“[A]ttractive and pleasing in appearance; good-looking, esp. in a delicate or diminutive way.” – The Oxford Dictionary
When people use this word, they rarely intend it as an insult. So why would anyone get upset at being called pretty?
A lot depends on context – when, where, and how such comments are made.
Calling someone a ‘pretty girl’ in the modern workplace will rarely be taken well, and may in fact be an outright breach of workplace HR policies designed to preserve professionalism and respect between colleagues. Likewise, rating female professionals on how pretty they are is demeaning, because it ignores their achievements, and reduces them to mere ‘things’ to be admired for aesthetic purposes.
Such actions objectify women and are clearly inappropriate.
What is sexual objectification?
Sexual objectification occurs when a woman’s body or appearance are isolated from her whole and complex being and treated as objects simply to be looked at, coveted, or touched (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). It’s the antithesis of valuing someone for their or abilities, achievements, contributions, or values. At the societal level, rampant objectification can breed a culture of misogyny, where women are primarily valued for their looks. At the individual level, women can start to connect their self-worth to their looks. This could lead to negative consequences for their mental health, including a preoccupation with looks, feelings of shame, and pressure to meet externally imposed beauty standards.
Let’s now move the conversation out of the workplace: would things still be as clear-cut?
Where do we draw the line?
Let’s say I post an Instagram story of my afternoon walk along the beach, pointing out each of the ‘pretty girls’ I see along the way. Is that objectification? I would say, yes. I have focussed on these women’s looks to the exclusion of all else that makes them human.
But what if I later also post a video explaining that I have 2 sisters and 3 daughters, and that I also value women as wives, mothers, and contributors to society? Then the question becomes, why my first video failed to acknowledge any aspect of the women concerned, other than their looks. Nothing’s changed about the fact that I objectified them.
Now let’s use the example of a wedding – if a guest approaches the bride to says she looks exceptionally pretty on her big day. Is that objectification? I personally think this would qualify as a genuine and appropriate compliment.
But what if I change the scenario yet again to a graduation ceremony – if a guest tells a PhD graduate that she looks pretty and fails to acknowledge that she’s just achieved something laudable. That behaviour would amount to objectification.
Not every situation will be clear. Indeed, generational or cultural gaps likely mean that many people genuinely do not know why calling someone pretty could be objectionable. I think that ultimately, the broad test is whether in making such comments we are depersonalising women, devaluing their achievements, or contributing to a culture of consistently valuing them for their appearance over all else.
Should we stop using the word “pretty”?
So, would it be safer for us to err on the side of caution and just always avoid calling anyone pretty? Well, that could be taking it a step too far. We don’t want to inch towards a culture where we cannot ever comment on someone’s outward appearance, no matter the circumstance. There is a difference between reducing someone to a mere object based on their looks, and genuinely seeking to make a connection with someone’s contributions or interests, based on how they outwardly present. For example, I think it would be perfectly fine to ask someone you’ve just met if she enjoys football, because she’s wearing a team jersey. Or to ask if someone is feeling alright because they’ve started to look quite pale.
The one thing that’s clear is that society still has a long way to go to become the ideal where a women’s personhood is valued more than her looks. But the good news is, we can each play a part in shifting mindsets and building a culture where we value girls and women for more than just their outward appearance.
So what can we do to make this happen?
- Read up
Start by learning more about objectification. If we know how objectification is commonly played out in our daily interactions, we can call it out when we see it happening.
- Call it out
If someone makes us feel objectified or uncomfortable, we should speak up. It is OK to respectfully share how the conduct in question made us feel and explain how this is a boundary for us.
- Be a good bystander
Speaking up doesn’t just apply to ourselves. If we see someone else being objectified, we should call it out too. If we each do this more often, we can discourage others from such unacceptable behaviour and build the momentum needed to achieve cultural change.
There is really no upside to ignoring the issue or to remaining silent. So, please, please, pretty please – don’t.
SHE: SG Her Empowerment (SHE) is an independent non-profit advocating for gender equality and equity in Singapore. SHE strives to create a Singapore where women and men can define and achieve their fullest potential at home, work, school, and across society. By facilitating conversations, SHE listens and gives voice to the views of the community. SHE takes a data-driven approach to defining solutions, and forges partnerships with and between key interest groups, organisations, and the government, in order to advocate change and effect positive mindset shifts.