shiny things in messy little piles

The Pretty Girl in the Room

At cer­tain points in every girl’s life gen­der pol­i­tics force choic­es between the male world and the female world. Between girl­friends and guy friends. Between the some­times fick­le loy­al­ty of female friends and the weird­ly non­cha­lant alle­giance of male friends.

I long ago opt­ed for the male world. Frankly, men are more fun. They have bet­ter adven­tures and cool­er toys and they like pret­ty girls who are their friends in a sim­ple, pleas­ant way.

Being the pret­ty girl in the room among a bunch of guys who are also your bud­dies is, no joke, one of the best feel­ings in the world. Com­ing into a room and know­ing that you’re going to make peo­ple laugh and have a good time and be hap­py is a kick. Make no mis­take, this dynam­ic is all about atten­tion — the atten­tion that a pret­ty girl can trade with most men and some women.

Over time I’d got­ten to be fair­ly casu­al about the whole thing. I could be the pret­ty girl in the room when­ev­er I want­ed to be and that was just that. It’s not as if there weren’t occa­sions when I was­n’t the pret­ti­est girl in the room. I was nev­er the pret­ti­est girl in the world, but even when there was a pret­ti­er girl in the room I was still the pret­ty girl. Peo­ple paid me that kind of attention.

Then things began to change. At first there was just the occa­sion­al moment when I noticed that there were glances over my shoul­der to a pret­ty girl who was­n’t me. Then it became more and more often that I was­n’t the one being looked at or lis­tened to. That laugh­ter was direct­ed at some oth­er girl.

Men that I know well, who have known me for years as the pret­ty girl in the room, still laugh at all of my jokes when I am the only girl in the room. But my priv­i­lege as pret­ty girl in their room exists by virtue of some ghost­ly self-presence and the kind habits of old friends. That only gets me so far. I’m no longer allowed to assume that I’m going to be the pret­ty girl in the room from the moment that I walk in. That seat is not auto­mat­i­cal­ly mine. Now I have to look around for it — and it often already has a pret­ty girl in it. A girl who’s not going to stand and give up that seat to her more expe­ri­enced pret­ty girl. Because I am no longer the more expe­ri­enced girl; I’m just older.

I miss being the pret­ty girl. I miss the high val­ue of my trad­ing goods on the atten­tion mar­ket. I miss the jolt of elec­tric­i­ty that I could get from mak­ing some­one laugh in spite of them­selves. I miss being sought out and flat­tered. I miss the singing wires of inti­mate con­nec­tion. I miss being able to assume that the atten­tion that I want will auto­mat­i­cal­ly come to me. I miss the effort­less­ness of it all.

I was the pret­ty girl in the room for some 20 years. That’s a hel­la long run. But at 50-something that’s over and it’s time to move on. I’ve seen what hap­pens to women who can’t give up being the pret­ty girl. How they try too hard: smile too bright­ly, laugh too loud­ly, flat­ter too obvi­ous­ly, dress like 20-somethings and look the fools for it. It is not an attrac­tive sight.

I have met some for­mer pret­ty girls who hope to leave the vis­i­bil­i­ty and atten­tion of being pret­ty behind alto­geth­er, to find calm and a peace­ful ful­fill­ment in becom­ing invis­i­ble. Mov­ing from watched to watch­er. I’m not inclined that way.

Some peo­ple assert that it is a sim­ple mat­ter for a pret­ty girl to evolve into a beau­ti­ful woman. But pret­ty girls and beau­ti­ful women are dif­fer­ent sorts of crea­tures. Beau­ti­ful women are much rar­er than pret­ty girls and only a few pret­ty girls get the seat upgrade.

Lots of for­mer pret­ty girls take a part of their for­mer selves and go with being the smart one in the room, a few man­age sexy (though this is a rare change of genre,) some choose the tra­di­tion­al­ly male role of racon­teur and con­tin­ue to make peo­ple laugh.

These strate­gies are too nar­row to fit me. They don’t range wide­ly enough to gar­ner the kind of atten­tion that I want to pay and be paid. It is time to find anoth­er way to engage in the atten­tion econ­o­my. Some­thing that will fly over the heads of the pret­ty girls in the room. Some­thing that will take advan­tage of being a woman of cer­tain years. Some­thing that will look at the famil­iar choice between male and female and say — no, real­ly, I no longer need to choose, thank you.

There was a woman who I recall meet­ing once or twice in my career as a pret­ty girl. She came into the room and no one cared about who was sit­ting in which seat any­more. She just stood in the mid­dle of the room pay­ing atten­tion and every­one around her became smarter, fun­nier, and sex­i­er. It was­n’t just that she was smart, or fun­ny, or sexy. She was all of those things and some­thing more. Some­thing that tran­scend­ed all of the cat­e­gories that I was used to think­ing in. I want­ed to be her someday.

I’m too old for pret­ty girl. It’s time for someday.



  1. Karyn V.

    One of my deep­est fears these days is being seen as (as the Brits so del­i­cate­ly put it) ‘mut­ton dressed as lamb’.
    It makes much of my decision-making about how I present myself to the world challenging.

  2. Ericka

    This is so much on my mind these days… beau­ti­ful­ly put. Yes. I’m in the same place… I want to be is “for­mi­da­ble,” pro­nounced the French way. Ignore me at your peril.

  3. Robbie

    Evoca­tive. I’m not (long list) enough to put into words all that this evokes. You. Are. Awesome!

  4. Aura Mae

    It’s so inter­est­ing how the way we see our­selves impacts our expe­ri­ence. I was nev­er known (to myself or oth­ers) as a “pret­ty girl.” But my daugh­ter is one of the Beau­ti­ful Peo­ple. Watch­ing the world react to her from the side­lines was eye opening.

  5. Bemused

    I was nev­er, ever “the pret­ty girl”, though I did get some atten­tion in the social world, to which I as most­ly oblivious.

    In my pre­dom­i­nate­ly male indus­try, I was pret­ty invis­i­ble even when young.

    In my ear­ly fifties I have, how­ev­er, dis­cov­ered what it is like to be invis­i­ble in general.

    Pre­daters, how­ev­er, find no one invisible.

  6. HMarc

    Beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, and thought pro­vok­ing. I remem­ber, when IIRC I’d just turned 40, the first time I real­ized I’d become invis­i­ble to the pret­ty young girls I still found so attrac­tive. Here’s guess­ing that men expe­ri­ence some­thing very sim­i­lar to what you wrote about, but aren’t pay­ing atten­tion, aren’t both­ered by it, or lament it but don’t share the fact. I’ve always envied the easy way that women seem to have with shar­ing feel­ings. Most of my men friends sim­ply don’t. Period.

    Excel­lent writ­ing, Lara. You have mad skillz..