretty

By Susan Harlan

Catcalling IIIThank you so much for telling me I’m pretty. It’s really very useful information to have. I assume this is why you’re interrupting me while I’m reading my book: because you understand just how important it is to cut me off right in the middle of a paragraph to tell me this very important thing.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty. It’s not like I’m trying to actually go somewhere. I mean, how would you know that I’m trying to go somewhere? This would require you to notice that I’m crossing the street and walking with a sense of purpose. And thanks so much for planting yourself in my path so I have to stop and walk around you.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty and then waiting for me to say thank you. Because obviously, I really should say thank you in response to your overwhelming expression of approval. I am so thrilled that you find me attractive. But you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t say thank you. It’s just that I’m not exactly thankful. How should I put it? – I’m really pretty annoyed that you can’t just ignore me so I can get on with my day.

See? I used the word pretty. But in a different way.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty. So pretty that you want to buy me a drink. But I’d really rather buy my own drink and not talk to a businessman from Long Island who is swaying on his barstool. I’d really rather buy my own drink and talk to my friend about something I care about. Like the play we just saw. I don’t want to talk to you about the play we just saw. But I suppose I would only be allowed to be left alone if I were not pretty. To you.

Catcalling IIThank you so much for telling me I’m pretty. It’s really such a compliment, and all women like compliments, right? I know this because you just told me. I find this information incredibly useful, too. I don’t know how we women would figure out what we liked or didn’t like unless you told us. So, thanks for that.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty while I’m trying to watch a movie. I’m not really watching the movie; I just come here to seek out uninvited masculine attention from men. And do feel free to tap me on the shoulder, since my body is, of course, yours to do with as you like. If you hadn’t tapped me on the shoulder, how would you have communicated this very important information to me?

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty when I’m trying to sit here alone in this green park. Even though I’m siting here alone, you were astute enough to judge that I really wanted company. I really wanted you to sit down and tell me that I’m pretty so that I have to get up and relocate to another park bench. The birds chirping thank you, too.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty while I’m trying to be alive.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty when I’m shopping for groceries. Here I am, contemplating which brand of tuna to buy, and you’re right there to stop me and tell me I’m pretty. So pretty. You say I’m lucky to be pretty. Such luck. Lucky and pretty. What a combination.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty when I’m a perfect stranger to you. Don’t worry–feel free to barge into my life. Women don’t want to be left alone. We really want you to engage us about our appearance. You like the whole package, you say. And your opinion means a tremendous amount to me, especially since I don’t know you at all and have never seen you before.

NYC Street HarassmentThank you so much for telling me I’m pretty and for asking me to smile. “How about a smile? C’mon, let’s see a smile.” Yes, I should smile at you, because it’s not like I am an actual human being who might be happy or sad or neither happy nor sad. Or I might not be smiling because I’m thinking about something, which is what we women do when we use our brains. But of course you are completely within you right to ask me to smile, as I only exist to decorate this planet for you, and my face is insufficiently decorative in its present state.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty. Too pretty to be a professor. “Professors don’t look like you.” “No?” I say. What do they look like? You, presumably? Middle-aged white men? Thank you so much for telling me I don’t look like my job. Maybe I should consider a job that I look more like.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty. Because I would likely cease to breathe without your viewpoint on this matter. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty. Just like a picture. Just like a pretty picture. Just like a pretty little girl. And you tell all of them they are pretty, too. And you will keep telling them their whole lives until they die or are no longer deemed pretty. Or maybe when we are all dead, we will be even prettier, like in a Shakespeare play.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty when I’m on the subway and can’t get away from you. It’s so lovely to have you leering over me. And thank you for telling me when I ask you for directions. And when I’m eating my lunch. Right in the middle of a bite of my sandwich. And do I say thank you? No. And what do you say? Bitch. It was a compliment.

CatcallingThank you so much for telling me I’m pretty. We appreciate that it must be really exhausting and time-consuming to say this to all the women in the street. You must get worn out. If you get too worn out, you could practice not doing it. You might even find that each time you don’t say it, it will get a little bit easier. Eventually, it won’t be a struggle at all.

Thank you so much for telling me I’m pretty. Because I can’t possibly know if I’m pretty unless you tell me. How could I know? Clearly, I must need you to tell me. I must need three, seven, ten men to tell me everyday. But you know what? I am like Han Solo. I know. And I don’t care. And I am walking on this sidewalk. And I am imagining a whole day with no one telling me I’m pretty, and I am thinking that’s what it would be like to be a man.


HarlanSusan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where I specialize in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. My non-academic writing focuses on the intersections between place, objects, and memory. My essays have appeared in The Toast, Nowhere: Travel Stories, Literary Mothers, Skirt!, 5×5, Artvehicle, Public Books, Cocktailians, Smoke: A London Peculiar, Airplane Reading, and Open Letters Monthly, and I have a monthly column for Nowhere magazine entitled “The Nostalgic Traveler.” 

8 Comments

  1. Ariel

    October 21, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    Most innovative and inspiring piece I’ve read in a long while. Thank you! The “pretty” invasive perpetrators are going to take it all literally, though, I’ll bet.

  2. Daria

    October 22, 2014 at 10:29 am

    Aaaand this is why I have a hard time identifying as a feminist. I see absolutely nothing wrong with a man calling me pretty. In fact, I LOVE it. When I was in my teens, it helped because I was so painfully skinny. In my twenties, I worked so hard on my body, and loved that it was noticed. Especially because my teeth always made me so self-conscious. In my 30’s, after 2 children, hair loss, loose skin, out-dated clothes, it made me feel like a woman again, and not just “mommy”. I think I’m pretty, I’m glad you do too. I also think I’m bright, and funny, and kind..and if you paid me a compliment on any those, I would say thank you. Just like I thanked you when you called me pretty.

    • CeCe Witherspoon

      October 25, 2014 at 2:52 am

      Hey there Daria, I am glad that when you felt bad, people supported you in the way you needed. That’s great.

      But with respect, I think you’ve missed the one of the key points of this article– as I see it, one of the points is that strangers shouldn’t bug strangers.

      Consider this analogy:

      You are walking toward your car in a parking lot. You encounter a friend or acquaiantence or family member in the lot and the person says “Hey can you drop me off somewhere?” Because you know that person, you might want to give them a lift. Even if you actually don’t or can’t drop them off, you probably don’t mind the fact the person interrupted what you are doing to ask you for a favour.

      Now imagine the same situation, but this time, the person asking for a lift is a stranger. You have never seen them before. Some rare people (perhaps you are one) would not mind this; some might even give the stranger a lift. However, I think many people would not. In fact, I’d bet they would be offended that a stranger even asked them in the first place. Furthermore, if the stranger then criticised you for refusing to give them a ride, many people might start to get mad.

      So it seems to me that- among other things- Ms. Harlan is communicating that the “you’re pretty” conversation with strangers, randos and others bugs her in just this way.

      Also, I’m reasonably certain that virtually no one cares whether you identify as a feminist or not– bringing that up muddies the waters when it comes to discussing the issues raised by the article. Isn’t it enough to simply say “The author has one experience, but I myself have another . . .”?

      (To the community: I am aware that “objecting to strangers bugging you” is but one slender thread in a much richer POV expresed in Harlan’s essay. I’m not trying to reduce the entire piece to merely that. It’s just that I can only talk about one thing at a time, and that’s the thing I picked to talk about).

  3. tlfk

    October 23, 2014 at 8:55 am

    I think plenty of feminists are also fine when a stranger, including a male stranger, genuinely compliments them. And isn’t creepy about it. I know I am. But the problems is when it is creepy, and he does it every day when I pass him on the street on my way to work, and seems like he’s expecting me to stop and talk (which I can’t, b/c I’m late; and I don’t want to talk to him). This article isn’t about those innocuous, friendly moments between strangers and acquaintances, where nothing more is expected than a simple, passing exchange. It’s about those creepy, not-really-just-a-genuine-compliment-but-a-demand-that-stop-what-you-are-doing-and-acknowledge-that-I-find-you-attractive-let-me-know-that-my-opinion-in-this-matters-to-you. I know that for many women, a nice compliment, from men and women, can be genuinely affirming. But what about when women don’t receive those compliments; are they then supposed to assume they aren’t attractive, and have nothing to offer society?

    In all honesty, I also believe plenty of men who have said this to me aren’t just singling me out; they’re doing it to most every woman they see, hoping one woman will respond in whatever way it is they are looking for.

    We all like to be complimented on many aspects of our personality that we are proud of, but women are taught to value beauty above all else, b/c strangers on the street aren’t tripping over themselves to tells us how bright they think we are. Women don’t typically do this to men, at least not in large numbers. And how would men feel if women complimented them on what they are stereotypically supposed to be valued for, which is wealthy? “Hey, you sure look rich”. They probably wouldn’t feel too great about that, even if they were rich.

  4. Claire

    October 28, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    What is missing in the comments here is that the incessant comments from men in this form is called… harassment.

    Thanks, Susan, for a great piece. One you might like in a similar vein is by a feminist blogger and professor with the blog name Captain Awkward. Her essay is called Notes from a Boner.

  5. Harriet

    October 30, 2014 at 9:01 am

    For as long as women are the object of the male gaze, there persists the likely result that women will internalise this, and equivocate self-worth with appearance. I think this is a serious problem.

  6. Motorcycle Woman

    October 30, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Let me just state that I enjoyed this article, though I believe the point is that women shouldn’t require gain confidence (or compliments) from external factors, and instead, should have that sense of worth and value from within. (And, personally, I dislike when women start sentences with, “Sorry, I just wanted know” or use “upspeak” in their voice to lilt the last word as if they’re asking a question rather than making a statement. The young ladies in my office do it and they all sound like “valley girls,” which is annoying as heck.) And sometimes words spoken as attention getters actually come through as condescending or demeaning (though such communication is subject to interpretation by the receiver, who can also choose to embrace or ignore the comments).

    But dear God. What the f##@$$ is with the comments bashing being a “feminist” nowadays. People, feminist is NOT an ugly term; rather, it is one that should make every female proud. Really. I was a young girl, growing up in the 70’s, watching the revolution of women coming into their own (my own mother included) and remember being fascinated by women pioneers, such as Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas…names that today’s young women have never heard of (and shame on you…and your parents for not knowing). I am proud to be a feminist, and the mister is proud to have me at his side (and enjoys holding doors open for me, including the car door, and I feel blessed and grateful to have a man that is chivalrous and polite).

    But I see that today’s young women, many of whom gather a sense of worth from comparing themselves to TV expectations and celebrities, etc., have turned into bashing waifs who are completely delusional and setting themselves up for heartbreak and failure with unrealistic expectations. Being a feminist means you have the ability to go as far as your life will take you…on your own accomplishments. And you can share those accomplishments, as well. (After all, today’s young women have the ability/voice to speak up and be heard, largely due to feminists standing tall. God bless ’em!)

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