Pretty ugly

There's a powerful video on YouTube of Katie Makkai performing her poem Pretty at the US National Poetry Slam back in 2002.

The vision's had almost two million views, so it's fair to say her story of being cut up physically and mentally by her mother's quest to have a "pretty" daughter has resonated with a lot of people.

It's bracing stuff:

But this is not about [my mother]. Not her fault. She, too, was raised to believe the greatest asset she could bestow upon her awkward little girl was a marketable facade. By 16, I was pickled with ointments, medications, peroxides. Teeth corralled into steel prongs. Laying in a hospital bed, face packed with gauze, cushioning the brand new nose the surgeon had carved.

Belly gorged on two pints of my blood I had swallowed under anesthesia, and every convulsive twist of my gut like my body screaming at me from the inside out, "What did you let them do to you!"

And later ...

This is about the self-mutilating circus we have painted ourselves clowns in. About women who will prowl 30 stores in six malls to find the right cocktail dress, but haven't a clue where to find fulfillment or how to wear joy, wandering through life shackled to a shopping bag, beneath those two pretty syllables.

About men wallowing on bar stools, drearily practicing attraction and everyone who will drift home tonight, crest-fallen because not enough strangers found you suitably f---able.

I was glad that - even for for a sentence - Makkai paused to think about the boys and men who also struggle under the cultural weight of being "attractive". As another poet once wrote, "a glance leaves an imprint on anything it's dwelt on", regardless of gender.

Over the years, I've received dozens of emails from boys and men despairing of their inability to "attract" a lover, let alone a partner. They are men who feel utterly worthless because they don't meet perceived physical or social criteria. They too, are not "pretty".

This is not to diminish the fact women have a complex relationship with their physical appearance and it's a sad reality many people continue to judge them solely on this basis.

Last week's widespread negative reaction to US President Barack Obama calling his female colleague Kamala Harris "by far, the best-looking attorney-general" in America, is evidence of how sensitive some are to this phenomenon.

The argument, as outlined by Fairfax contributor, Ruby Hamad, in her piece yesterday, is about context.

Obama's comment "shouldn't be an issue, and it wouldn't be if not for the fact that for much of human history women, considered to lack the intellectual and reasoning skills of men, were lauded for their looks precisely because they were thought to have nothing else to offer.

"In such a context, praising women's looks is not necessarily a compliment but a reminder that they are not quite on the same level as men, whose worth is measured primarily by what they do, rather than the way they look," writes Hamad.

The rationale at work here is that it's not just the words and tone of what people say that matters, but also who is saying it. Men can thus offend or be seen to disparage women for a variety of utterances deemed benign if spoken by a woman.

It seems to me the very concept of gender equality is rendered nonsensical if men and women cannot act or talk in the same way and be judged equally for it.

As enlightened as it may seem at first glance, viewing today's gender interactions through the "context" of history leaves us bound to similar double standards as the ones we're trying to dismantle.

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