Isabelle Lin

I went to Montreal recently, for the first — and most likely — last time. One night, I stumbled across a hookah bar that was sort of sunken into the ground. Like some kind of modern-day, 21-year-old matchbox girl, I peered inside the cracked windows to see an older man playing a violin inside. He looked at me, watching him, and he smiled, swaying a little more convincingly for my pleasure. And I felt in that moment that I must be pretty, that as he looked at me through the hole in the wall, and I looked at him absorbed in his craft, that he must find great pleasure in performing for me, a pretty young tourist watching him from a distance. 

It occurs to me that my indulgence in this kind of saccharine moment of prettiness is perhaps less than noble. Vain, you might call it. As we all know, beauty lies on the inside. In our heightened evolutionary state we should be able, ought to be able, to distinguish from the glitter of the surface and the substance below. But is it really so shallow to crave those eclipses of validation? To chase Pretty instead of the Beauty that beckons beneath? I would be lying if I didn’t relish the pleasure of feeling that I was young and well dressed and attractive. But its sublimity went beyond just the physical calculus. For a moment, he became the entertainer throwing a bit of the sparkle of his spotlight toward me, and I became the anonymous young woman, enraptured by his performance. Perhaps I could remind him of an old lover, a friend from his home country, or just a notable passerby on the street. In any case, I might be Pretty. 

What exactly distinguishes Pretty from Beautiful though? Why search for the “beauty inside” and moralize the aspiration to Pretty as vain? Vanity, inherently, recalls superficiality, shallowness. Where Beauty makes space for the contours of the individual, Pretty is a generalized idea, it exists only in relation to the standards around us. It’s an image for people to fall in love with. It is the flattened idea of Zoey Deschanel as “Summer” — to know very little about and to idolize. It is the unknowable tourist glittering with youth and foreignness and offering a smile. It is heternormative, rooted in patriarchy and white supremacy, and inherently alluring in its exclusivity and unattainability. And because of this, it feels generally like a moral failing to succumb to the pitfalls of caring about Pretty. If all these standards are arbitrary, racist and sexist and are no indication of the value of a person’s worth, then it makes sense that lookism has been relegated to a moral failing in our collective imagination. Like other -isms in our midst, we seek to overcome them by a collective commitment to goodness, a joint performance in pretending that looks don’t matter at all: Everyone is Beautiful on the Inside. 

It seems to me, though, that we all implicitly understand that Pretty is an idea. The more you know about a person, the more they deviate from it. Fundamentally, the more specific the contours of that person in your mind — the more distinct the curve of their nose, the shape of their personality — the further they stray from that singular asymptotic ideal, the idea of who we all want to love, who we all want to be. In that way, the transience of my interaction in Montreal was conditional to my existence in the state of Pretty for just those few minutes. The violinist knew nothing of me, and I knew nothing of him. All we knew was that in that moment of brief interaction, he was exactly who I wanted him to be, and I could be exactly what he wanted me to be, across the picture-frame of that open window. 

In explaining the idea of the “White Girl”™, essayist Hilton Als wrote, “Images are really powerful. People fall in love with images, and as a way of falling in love with someone because they are like an image.” Perhaps this is why Pretty has such appeal. If I could approximate myself as close as possible to Pretty, perhaps I could get more people to fall in love with me on the street. Perhaps if enough people fell in love with me on the street, then it would be evidence that I, too, was worthy of love, attention, adoration. 

A few days after I came home from Montreal, a friend of mine sent me a photograph he had taken of me as he watched me watch that violinist that night. To be frank, it was a bad photo. The lighting was poor, and all you can really see is the back of my head in front of that cracked window. As I looked at the photo, I could imagine him watching me watch my violinist. Perhaps he knew that I was flattered by the violinist’s attention, and that I liked the idea that a stranger could be so enamored by just my passing glance. All the same, he saw the moment as beautiful and wanted to capture it. Saw my little vanity, my turn towards the stranger for validation as a beauty that was worthy of becoming a memento. 

If Pretty is a saccharine sugar high, beauty is perhaps much more mundane. It’s taking a sort of bad photo, and sitting through the hours of getting to know someone, of learning that they always take their compact out to redo their lipstick because they’re afraid they might look undone, and loving them anyway. And in searching for that unreal high of Pretty, perhaps what we really want is to be seen as beautiful. To come to look back on millions of those mundane moments and realize that we are seen and loved. But it seems unfathomable at the beginning of those mundane moments, unfathomable that the person before us might see us in our entirety, or even close to that entirety, and still love us. It seems much easier to forever aspire to an unachievable image of the Lovable than to truly expose ourselves to the world. That path is simple after all – Lose Five Pounds or Dye Your Hair – if you can convince someone you are worthy of their adoration by the way you look, why not shoot for that goal? 

Perhaps we’ve written off vanity too quickly. Pretty is superficial, yes. It requires the flattening of the self into the image worthy of adoration. But isn’t it deeply understandable that you might get addicted to those moments where you can believe that someone might find you good, worthy of love, deeply understandable? Pretty is the glorious, sexy version of the mundane reality of what it means to be seen. The hard work that goes into being Beautiful, the participatory nature of Beauty. You allow yourself to be beautiful to someone, allow them to see beyond the performance of what you think is the closest ideal you’d like to be. In some ways, we’ve prettified vanity, allowing it only to stand for a one-dimensional obsession with-self, a somehow fundamentally feminine narcissism that ought to be avoided. Could vanity, too, be beautiful? Could it be seen instead as an expression of the fundamental human desire to be seen and to be loved? After I read Hilton Als’ “White Girls, his idea of the White Girl stayed with me for months. I realized that I had spent my entire life grazing asymptotically close enough to the ideal of the White Girl to keep aspiring, but always far enough to visualize each of my complex shortcomings. That vanity, that lifelong aspiration, was perhaps just a desire to convince the average passersby that I was in fact worthy of love, or at least, worthy of letting their gaze linger on my face for just a few seconds more. That instinct hasn’t gone away, even as I spend more time in my body. But perhaps I can mold it to a more noble version of vanity. Perhaps that version of vanity could mean becoming more my own color, such that the experience of me might no longer be pleasurable, but incomparably intense.