Don't Call Me PrettyLaura Donovan

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.

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  1. Translation of the article: if you aren’t a tall, handsome, beautiful and rich man, don’t call me pretty.

    • Really? I’d say this article doesn’t really need a “translation.”
      The point is: Don’t call me pretty when assessing my skills or capabilities in how they pertain to my eligibility for a job or professional opportunity. Because it’s irrelevant to my work.

      But, if we’re on a date and you’re a short-ish, quirky looking, scruffy, poor hipster? Then you can definitely call me pretty.

    • There’s nothing I wrote to indicate that —- i don’t want to be treated this way by any guy.

  2. 1) the unfortunate public perception that is socialized into us all is that good looks correlate with intelligence and success. it sucks for everyone. if anyone hasn’t seen dustin hoffman talking about his experience becoming a woman for Tootsie, get on it ASAP.

    2) aside from the creep factor of being approached by a stranger, or the inappropriateness of similar behavior in a professional environment, beauty just doesn’t play a huge part in my self-worth. of course it’s wonderful to be given a compliment, but the positive feeling lingers for only so long before you realize that you’d rather be admired for other even more intangible qualities. i mean, we may dress up and try to look nice, for ourselves or for people to notice us, but at the end of the day we want others to feel positively about us because of, pardon the cliche, what’s on the inside. you think i’m pretty? great. but that’s not really what i want you to know about me.

  3. Donovan has a point, and it’s a good one. Still, she doesn’t address the economic incentives even marginally “pretty” women have to including a “pretty” photo when applying for jobs (where self-pics are appropriate/normal/expected, i.e. online jobs). Piss and moan about sexism all you want, but those incentives are the same for young, “pretty” men–clean-shaven, boyish smile, thin, full head of hair and strong jawline. I have to compete with those guys, all the more so in an economy where far more women (and I’m not complaining! it’s a good thing!) are in a position to make hiring decisions than at any point in our past. Women are not the only ones who are expected to be “pretty” in the workplace, and if you don’t believe me, ask your hairstylist–or the crab people at “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Even in grad school–the furthest place one can get from a job without leaving the country–people asked me “But don’t you want to look *nice*?” because I was apparently underdressed in slacks and dress shirts. Even as a young undergraduate (when I *was* one of those “pretty” guys), female undergraduates would sometimes ruin a good grade on a paper by telling me “that professor always gives As to the young, handsome guys in her class.” And that was 2003-2005, before the word “metrosexual” really caught on.

    • Haha! This comment made me giggle! You should write a follow up post to this. I have heard of this new trend too! A friend of mine tells me all the time about how uncomfortable he feels when the middle aged woman tease and hit on him for being good looking and how awkward it makes him feel as he tried to avoid their advances. It’s tough for guys too it seems, as there really isn’t as clear a line. I mean it’s not as threatening to a man I suppose, but it doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable. But then again, I’ve had an ex who adored it, he would tell me how they would baby him and banter with him all day. He enjoyed being the centre of attention and the pretty boy of the office, because all he had to do was flash a cheeky grin and they’d let him get away with murder – as long as he got his work done. Now, I am not sure if this is wrong or right at the end of the day, but I guess is no longer an issue reserved to women (although we probably have a long history of it) and I am glad things are getting more equal in the work place…but it’s not for the right reasons is it? I mean, sure I now the importance of making a good first impression – but its sadly it is very much the case that this world revolves around good looks – and frankly thats not fair. You could be ugly as sin (and lets face it, we all have days where we feel that way) but be amazing at what you do…but they would never know becuase of what? A beauty contest. This reminds me of a recruitment poster I once saw in my all girls school – giving tips for interviews in regards to make up it said – “It won’t make you prettier but it might get you noticed!” there was also another about high heels “It won’t make you taller, but it might help you stand out in a croud” …..I had no idea until now how bad they were, but also…sadly the truth they hold. I worked 8 months in a job centre and had people sit at my desk who’s personal apperiences were almost verging on disgusting mainly because of personal hygiene – and they would lament to me about how they couldn’t get a job. You do need to put some effort in, and maybe some people don’t know how to do that without guidence… but I will never forget how unsettled those posters made me – but sadly how I will always adhere to them when going to an interview.

  4. I’ve had experience with this…and unfortunately, yes I feel it did get me the job I am currently in- but it also meant that I have to deal with the consequences of my choices. I hadn’t put my photo on my CV before. I figured that was only reserved for actors and models – and as I seriously didn’t consider myself a ‘model’ or have the confidence that I was ‘good looking enough’ to hope that my looks would ever land a job, so I hadn’t tried it. But out of sheer desperation, and a looming dead line date of Masters repayments only a month after I’d finished – I gave it a go. Low and behold, I got an interview for a construction fit out company admin assistant, a convienant 15mins away from my home. The pay wasn’t great, 14k per year, but it was a job which did not require 5K a year on travel and an ungodly start date for a commute. Sounds pretty perfect for an inbetween job I needed to pay off my Masters debt, learn to drive and move out on. I went to the interview – and to be fair, I should have know then when the director asked whether or not I was planning to get pregnant any time soon. I was shocked and thrown by such a question, stared, laughed awkwardly, looked away and said ‘Wow – no, no plans. I don’t even have a boyfriend.’ and my now boss – moved the line of questioning swiftly on. Now of course, after such a question I was rattled and wondered if it was such a good place to work – but when they rang back and said I had the job, with an offered salary of 18k instead of 14k – and no other job offers, I took it.. The hours aren’t great (8am – 5:30pm), but whatever, it was a pay cheque each month, right? Now I don’t want to give the construction industry a bad name, it is a very male dominated industry which is notoriously difficult to break into as a woman – mainly because, lets just say it is a few decades behind in their attitudes. It may be a mixture of my role and my level of eduction – but I am pretty much a receptionist/dogs body of the office. My job is to sit at the reception desk, look pretty, answer the phone, greet the clients, make tea, clean the kitchen of which one delightful chore is to scrub a filthy fridge on a monthly basis of rotten milk, file letters, make sure the stationary is topped up, keep up certain databases and deal with all the ingoing and out going post to sites. On top of this, any data inputting people can’t be bother to do, photocopying or tedious jobs. I am probably the lowest paid person in the office, and I am treated as such. I deal with mild sexism and often disgusting ‘banter’ on a daily basis. No one takes me seriously, and they enjoy putting me down. I have mild dyslexia, which they enjoy making fun of and they always make me feel bad for the fact I am so educated – but yet I am making tea. So the moral of my story is – yes, the picture helped me land the job in a tough job climate and put a face to my name in a pool of applicants, but really – I got my come uppance for it. It’s not worth it!

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

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

  8. 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.

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

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

  13. 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!

  14. 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.

  15. 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?!

    • BTW,
      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.

  16. 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 :)

  17. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

    • 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.

  18. 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!

  19. 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.

    • “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.

    • ” 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.

  20. 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!