Pretty Is as Pretty Does? Or Whatever?

Chestnut has been busy reading A Little Princess, and I have been striving mightily to keep my big mouth shut about how excellent it is, and "Do you know what you should read next?" and all that sort of thing, because I don't want to ruin everything. I realize as a mother my job is to ruin lots of things, but I particularly want not to ruin this.

We were walking to school soon after she started, and she was going on about how nice Sara was. Yes, I said. And how wonderful, Chestnut went on. Oh yeah, she's wonderful, I admitted. And then she said, "And she's pretty, too."

It gave me pause (as so much does). Because I tried to remember back in case I was wrong, but as far as I can remember Sara wasn't pretty. She just wasn't. It's right there, I find, in the very first sentence:

Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

(And doesn't that first sentence make you want to go back and read the whole freaking book again?)

But her lack of prettiness was part of the whole appeal, and clearly something that mattered to Frances Hodgson Burnett, because Mary (of The Secret Garden) isn't pretty either. And it's not just that she never says they're pretty, she makes a point of their plain little faces, sallow and thin and wan. There are moments when she says, "And in the excitement her cheeks flushed and she was almost pretty." But there's that almost.

So I said, "Actually, she isn't pretty."

Furrowed brow on Chestnut's part. Consideration. "But she is sort of pretty, right?"

I wouldn't let it go. "No, she's not pretty at all." Silent thought for a block or so. Then I relented. "But she's so wonderful she seems pretty, is that it?"

And Chestnut nodded gratefully. "Yes, that's it."

But I feel I wasn't entirely honest. Because she isn't pretty, she isn't! And there's something disrespectful in trying to make her pretty, to make her fit more with our notion of girls: unobjectionable, pretty, nice. I mean, these books aren't groundbreaking feminism or anything, but they're something more powerful perhaps, with their subversive insistence on accepting their odd little characters, with their imperfect exteriors.

We ended up talking about Victorian notions of childhood beauty, with its fair skin, dimpled cheeks, and golden ringlets. She had some fun trying to figure out which of her classmates would fit that narrow definition, and there was something comforting in that: some realization that pretty wasn't an intrinsic truth but a (somewhat arbitrary) definition located within a time period. She wanted to know what today's definition of beauty was, and we couldn't come up with anything more exacting than "thin;" possibly because notions of childhood beauty have relaxed, probably because we are so deeply within its expectations that we can't even see our prison's walls (gee, is that dramatic enough?). And so much of today's children's literature is first person it's hard to know whether heroines are pretty or not; there's no objectivity (this is in longer novels of course, not the horrific religion of prettiness with which Disney poisons our reservoirs of imagination).

I don't mean to get worked up about this; I appreciate prettiness, both in things and in people. And it was a great, tricky, interesting conversation to have. It's just…odd sometimes, to realize how intense the pressure and the expectation is on all of us, so much feel for the necessity of prettiness.

As for our title up there: I've never fully understood the phrase Pretty is as pretty does. Does it mean that if you behave well, do nice things etc, that makes you pretty? Or if you're pretty but you act like an ass it makes you not pretty anymore? Something in there, right? It's one of those idioms that have long escaped me. And for what it's worth, neither of those translations seems true to me (with regard to the world, not the accuracy of its meaning vis a vis the phrase). Any ideas?

10 thoughts on “Pretty Is as Pretty Does? Or Whatever?

  1. My mother told me, when I was quite young, that there is a difference between “pretty” and “beautiful”. Disney princesses, for instance, are pretty. It’s all superficial, it’s thinness and dimpled cheeks and ringlets. “Beautiful”, however, is interior, although it can shine out. Sara Crewe was beautiful because of her kindness, her willingness to see beyond class, to treat everyone with dignity and humanity.

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  2. I’m guessing from your last paragraph that maybe you don’t personally ever experience the “pretty is as pretty does” phenomenon. I’ve often met someone that I initially thought was good-looking, only to later get to know them, and find that if they are mean/shallow/etc etc, that I no longer find them good-looking. I’ve also experienced the reverse, where someone that I thought was plain or ugly actually starts to seem good-looking when I like their personality a lot. So to me, you summed up the idiom perfectly–but maybe it doesn’t make sense to you if you’ve not personally experienced it this way.
    The other possibility that crosses my mind is this—most people look pretty good when they are smiling. A smiling person is always more attractive/good-looking than a non-smiling one. In fact, I think the definition of a model is someone who is pretty even when they are scowling, whereas normal people need to be smiling to look our best. So…if you are acting pleasant (“doing pretty”) then you are also going to look your best (“being pretty”). So the idiom might be saying, “act pretty if you want to look pretty.” Which could also mean, dress neatly, take care of yourself, etc., and you will be better-looking than if you don’t do those things, completely separate from whatever physical features you were born with.
    Just my thougths!

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  3. Idiom aside, I get this. And also (especially) the tongue-biting at the onset of this post. I’m very, very bad at this but am working on it. Trying not to impose my narrative on hers and all. More regarding social behavior than books, because I can’t hide my fondness for books.

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  4. “Pretty is as pretty does” is another version of “Actions speak louder than words”. I think I first came across the phrase “Beauty is as beauty does” in Marguerite Henry’s Justin Morgan Had a Horse. It puzzled me then, but now I understand it to mean “value is in the deed”. It’s a way of saying “Don’t be beguiled by extraneous factors like looks or rhetoric, look to the deed to guage the value!

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  5. There’s such a long history of glorious female heroines who were “plain,” “wan,” etc. I’m thinking that Jane Eyre was running on the moors just as Sara Crewe was battling Miss Minchin at the school! And I’m thinking that bookworms like me romanticized that “plain” heroine as being far more substantial than her “pretty” counterparts.

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  6. I do know what you mean about how important Sara’s plainness is. But I also seem to recall that the scullery maid (what was her name? drat, I hate when this happens…) refers to Sara as “beautiful” at least once. Sara herself laughs at this, but I think it speaks to the distinction between eyes and heart – “pretty” is seen with the eyes, but “beautiful” with the heart. Like what Giddy was saying – even people who we might not find objectively attractive can acquire beauty, in our perception, if we like or admire them.
    That’s the sort of beauty that’s important, and the sort that I want my own children to possess. So maybe the meta-conversation here is about what makes someone who *isn’t* pretty, like Sara, beautiful anyway? (and what made Chestnut come to the “pretty” conclusion? was it the way Sara treated people? or her own hopes for a heroine?)

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  7. Yes, heroines are often——in books of old—not pretty. But modern books? I’m not so sure. I’ve avoided twilight thus far, and it isn’t fair to judge by who plays her in the movie. Judging by people’s definitions here we went over to pretty from beautiful long ago.

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  8. As a person who is decidedly not, nor ever was, pretty herself, I have always loved those authors who really understood that the world was full of vibrant, interesting and amazing people who did not have big blue eyes and aquiline features or a head of golden curly hair. I loved Burnett for this, and L.M. Montgomery for making Anne redheaded and freckled and ungainly (at least in the first book). And Beverly Cleary too, for making Ramona and Beezus both regular little girls, unremarkable in looks but remarkable in spirit and humor and resiliance and all of the things that make humans interesting. I think the main reason I feel so bad for kids who just don’t like to read is that there is such a narrow viewpoint in television and movies about who people should be and what they should look like (even the movies based on books about plain people still cast actors much more attractive than the characters they are supposed to represent), while books are full of a multiplicity of looks, and lifestyles, and actions, dreams, what have you. People who read books have a better chance of experiencing a world that is wider and more inclusive than the world offered by other media outlets.

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