Don't Call Me Pretty

Yesterday, I received an email notification that an Elance position for which I’d applied had changed. I clicked over to the site to see how the job posting had been altered, and moments later, a fellow Starbucks customer emerged from behind me and cleared his throat.

“Sorry to interrupt, but have you ever found any work on Elance?”

“No,” I said, a little unsettled to learn the man who’d been hovering by the condiments table for ten minutes had apparently been reading my screen. At any rate, I continued, “Dozens of people are competing for openings, so actually landing something is tough.”

“You should upload a picture of yourself,” he said, winking and circling his own face. “You’re cute, so that helps.”

“I did include a profile photo. No luck,” I replied before returning to my PC, uncomfortable with the turn the exchange had taken.

I know what you may be thinking. I should kiss my lucky stars anytime random people compliment my personal presentation. After all, I was an ugly duckling a la Tina Fey until age 22, but believe it or not, I don’t need the validation of strangers — namely coffee shop visitors with unclear intentions and boorish neanderthals shouting at female pedestrians from the windows of environmentally unfriendly vehicles — to feel good about myself.

I’ve written about this brand of creepiness before, and some have accused me of “bragging” about the fact that weird guys approach me a lot. I’ve said it countless times and I’ll repeat myself once again: there’s nothing flattering about an unwanted advance of any kind, even a harmless one like the encounter I had at Starbucks. I’m seeking editorial gigs and don’t want to be told I’ll fare better in the large applicant pool by stamping my face all over my clips. Because it’s that simple to get a job in this economy, right?

I mentioned this to my friend and former colleague Elizabeth Plank, a feminist figure as well as PolicyMic’s Social Justice Editor, and she said women are at a major disadvantage in this scenario:

“I feel like when it comes to looks, women can’t win,” Plank explained. “Although we are expected to put a lot of effort into our looks and fit very constricting beauty standards, it doesn’t always come with the expected social rewards. Too much emphasis is placed on our bodies, and not enough on our brains, and that can be very frustrating. If you dress up nice, you’re overtly sexualized, or not taken seriously, and if you don’t, people assume you’re less competent.”

Every once in a while, some of my Twitter followers promise me things will improve in LA. After failing miserably at the whole New York City thing, I’m seeking full-time employment in my home state of California, and constantly digging around for opportunities can be discouraging, especially because “you have to kiss a lot of frogs that send you form rejections to an application you spend 6 hours working on,” as pointed out by fellow HG contributor Anna Swenson. I like hearing that my efforts will eventually pay off, but am uncomfortable when male Twitter followers/readers of my work say I’ll be fine because I’m “cute,” or when they try to woo me with ever-so-charming DMs (side note: don’t hit on anyone via DM. I shouldn’t have to explain how impersonal and middle school it is).

Once again, I don’t want this to come across as “boasting” and apologize if that’s how it seems. I’m not trying to channel “women hate me because I’m beautiful” writer Samantha Brick, because there’s nothing brag-worthy about being inappropriately pursued by random bros who have no idea what I’m really like. The point is, I don’t care if you think I’m attractive. I also don’t care if you think I’m a repulsive hag with puss oozing from my pores. I do care if you like or dislike my work, and the way I look shouldn’t determine that.

When talking about somebody in a professional context, don’t add “pretty” to her laundry list of attributes. It’s quite possible to applaud a successful lady without also noting the fact that she might be considered a good sight for sore eyes.

Have you experienced anything like this before? Would you mind being called attractive in a professional context? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Feature image via ShutterStock.

  • Molly Ann Magestro

    Not to mention the different connotations of the words used to describe feminine beauty! But mostly I wanted to comment and say I’m sorry people accuse you of bragging about something that is really closer to harassment than a compliment. The only people whose opinions I want to hear on my looks are people I know and love, and even then, only when I ask.

  • Kristen M. Csaki

    You’re saying unwanted advances are never fun…. but how is the other person supposed to know if their advances are wanted or not? By specifying ‘unwanted’ you imply that there are some that are wanted.
    For all you know the other party is doing their best for the advances to be wanted. He was trying to compliment you. Get over it and stop reading so far into things and recounting stories about the poor guy on your blog. Maybe he isn’t your perfect man, but how is he to know that? You’re being pretty harsh for someone who is just trying to be nice, maybe even helpful.
    Oh, and if putting your face on work-related things is such an issue, why is it here???

    • Becky Gilbert

      “but how is the other person supposed to know if their advances are wanted or not?” Well, they could try talking to you for five minutes about something other than how you can game the system by looking good. In fact, if he wanted to actually compliment you on your looks, he could say, “My goodness, you are really quite beautiful.” When instead he says, “You’ll probably get the job because you’re a female and you’re attractive,” he’s really saying “I think women get lots of things handed to them because of their gender, and it’s super unfair.” So really, he was less flirting with her, and more projecting his own issues onto her.

    • Cassidy Lamb

      I’d say the simplest clue that his advances were unwanted would be the fact that she was sitting alone WORKING on her laptop. Not everyone wants to be approached anytime, anywhere. Read the room, she’s obviously engaged in something else, that alone probably makes most any advance unwanted.

      • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

        Thank you :)

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

      I didn’t recount stories about this guy in my blog. I have no problem putting my face on my work — it’s required in many news outlets to have the writer’s photo next to his/her work as readers like to put a face to a name. I’m just saying I don’t want someone to approach me in a professional context and turn it into a weird come-on of sorts.

  • Melissa Matthews

    I think that this article is a complete overreaction. You should be flattered that the guy was interested in you and gave you a compliment. It’s hard to work up enough guts to try to make a connection with a total stranger and from the way your telling the story, I don’t think there was anything creepy about the way he approached you. We’re so closed off nowadays. We’re too guarded and paranoid to accept a compliment from a stranger. I think that you need to open yourself up a little, and the next time a person compliments you, try being grateful that someone had the courage to say something nice to you.

    • Becky Gilbert

      It’s perfectly understandable to be offended by those people. It reminds me of a guy I was talking to at a bar who said something like, “I know you don’t think you’re beautiful, but like, really, you totes are.” Ummm…really dude? That’s an insult, not a compliment. And it was an insult for the guy at the coffeeshop to insinuate that you need the advantage of a pretty face to get a job. No thanks friend, I’ll get it with, you know, my intelligence and work ethic. Because make no mistake. it is absolutely an insult. If someone said, “Oh well, of course you got that promotion, you’re so pretty!” – do all you people arguing that she should have felt flattered consider THAT to be compliment? Because it’s um…not.

    • Sasha Sirozh

      I disagree- it isn’t always an act of courage on the behalf of a shy cute nerdy guy that is blushing (as you seem to imagine this). These kinds of comments usually originate from either overconfident idiots that feel that you should fall at their feet, or from repelant lecherous men that are roughly twice your age. You have to imagine the accompanying staring, and don’t think for a moment that they will try to make it subtle or won’t twist their neck to keep staring as you walk away. They don’t. This is a kind of staring that makes you want to go home and scrub real hard before getting into the most shapeless piece of clothing you own. I’m talking potato sack here. When these kinds of men say things to you, despite it seeming to be so, it isn’t actually a compliment. It isn’t intended to make you feel good about yourself, but rather, it is intended to make THEM feel good about themselves. They seem to feel a sense of entitlement to saying creepy lecherous things to complete strangers, and most of the time they feel that you should magnificently pleased to be on the recieving end of their tender wooings.
      It is extremely rare to actually find what you described- someone that has had to work up the courage to talk to a girl. I think that you’ve placed the interaction in the wrong context: after all, no one comes home to write an angry article about how some nice shy guy was so stricken with you that he called you pretty.

      • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

        As I’ve said many times, this isn’t about one interaction (also, how would you know if he’s shy? did you meet him too?). It’s about the larger issue of women being sexualized in a professional context. That’s never been OK and it’s certainly not OK now.

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

      I understand your point but I’m trying to hit on the larger issue of women being sexualized in a work context. It’s one thing to just say to a random Starbucks customer “hey you’re cute” and another to start a conversation about professional opportunities and make it seem like I’ll have no problems finding any because of the way I look.

  • Kimberly Doral

    Honestly I completely get it, I get outright uncomfortably hit on more often than a “humble person should admit” and people don’t realize that it can truly be frustrating. Especially if you know your own value beyond your looks and can’t stand to be consistently judged on them alone before even having a true conversation with someone, and the more it happens the more easily you become agitated by it. About a year ago when I was single, I was hit on probably 5 times a day by strangers, honest, guys can become aggressive and don’t realize that not everyone needs to be flattered in order to become attracted to another person. It’s one thing to talk to a person, ask a number, it’s another thing to speak five words before “you’re pretty” “are you single?” “You’re hot” etc.

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

      Preach <3

  • Shelby Marie Radovich

    I agree with you 100% and I get SO frustrated when if I make a comment to a friend about someone approaching me or obviously staring and they just say “Oh it’s because you’re so cute, you should feel good about it..” And I’m just like NO, random men (who are often much older than me) approaching me inappropriately is not something to feel good about!

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

      you said it, sister!

  • Carolina Carson

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to job searching and the male gender in general. What self respecting woman wants her physical appearance to be the deciding factor when being considered for anything, especially a position that should be based on her qualifications as a professional. I’ve complained about these same kind of incidents to my family, and my younger sister refers to them as “humble-brags,” which drives me insane. It is a legitimate social issue, and no woman who wants to be recognized for her abilities should feel flattered by this kind of “encouragement.” I think the thing that bothers me the most about it, is that I have very little control over my looks, other than knowing how to dress and play them up with some makeup and good hair product. When I am on the receiving end of such remarks, in an inappropriate context, I want to respond with, “Thanks, I’ll let my parents know.” I would much rather be judged for my body of work, my intelligence, and my personality, not whether or not my parents DNA came together in a visually pleasing manner.

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

      ” I would much rather be judged for my body of work, my intelligence, and my personality, not whether or not my parents DNA came together in a visually pleasing manner.” YES.

    • Carlos Roberto

      “I would much rather be judged for my body of work, my intelligence, and my personality, not whether or not my parents DNA came together in a visually pleasing manner.”

      Your intelligence, personality and body of work are results of your parents DNA.

  • Taylor Johannesen

    Because I’m fat and not that attractive, I’d probably faint if a random guy gave me a compliment like that lol.

    I don’t think you’re bragging. I think you have a passion for writing and you want people to love your work, not your face. You want them to see what comes from your mind, something you created. You didn’t create your good looks, DNA did it. So you don’t much care about it or what other people think of something you had no control over.

    It’s also so disturbing to me and perhaps you that you may get a job over someone not as attractive and more qualified because of your appearance. Women who are not society’s standard of beauty have less value and are less likely to be successful as “pretty” people. It’s unfair because nobody decides how they look, nobody works for it. But even “unattractive” women have to work hard to be good at what they do and not to be counted because they aren’t “attractive” …. sucks!

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan


  • Amy Larson

    To anyone who thinks this is an overreaction,

    A woman was sitting in a coffee shop and a man approaches her to make a remark about her physical appearance. That comment is rude because it implies that the trait he values most in a woman is physical beauty. It is even worse because he implies that the trait that makes her desirable as a job candidate is her body.

    If he wanted to get her attention, he could have made a comment about how little success he has had with his own job search on the given website.

    To “pick up” an intelligent woman you need to be able to make intelligent conversation. “Hi you are pretty” is not an intelligent conversation starter.

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

      Thank you :) and you said it best here:

      To “pick up” an intelligent woman you need to be able to make intelligent conversation. “Hi you are pretty” is not an intelligent conversation starter.

    • Carlos Roberto

      To anyone who thinks this isn’t an overreaction:

      A guy thinks that a woman is cute. He flirts with her. She isn’t interested. He moves on.

      If you think that this is a problem, then, yes, you are overracting.

      As for “That comment is rude because it implies that the trait he values most in a woman is physical beauty. “:

      No, he isn’t implying anything. Being attractive MEANS having physical beauty, especially for women. How is he supposed to be attracted to a non-attractive woman, after all?

      And “It is even worse because he implies that the trait that makes her desirable as a job candidate is her body.”:

      No, he is pointing the fact that attractive people are more capable of selling products in jobs that require presentation.

      Finally: “To “pick up” an intelligent woman you need to be able to make intelligent conversation. “Hi you are pretty” is not an intelligent conversation starter.

      You are attractive because you are pretty. So, yes, this is actually a good conversation (ie: flirting) starter.

      • Myha Snapp

        Being attractive as a woman should have very little to do with the way she looks. I would say I am an attractive woman but I would say the majority of men are attracted to me because of my mind and personality. You can approach a woman in many ways, with many different subjects to talk to them about not just their looks.

  • Mary Traina

    You are completely right – it’s unprofessional. 100%. When I was just starting out, I got comments on my looks all the time. Sometimes “compliments,” sometimes just assurances that they were not interested in me sexually (as if women just NEED to know where they stand with a man sexually before the relationship can proceed) — all of these comments were unsolicited and unwelcome. All I wanted was to show my skills. It made me uncomfortable to know I was being evaluated on physical features on any level and made me worry I’d lose relevance as I age. On some level, I also worried other women would overhear and take me less seriously — now that I’m older, I know other women understand. The FUNNY thing is that I don’t get these comments anymore and I’m pretty certain it’s because I’ve now reached a senior level position. I’m established and people no longer think they need to swoop in and give me a confidence boost based on my looks. I think that’s interesting and really speaks to the nature of these “compliments.” THIS is the only way these people can think to build your confidence — based on the fact that you are pretty, a feature that will not last and therefore is not safe to base your confidence around. It’s patronizing, especially when you consider when young men are looked at in the office, it is their SKILLS that are complimented to build their confidence. I’ve seen it over and over.

    I’ve written about this topic for HelloGiggles, as well, and was surprised at how divisive it can be. I think you’ve done an excellent job addressing the issue :)

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

      Thank you for this — it means more than I can say :) You’re right, it’s such a divisive issue.

  • Ana Lugo

    I agree… it’s like you’re happy because you think someone is taking notice of your talent, of your intellect… only to realize they only hired you because in their minds it’s a chance at hitting on you every day.
    I’ve had several experiences myself… and honestly I don’t feel it’s because I’m more attractive than other girls (I actually consider myself pretty average), it’s because there’s a huge amount of men out there (especially powerful, successful types, ie the kind that are in the position to hire young people), who see all women as objects, not just the pretty ones… and I tend to think they treat all of us in the same creepy way.

    I recently turned down a job for this very reason. The boss had me come in for interview after interview, never being overtly inappropriate… but saying and acting just suggestively enough to make me squirm in my seat.
    He insisted on meeting me again before “making up his mind”, to which I respectfully said no. To this day I wish I wouldn’t have been so polite.

    So no, I would never accuse you of boasting or bragging! It’s all too familiar and I assure you, we all understand… at least I definitely do.

    My advice, don’t be afraid to set boundaries… even if you fear you’ll come off looking mean or bitchy. People will treat you how you let them treat you… it’s up to you to protect yourself and value yourself enough not to put up with it. Even if it means losing a job opportunity…. Who wants to work in such an environment anyway?!

    • Ana Lugo

      that’s the same advice I give myself every time I encounter someone who is obviously only interested in my work because they want to boink me… I’m not saying it’s easy.. I wrestle with asserting myself every time it happens… it really really sucks. It’s demoralizing, and it makes you like, not want to shower or something… like you could do something to stop them… but the thing is, you can’t.
      Assholes will be assholes… you just gotta allow your self-worth to trump the need for a gig, or the desire to be “nice” all the time.

      Sometimes being a girl really sucks.

      • Sasha Sirozh

        Hear hear!

      • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

        I appreciate this so much :) Thank you.

  • Megan Swindel

    I’m a female marine engineer and I am very frequently told that I am “too pretty to be a grease monkey” or “too pretty to be working on a boat.” I am also often asked how my husband feels about me working with so many men. I just don’t think people realize what a backhanded compliment it is.

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

      Good lord that’s rude!

  • Aly Norine

    I completely understand. I have started dressing differently at work because of a new position. All of a sudden different people are noticing me and I’ve been at the same place for two years. If I’m at work, I don’t want to be hit on. I go to do my job and make a pay check. Good luck with everything!

  • Sasha Sirozh

    I think that interaction between sexes is devolving into savagery. Modern men seem to have no control over their impulses. (I’m exagerating for comic purposes here, no need to attack. And I’m also generalising. I know that not all men are alike or disgusting. I know that. Really, I do.) They are comparable to apes. Seriously, the reaction of “Ooooh banana. monkey want” is homologous to “Ooooooh girl bits. Man want.” The thing is that maybe in the past the apesimeanmen wouldn’t have vocalised their raptures over squishy girly bits, because let’s be honest, they have always been in raptures over them. Now they seem to not only feel entitled to do so, but also they expect the unfortunate owner of a second copy of the X chromosome with that slightly disgusted look on her face to feel pleased that her shape makes him feel funny in his special place. Ugh.

    • Kirstin Crowe

      Lololol that was excellent. So done with “raptures over squishy bits”. I want to discuss our views, not be viewed.

    • Carlos Roberto

      Oh really? If men stop flirting with women, then how will they find a girlfriend and/or sex? Because women DON’T flirt with men. With rare exceptions, of course.

      • Sasha Sirozh

        Um……Carlos, I’m really sorry to be the one to break this to you, but most women don’t interprate unsolicited comments about their appearance as flirting, but rather as assault.
        You get a girlfriend/sex by taking an interest in the entire person not just the morphological features that differenciate the sexes.

  • Lauren Alberda

    Thanks! I totally agree, it’s so stupid when people feel that they have the right to do so. Mostly, when something like this happens, and it almost happens every single day no matter where i am or what i’m wearing, i like to make a comment about it. Then, ofcourse, they feel like their ego is trapped so i guess that makes me a whore, a bitch or a slut. Obviously.
    I also really like the other article you wrote!

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

      Thank you :)

  • Danika Esther Marie

    I really don’t think looks should matter when it comes to employment. Unfortunately, when you go in for a job interview you have to make sure to look presentable and professional but not look too good, because like the article says you risk being over sexualized and not taken seriously.
    Also, getting ‘compliments’ from strangers can be insulting and annoying. Don’t get me wrong, when I get a sincere and honest compliment it makes me feel good. But, getting yelled at from cars or winked at from across the room just irritated me. At the same time, I feel like I can’t complain about this because when I do people roll their eyes thinking I’m just full of myself. The things I do to make myself look good is for me and because its something I actually enjoy doing. It’s not to try and get people to yell at me from car windows.

  • Sarah Lawrence

    i am a compulsive compliment-or. if i like your face, you’re gonna hear about it-sorry!

    • Laura Elizabeth Donovan

      Ha fair enough :)

  • Denise Edwards

    My “favorite” is “As pretty as you are why aren’t you married?” ugh! I am not a model by any means but I get hit on creepily by men that I do not know and have no intentions of getting to know. There is a time and a place to compliment a woman (or man). I to compliment people but I don’t go up to some random guy/girl and tell them he/she is beautiful. I tend to compliment attire more than anything and even that has it’s place and time.

  • Timothy Terrell Hucks

    Why are intelligence and talent, qualities as nebulous and subjective as beauty, better to focus our attention on?

    • Carlos Roberto

      When you focus on these aspects, unattractive women don’t feel bad for being unattractive.

  • S’Laneigh Westra

    i hate hearing “oh ______ happened because you are pretty”, i work my ass off to get ahead not because of how i look. thank you for your article, very well written and i very much feel you!

  • Melanie Seaward

    I agree with this. I also came into my looks in my early 20s, so I spent a lot of time being baffled when suddenly I was pretty or cute to people. Calling a woman pretty or focusing on her looks in a professional setting is degrading because it essentializes her down to her looks. It’s the age-old expectation that women = pretty and men = smart. It’s sexist and it puts us back in the place some people think we belong, and that’s not okay. No matter what we look like, we want to be appreciated for what we offer other than looks when it comes to our job. I don’t care if you think I’m pretty, I care if I’m good at what I do. Period. It would be different if it were my job to be pretty or if you were a romantic interest, but otherwise it’s just not okay.

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