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Pretty

By Wendy C. Ortiz

Essay

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This is a pretty essay.

In the beginning, the word was chula. Que chula was cooed and gasped at me. My mother and grandmother fawned over me with these words, as though they were astonished by me every time they said it.

I went to kindergarten believing I was a princess, enough to quarrel with Debbie Holly. She, too, believed she was a princess. Together we believed we were, each of us, pretty. But there could only be one princess, the prettiest one of all.

First grade through fifth grade, the chulas came less often, the schoolwork got more complicated, my brain felt more scrambled from listening to my parents argue and watching them leave empty bottles in the kitchen like warnings. Pretty was not to be. I believed myself fat, which at the time did not equal pretty. Mother and grandmother bonded over seeing to my prettiness. Fiber pills, frozen diet foods, stern admonishments, and home perms were in order. So were Kentucky Fried Chicken binges and Ex-Lax, the latter of which I pilfered from the medicine closet.

This is not a pretty essay.

In sixth grade drama auditions for Snow White I pursed my lips then belted out the words in the script for the role I wasn’t sure I wanted, but got. I was the Evil Queen. This is not to be confused with The Hag. I played the pretty one who wanted to get Snow White, the fairest one of all, out of the way.

A new campus with male teachers and suddenly I was re-interested in what pretty meant, juxtaposed with my love of gray eye shadow, black eye pencil lit by a match for pure inkiness, bronze or white or black lipsticks. The pretty that marched around my junior high campus suddenly felt suspect.

Pretty packages.

Eighth grade, with glasses, turtlenecks, black leggings, hair-sprayed bangs pretty. Never believing I was truly attractive, not when twenty-year-old men licked my neck in the mall courtyard, not when my English teacher asked me to call him on the phone. Okay, well, maybe my eyes were pretty. Let’s get rid of the glasses and get contact lenses. Hazel-colored, that appeared yellow. Let’s rip another layer off and show skin. That might be pretty.

I lost the leggings and turtlenecks and make-up, and traded them in for wispy paisley tops and dresses, holey jeans, hair bleached to match my yellow eyes. I wished the brown hairs on my arms away, painted bleaching agents on them until I got tired of the time and expense. Eat, take laxatives, eat, take laxatives. Running up and down a dead-end street high on crank, knowing in my heart of hearts it might be a key to pretty, an end to laxatives. A thumbnail’s worth of cocaine. I made a vow to never snort crank again. I liked it too much. Pretty gave chase. I dyed my hair black. Wore lip gloss. Clothes hung off me until I remembered again: appetite.

Pretty is as pretty does.

Swimming at my former English teacher’s apartment, he used the word “jiggly.” My seventeen-year-old blood curdled. My pretty pink bikini: a prop I wanted to strangle him with. The bikini later lay in a pink heap on his apartment floor. When I looked in the mirror in my mother’s house, I still saw a glimmer, though. Chula.

The men who opened car doors to me as I stood alongside the road. The men who locked me in a bathroom. The men who incessantly knocked on my mother’s door and my bedroom windows. The men who cheated on their girlfriends with me. The men who broke laws by fucking me. The men who took me on dates that ended with a drunken kiss, their fear of breaking the law too much for them to swallow. The men who used the word ‘love.’ The men who pushed my back against the rocks, for whom I undressed in the outdoors (the beautiful outdoors). I was prettiest by moonlight, a shadow tilted and writhing against flora and fauna.

Do you remember where you were when you read The Beauty Myth? When your boyfriend asked you why you shaved your legs and armpits, then suggested that you don’t?

Not just a pretty face.

If you want to know something about pretty, head north and get off at Mud Bay Road and drive straight into the trees. That is some pretty shit!

After the first wave of men subsided and I was left on my own to flounder with political texts and feminist tracts, I wanted to squash pretty in the face. Nose ring and 1960s polyester sweaters, Dickies, ridiculous cat ear hats. That was pretty. You were pretty. I was pretty.

I noticed pretty girls more, in a louder way, out loud.

The prettiest girl in town wanted to kiss me and did. I only tasted that pretty twice. Three times, tops.

Pretty please?

Surrounded by women who challenged notions of pretty I lost a layer of reserve, posed nude for a pretty girl who blew up the black and white prints wall-size and covered the women’s bathroom of the college with parts I considered unpretty. I ate what I wanted, finally, and wrote about it, a heart-shaped thought bubble above my head with the name NOMY LAMM inside of it. The zines told the story of a journey to pretty and the detours. I was only reminded that I had wandered far off when I returned to Los Angeles, my home, where all the billboards and commercials and walking examples once again made me question my relationship with pretty.

I lost a pretty penny.

My boyfriend was interested in postmodernity, not pretty. In therapy I struggled with my feelings of non-prettiness. When the girls and trans-folk I hung out with made any suggestion of finding me crush-worthy, I had to stare hard into a mirror to see what they saw. Some of the time I couldn’t find it.

Pretty sad.

Tattoo guns burned into the skin I argued with. Now that is pretty.

Lines and scars. Dimples. Fleshy parts attuned to gravity. It’s too easy to look back at old photographs and ascribe pretty to the characters inside. There’s that girl, that chula I once inhabited. I see her in my face. I see her in my eyes. I add another girl to the line and we see pretty there, a whole lot of pretty, and layers get added to what ‘pretty’ means, and what it does not.

I notice when I’m not noticed, now. I inhabit space and yet can become invisible, a rare and unusual gift and also the boring reminder that pretty is fleeting. The other words—intense, dark, sexual—are shadows who show up unexpected, tap my shoulder, blindfold me.

Except when I’m alone or with the one who loves me. To her, my kind of pretty holds. It’s beyond pretty. It is epic.

New words emerge, float up, arrive in my mouth. In the end, her love for me, my daughter’s love for me, my love for myself, are pretty much everything. Pretty falls away, tumbles down to a place where words go to rest. What a pretty mess it’s made down there.

Rest in peace, pretty. I can live without you.

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Wendy Ortiz WENDY C. ORTIZ is a writer and registered marriage and family therapist intern in Los Angeles. She is a columnist for McSweeney's Internet Tendency and has contributed to The Rumpus, The New York Times, PANK, and Specter Magazine, among other online and print journals. She is a co-founder, curator, and host of the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series at the Good Luck Bar in Hollywood since 2004.

Her books Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books) and Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press) are forthcoming in 2014.

15 Responses to “Pretty”

  1. mary guterson says:

    really great piece, wendy. i loved it. I have struggled with prettiness my entire life…..

  2. Wendy says:

    Thank you, Mary. I’m humbled by the range of people for whom this piece resonated. I appreciate you reading.

  3. Karly Little says:

    This is great, Wendy! Thank you for sharing it with the world.

  4. Dammit, I have to stop reading AULA essays at work because with all the crying I end up doing in the bathroom, I’ve PRETTY (see what I did there?) much lost all street cred.

    Great essay, Wendy. I hope one day I can ditch pretty, too.

  5. Rachel Horowitz says:

    This was an interesting piece to read. I think that many of us can identify with aspects of this essay — I certainly can.

  6. Amy Aguilar says:

    Wow Wendy – I LOVE this piece! I still struggle with pretty, especially the fleeting kind. I think so many people can relate to this piece. Thank you!

  7. Marni Grossman says:

    I have written- less eloquent!- versions of this essay. I think most women have a version or versions of this essay in them. And isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that heartbreaking? That we spend so much goddamned time giving a shit about “pretty” instead of “substantial” or “good” or “kind”?

    And, in answer to your question: the first time I read “The Beauty Myth”, I was in my high school library, curled up in a supremely uncomfortable chair, spellbound.

    Wonderful.

  8. The content? Important. The writing? Scrumptious.

  9. Aimee Dean says:

    I think there are so many people in this world that can relate to this essay. I definitely can!

  10. Alysha says:

    Beautifully written. I’ve struggled with my own interpertation of what “pretty” is…I’m 34 years old now, and just starting to “like” myself. Pretty? That is still something I’m searching for, and not just on the outside. I’m struggling to find the pretty within myself as well. Is it really even worth it?

  11. Wendy says:

    So great to hear that this resonated with so many–and that some have found it, in the words of a twitter friend, “tragically relatable.”

    Thanks for reading, commenting & sharing!

    • Really wonderful piece. I’ve struggled with this issue my whole life, but it is difficult to discuss. Hard to come to terms with pretty and the image of what that means while also being in business and having to be tough.

  12. I remember the school yard ‘game,’ a group of girls surrounding you…I was not ever in this group…’WHO’S THE PRETTIEST?’ And I always chose the girl who was the most un-pretty, laughing, “Pendejas.” Yes, I agree, give me EPIC…wonderful essay, Wendy La Chula… xoxo

  13. Tiffany says:

    Such a haunting piece. I embraced my pretty when younger, then wished it away as adult in college. So much attention was paid to the “pretty girls”, which created a host of relationship issues with other young women and of course, men. So many pressures placed on pretty that it can be destructive.

    This was a lovely piece that I can read over and over again. Beautiful job!

  14. Yvonne Conza says:

    Wow! Just coming to find this piece Wendy and I LOVE IT!

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