Pretty, Part 2

I was walking down the street, a few blocks from reaching my home. After sitting at my computer most of the morning, I knew getting outside, even on a hotter-than-I like day, to move my body in the steady rhythm of a walk, would do me good.

I saw him approaching, stiffly, as if walking weren’t so easy these days, an older white man, cropped white hair, blue shorts pulled just under his exposed bellybutton, white T-shirt riding just above it, something in his arm, maybe a wrinkled-up sheet- I didn’t look at long enough to know for sure. I had planned to greet him with a friendly, “Hi, how are you?” but he spoke first.

With a smile on his face, “You better get you a really big dog. When they get pretty like you, you need a big dog to defend yourself.”

“I don’t need a dog. I can defend myself,” I said casually, not stopping, past him by this point.

“What’d you do? What’d you learn?” He had stopped and was turned toward me, still smiling.

I turned his way, still moving, “I know how to talk to people.” I waved and kept walking, a tornado whirling in my head.

The conversation lasted no more than 15 seconds.

 I know how to talk to people? Does that protect me?

Short answer: Yes. I've been in situations where my use of clear, calm words has diffused what could have become a violent situation, either for myself or others. When I have been in Palestine, I have more than once used words, or even simple body language, to protect myself or others from people, most often Israeli soldiers, with weapons held in hands.

Long answer:  Unlike the last recent encounter where my “prettiness” was a wasted commodity for someone else’s pleasure, today it was a detriment to my safety.

In both cases, these statements were offered as compliments, or at least I assume so from the smiles on their faces. In neither case was my body assumed to be my own. Instead it was something that someone else (presumably a man) should “have,” and my own dominion over it rendered it either worthless or subject to violence.  

Let’s break it down a little more:

A man I’ve never seen before thinks that the best way to engage with me is by telling me that the way I look is so much of a danger that someone (I assume, a man) might hurt me to possess it.

Saying that I need a dog to protect myself IS NOT A COMPLIMENT. It is not a compliment to me and it doesn’t exactly paint a glowing image of men. It is, rather, a threat. “You should be afraid, even in the middle of the day, of men,” (smile on the face) “who will naturally want to forcibly take you because of the way you look.”  

Women are attacked and abused and raped at alarming rates regardless of their looks. Men who are attacking, abusing, and raping women may use “pretty” or “not pretty enough” or “you in some way don’t meet my standards of pretty” or “someone else might be attracted to your pretty” or “you’re using your pretty to attract someone else” as an excuse for their misplaced anger, an outlet for their rage. But let’s be clear: a woman’s looks, whether “pretty” or “ugly” or something else, are not the problem. A woman can present herself however the hell she wants. No man (or other woman, for that matter) gets to decide that. No one gets to attack her for her decisions.

I remember most vividly a time many years ago in which I feared for my own safety. I was dating the man who threatened me. He happened to do so when I was taking care of a large dog. The dog was no deterrent. I don’t know if it was my words or the fact that I was able to move us somewhere where we were visible to others that protected me from harm. But I got away, in the moment and for good.

Violence, or the threat of it, is the problem.

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The problem is men who thinks it’s OK to offer unsolicited “advice” to women. The problem is men who think they have the right to any woman’s body, regardless of her feelings on the matter. The problem is men who think they have the right to attack her, verbally or otherwise, if she dares to refuse his advances, however polite or grotesque they may be. The problem is blaming and shaming women for violence done to them (“What was she wearing when she got raped?” as if the rape happened without someone actively doing it to her). The problem is not holding men accountable for their actions. The problem is young men like Brock Turner who brutally rape a woman and, rather than taking responsibility for his actions, blames them on “alcohol and sexual promiscuity.” Hint: rape ≠ sexual promiscuity. Hint: Alcohol is no excuse for rape. The problem is men like Turner’s father who think that punishment for “20 minutes of action” should be lenient or nonexistent. I wonder if he’d feel the same way if someone spent a similar “20 minutes of action” with his wife or daughter. I fervently hope he, they, never have to find out.

I had a student once who wrote a heartbreaking personal story of being held back, held back, at a party as another guy raped his friend. The problem is that that happens.

The problem is that from a very young age, girls receive messages that their primary asset is the way they look. And very rarely does the way they look conform with the images they see, thus setting them up for constant striving towards the impossible. The problem is that from a very young age, girls learn to be passive, to question their instincts rather than trust them, to keep their emotions in check. The problem is that from a very young age, boys learn that certain expressions of emotion, the “soft” ones, are not acceptable. The problem is that from a very young age, boys receive message that aggression and toughness are what define their masculinity. 

The problem is that not enough men who agree with everything I’m saying hold other men accountable when they do or say things that promote rape culture and misogyny. The problem is anyone, man or woman, who teaches girls and women that it is up to them to keep from getting raped or attacked or abused or killed, but doesn’t teach boys and men not to rape or attack or abuse or kill women.

The problem is that we don’t emphasize enough the power and the necessity of mutually respectful relationships. We must teach boys and girls, men and women, most probably ourselves included, how to be in relationships that honor the fullness of expression that each of us has to offer. We need not look too far in our world to see this.     

I don’t plan to get a big dog.

I know how to talk to people, or at least I’m trying. I’m learning. I want to talk to people. I want to reach out to their hearts, to your heart, with mine.

I do not put my trust in fear. I put my trust in the belief that most of the time most people I meet will treat me like a person if I treat them like a person, even if the encounter starts with something other than respect. I know it is so hard to offer respect in the face of animosity. So I will practice. Practice. PRACTICE. I know that if that doesn’t work, walking away is usually an option. Or walking towards another good soul.

And so I will keep walking, forward when possible, backward when necessary, head held high. 


“So pretty, what a waste,” he said with a smile on his face.  

An older gentleman approached me at a gathering recently and started a conversation with those words. I think he thought he was giving me a compliment.



While I have control over the way I care for myself, I do not have control over the face I was born with, or my hair, or the bones and cartilage that give shape to my skin. These parts of my being are nothing to take pride in because I did nothing to “earn” them.  

The man who made the comment knows me.

He knows I've been a teacher of Spanish and theology. 

He knows I’ve traveled the world and taught English in India and Palestine.

He knows I’ve been a human rights defender in Palestine.

He knows that I now speak and write about my experiences.

He knows I sing well. To be clear, I did not “earn” my voice either, but I have trained it and I make the choice to sing. My singing seems to bring joy or solace or peace to people. It would be a waste not to use that gift. All of us have been given talents that we may choose to develop; let us not squander them. 

I have made many life choices that I feel good about, choices that I know have benefited me and I believe have also, in a very small way, benefited the world.

The way I look has never entered into my decisions or ability to do any of those things.

I have also made choices that likely would not have even been options if I were married and/or had children. While there are times when I have longed for those things, it would be ungracious of me to deny the richness that my life has offered, and continues to offer, because I am single. It would be ungracious to deny the profound impact of the people who have entered, and sometimes also exited, my life. I believe I have also had an impact on the lives of others. 

But apparently, in the mind of this gentleman, because I am, by his standards, “pretty” and also not married, somehow my life is wasted. The other implication, that people who, by his standards, aren't pretty have little to offer a marriage, is equally insulting.  So... No.




My looks are not the best I have to offer. I did not work for them. They don't make me any more capable of being in any relationship in a fruitful way.  And I will not always have them.  

Regardless of how I look, I am proud that I am trying to live according to my values (with varying degrees of success). I will always have the fact that I am trying to live a life of integrity.

will always have the memories of my time in El Salvador and Guatemala and India and Palestine, at home, and in so many other places. If I had chosen not to take advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves in my life, that would be a waste. All of us have been given opportunities that we may choose to take; let us not squander them. 

When I look at the people I know, I am astounded by the breadth and depth of their care for me, for others, for our world. These people have helped shape who I am and they continue to support me as I walk my path. I will always have those connections and relationships. 

To the best of my knowledge, none of those relationships are or were based on my looks: whether I am “pretty” or not, whether I wear make-up or tweeze my eyebrows or dye my graying hair or shave my legs. To the best of my knowledge, none of those things are the reason that I am single, either. If those are the primary factors someone wants to judge me by, then no thank you. And if marital status is the only relationship that someone thinks validates my worth, then no thank you.  I am valuable simply because I am

Dear women and girls, whether YOU choose to wear make-up or tweeze or dye or shave is completely up to you, but please know that doing – or not doing – any of those things does not make you any more worthy of care or respect. Anyone who can’t see your value beyond your natural looks or the way you choose to present yourself is not worth your time. Whether you choose single life or married life or some other kind of life is up to you. Anyone who judges your value based on only one particular relationship (or lack thereof) is not worth your time. 

Dear men and boys, whether the women and girls you know choose to wear make-up or tweeze or dye or shave is completely up to them and no one else. If you are a father, make sure your daughters know this. Their beauty, the beauty of all of us, goes much deeper than what you can see. Dear men and boys, take the time to discover the beauty that comes from deep within, not the “pretty” you can easily see. And if the women and girls you know are “pretty” and you want to compliment them, make sure they know that you value more than the way they look.

I am more than "pretty." Being so (by some person's standards) does not make my worth any greater than anyone else's. You, too, are more than what I can see; you are valuable simply because you are. Let us look beyond the surface, so that we can see all people as they truly are, as Thomas Merton described it, “shining like the sun.”

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