Anytime I open up to someone and tell them about my mental healthy struggles they inevitably respond one of two ways: awkward, pointed change of subject, or the response “but, you’re so pretty!”. The first response I understand. Mental health is a delicate subject that many people wish to avoid whenever possible, but the second response continues to baffle me. Why would my outward appearance negate my internal conflicts?
Thanks to Keats, we associate truth with beauty and beauty with truth. This has evolved into association between looks and health, wealth, and happiness. This is a dangerous link to make as it often distracts from the bigger picture: mental health isn’t a simple fix. Putting on lipstick cannot erase years of emotional trauma.
Disclaimer: This is my own personal story. I cannot speak for anyone else’s experiences, only my own.
I am not going to pretend that there aren’t advantages to being traditionally attractive. There are advantages I enjoy because I am skinny, white, and pretty and I will not deny the privileges I have. I will, however, tell you that privilege is a complex, many-layered concept that is different for every person. While there are many advantages I have had because of my looks, but there are also many instances where my looks couldn’t “fix” my circumstances, and many other instances where I was devalued, and dehumanized for them as well.
Being pretty didn’t stop my mother from being abused. It didn’t stop me from following in her footsteps and entering a cycle of emotional abuse, neglect, sexual assault, and even rape. In fact, on more than one occasion my abuser reminded me that they were doing this because “they couldn’t stop themselves” because I was “too pretty” and I “was being a tease”. Often, after I was broken in mind and spirit I would apologize to my assaulter for hurting their feelings when I cried or got angry. I was told to shut off my emotions or “keep them to myself” when they lied to me, cheated on me, insulted me, manipulated me, molested me, gas-lighted me, used me, or even raped me. I was repeatedly reminded that I was pretty and should expect this sort of treatment.
Being pretty didn’t grant me any specially privileges in renting in a conservative community. On the contrary, it barred me from housing when I would interview with landlords as a single woman. On two separate occasions I was told that the landlord’s wife “wouldn’t be comfortable” with me renting the space. The underlying assumptions that men couldn’t be trusted around me is insulting both to me being either being a whore or a victim, and to the husbands who were being accused of being an adulterer or assaulter apparently escaped their notice.
Being pretty didn’t protect me from being dehumanized. Instead, it sped up the process. In addition to being told to keep my emotions to myself, I was constantly referred to as a possession. I was told that men wanted to “collect me” by co-workers amused by old men hitting on me. I was told that I “belonged to” boyfriends who claimed to be feminist, and was constantly told that certain men “deserved to have me” by the nice guys who thought I could be bought. I was never the same person to two people. The habit of projecting their dreams, fantasies, and insecurities onto me was the only universal among all the men I dated: to one guy, I was intelligent and classy, to another I was funny and adventurous, to yet another I was hardworking and insecure… Somewhere along the way I lost my own sense of personality.
Being pretty never stopped the depression or anxiety. It didn’t cancel-out the PTSD or sense of shattered identity. Being pretty didn’t stop the trembles, the seizures, or the nightmares. It didn’t stop the stunted emotions, the repression, or the complete apathy toward my own well-being. Being pretty only made me feel like a doll: something to be looked at, used, played with, then discarded. Being pretty has gotten me compliments from strangers, free meals on dates, and the occasional free drink at the bar, but never once did being pretty fix my fragile mental state.
Please, when someone opens up to you about their mental illness, don’t disregard it. Don’t say “but you’re so… anything”. Mental illness can affect anyone, and it can look like anything.