“You’re So Pretty”

Women who claim “you’re-so-pretty” as a part of their narrative sit on my couch weekly.

For as long as I can remember, people have always told me, “You’re so pretty!” At first it felt satisfying, and I’d say thank you. But eventually, it started to feel like pressure. “You’re-so-pretty” became an obligation and an obsession. Above all else, I had to keep being “you’re-so-pretty.” It was the only way to feel good about myself.

These women are some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. They are swans: graceful, breathtaking, strong, and majestic. But when the distortion of their minds collides with the reflection in the mirror, they don’t see their beauty. Instead, they recognize themselves as elephants: clunky, wrinkly, lazy, and heavy. Therefore, they rely on the reassuring comments from others; words become their dependable guide when the mind and the mirror fail them.

My eating disorder was a faithful tool; as long as I did what it demanded, it’d guarantee me a life of “you’re-so-pretty.” But eventually I started to wonder, is “you’re-so-pretty” really the goal?

These women know that “you’re so pretty” is a valuable currency with a favorable exchange rate in this image driven world. And they know a thing or two about thinness: it’s the crown jewel of “you’re-so-pretty.” So they invest in the eating disorder market, hoping that after years of patience, obedience, and hard work, they get a good return on that investment.

At some point, though, they yearn to be more than just pretty. They long to be seen and heard, to take up space in this world, and to connect deeper beyond the surface of appearance. They crave being more than just a self-object, existing only to meet the needs of others. They can’t bear living another day where they are no more than the sum total of their outer world.

They come to my office ready to exchange “you’re-so-pretty” for an identity much greater and a value that’s eternal. During our work together, I ask them to start rebelling against the behaviors and ideals that they’ve lived by for so long. I ask them to disobey the rules of beauty and to tolerate the anxiety that comes with that disobedience, knowing that their insubordination will induce extreme insecurity.

And they do.

And it’s excruciating and despairing and terrifying and shattering.

But it’s freeing and enlivening and stirring and thrilling.

These women become the heroines in their own narratives.

I know it sounds silly, but sometimes I daydream about what it’d be like if Vashti was alive and came to sit on my couch. What would she say? What’s story would she tell? Would she claim “you’re-so-pretty” as a part of her narrative too?

Where the Scriptures are silent, my imagination takes over.

I imagine she’d tell me that she received comments about her beauty her whole life. And while occasionally these comments felt like praise, mostly they just felt like pressure. She had to live up to her name: Beautiful Vashti. What did she do to maintain her beauty and stand tall beneath that pressure? Did she ever ignore her hunger cues in the name of appearance? I’m probably biased, but it seems likely.  Fasting for three days in the “spa” was considered a common beauty practice in those days. Did she ever vomit her food? Feasts were frequent too back then; surely she had urges at the very least.

I imagine she’d describe the influence her beauty earned her. Then, like now, beauty was currency that bought her the crown and the jewels. She was the chosen wife of the King of Persia, a leader who dominated a large empire. What was King Ahasuerus like? Did he put her on display and deprive her of intimacy? Did his raw insecurity rely on her shiny admiration and her ability to be a swan? Did he ever value her beyond the surface? Maybe he was just another on-looker that said, “You’re so pretty.”

I imagine she’d speak of the lavish celebrations of Purim. She’d describe the food, the spirits, the blue and white linens, and the gold and silver embellishments that covered every square inch of the palace garden. Did she enjoy the party? Or did the drapes of perfectionism make her sick to her stomach? Did she like playing hostess?  Or did she feel burnt out by the constant doing? Did she really just want to curl up with a cup of herbal tea and be?

I imagine she’d explain to me the patriarchy of her day where young women were viewed as property of their fathers or husbands, and otherwise, slaves, where they had no say about their marital future. Did she ever feel loved and cherished? Did she even have a voice or was it silenced long before the crown was placed on her head?

I imagine she’d be weeping as she told me her story. She’d say that one day, she just couldn’t take it anymore. The thought of standing there naked, wearing only her crown, and letting the king and his drunken friends gawk at her was unbearable. What if these men, in their positions of power, believed their access to the king’s quarters entitled them to access to the king’s wife? What if gawking turned into grabbing? She couldn’t tolerate even the thought. She couldn’t carry the weight of “you’re-so-pretty” anymore.

So she disobeyed.

She stopped letting her identity rest in her appearance alone.

She refused to make her body the object and to allow her sexuality to be at the disposal of others.

She gave up her position, her crown, and in the King’s eyes, her worth.

She mustered the courage to step away from a society where a man’s honor comes from dominating his wife.

She let someone else be the heroine in the narrative.

And it was excruciating and despairing and terrifying and shattering.

But it was freeing and enlivening and stirring and thrilling.

Because she became the heroine in her own.

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