The “Pretty” Problem

You go to a museum to learn a story by means of the objects they have on display. You go to a zoo to be entertained by the animals. You go to a living history museum to to see people bring the past back to life. People who, in their historical clothing, are part zoo animals and part museum objects. They are also, quite often, knowledgeable historians and talented craftspeople, but perhaps you do not notice this. You do notice them, photograph them, as objects, as zebras and giraffes, on display for your enjoyment. 

I’ve got a friend named Will who does living history as a hobby. Our friendship revolves largely around tossing barbed witticisms at each other. At a reenactment a few weeks ago, sitting around the tavern table and passing the punch bowl, he tossed a comment my way that I wasn’t able to forgive him for. It was a revolutionary war event, and I was portraying an army woman – the wife of a continental soldier.

What he said was: “you’re too pretty* to be a camp follower”.

A bit of “no I’m not” – “yes you are” ensued while I recovered from this blow. You see, Will did a remarkable thing – he crafted an untouchable insult: He successfully objectified me, shredding any sense that my knowledge or skill were the more relevant factors in determining my ability to accurately portray a soldier’s wife, and he did this through a comment that everyone else at the table perceived as a compliment. (For bonus points he made me feel uncomfortable. That wasn’t a comment I expected or wanted from a friend.) When I brought this up with him a few weeks later, he said that since we had a relationship based on insulting each other, he had thought of the most insulting thing he could say to me. I offered him my congratulations, because he certainly succeeded.

Aside from the simple horror of being so sharply objectified, Will’s comment touched a nerve; I’ve had the feeling since this spring that “looking pretty” while doing living history is a bit of a problem. This first came to light when I finished a new gown in March. It is pink – a nasty, insipid, little girl sort of a pink that I bought on a lark because I thought it would be funny to make a dress in such a ridiculous color. (There is a perverse pleasure to be gotten from making something historically accurate which is also godawful ugly.) But everyone else seems to think it is pretty, and when I wear it, visitors to my site take my picture; they take it instead of talking to me.  My knowledge and skills become irrelevant; superseded by my appearance. It seems to me that wearing a “pretty” dress means being a museum object, rather than a museum educator.

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I received this photo, along we a handful of others, in my work email inbox earlier this week. They were taken by an older man who visited my site back in May. After photographing me multiple times, in two different locations, he asked if he could have me contact information so he could send them to me. That was the extent of our conversation. 

Because of this, Will’s comment had a second meaning of which he was unaware. Looking pretty while doing living history is a problem: it makes it much harder for me to have meaningful, educational interactions with people. To this end, I do not wear that stupid pink dress all that often. I was not wearing it at the event where I got into this little verbal dog fight in which Will struck such a significant blow. And yet, he was able to use the crime of looking pretty against me, to diminish me and my work.

I didn’t come up with the zoo analogy from the opening paragraph – that’s one we throw around at work a lot (when people touch our cloths without asking, put their fingers in our lunches, and interact with us solely through their camera lenses). It stems from the frustrations of a team of deeply knowledgeable people being viewed not as historians, but as figurines in a moving diorama. Our goal is not just to illustrate but to educate, but often we fail in this mission because of how we are perceived.

The “pretty” problem is a part of this. It is an additional hurdle I and my female colleagues are required to jump over, put up by a society that is used to objectifying women. A society where an older male friend doesn’t have to think twice before throwing out a comment that revolves around physical appearance. It makes me so sad. The only fix I know is not to sit quietly while photographed, but to talk to the people who face me through their iPhone cameras, and hope they go home with not just a photograph, but some historical knowledge, and a small sense of the person who they learned it from.

 

*A note on my physical appearance: I am a healthy, normal-enough person in her mid-twenties. That’s it. I’ve never been in a beauty pageant, so I don’t have any more solid information for you on the topic of my looks, nor do I want it. If you feel the need to form your own opinion, let it remain that: your own.

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13 thoughts on “The “Pretty” Problem

  1. Yesterday, sitting in a library, I overheard this conversation in regards to the application process at McDonald’s: “they ask you all sorts of questions to determine aptitude so they can decide where you’ll work when everyone knows the pretty ones work out front and if you are not, you work in back.”

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  2. I was at an event the other weekend and I was the only female in my unit and I was a camp follower as well. We were sitting around the table in the evening as well, and me being a strong independent 21st century woman, says, “I should dress as a soldier one time just to see if I could hack it for a day as a living historian”. One of my good guy friends turns to me and says, “you’re too pretty to be a soldier.” I was like ummm…..okay?….*awk laugh* and instant change of conversation. Why is it that only guys say this stuff? And I think your pink dress is fabulous!!! Even though it is pretty, I would still talk to you about what you were doing so I could learn something new and cool about history.

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  3. I admit that I am one of “those people” who hide behind a camera at reenactment events. It’s not because I’m not interested in the reenactors, it’s because I want to capture a person, place and time that is foreign to me. Besides, I don’t know what to say to them. “What are you doing?” sounds stupid when I can clearly see you’re making a meal or a craft or you’re not doing anything at all. I want to know what you know that I don’t, but what is that? What do I ask a person who’s cleaning a rifle? Or baking bread? I don’t need to know how to do those things. What I want to know are personal stories, either yours or the person you’re representing. So what is the best question to ask?

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    1. My mom says this all the time–she comes to some of my events, and even with a living history kid in the family she’s still never sure what to say 🙂 Personally, I don’t mind “what are you doing?” or even just “hi, how’s it going?” Because I can use that as an opening to start the conversation. It’s even easier if you give me a lead, like “what kind of food is that?” But you’re right, it’s really hard to break the ice.

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  4. I think you should enjoy pretty while you can. Here I am, 4 kids, mid-forties, plus 60 pounds, half a head of white hair , reaching for eyeglasses, I WISH i had the problem of being “too pretty”. So enjoy, now,,, because before you know it, your authentic look will settle in.

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  5. I’ve digested this blog post for a bit before I replied.

    1) the zoo reference at historic sites is not new. I worked at Valley Forge National Park in the late 80’s(along with other historic sites) as an historic interpreter. Our joke was “Please don’t feed the Park Rangers” because we literally had people driving by in their cars, taking pictures of us, not bothering to get out to even talk to us. This problem is not new. In fact, it has been the subject of many conferences in the past. You just have to accept the fact that not all people are there for the history. And that’s okay.
    Some people ARE there for the history. Others are there for the architecture, while others are there to enjoy the natural aspects of the park or site. It’s sort of like a “pick your battle” type of situation. Not everyone will “get it”. But the ones who do get it….the ones you can see the light bulb come on over their heads….that’s totally worth all the aggravation.

    2) The fact that you see that “being pretty” as a hurdle rather than an opportunity to educate is disheartening. As for the pink gown, here is the simple fact. It is a color that very much compliments your complexion. Because it does, you are “more becoming” …and noticeable. Use it. Start the conversation. It goes along with those people who ask “stupid” and obvious questions. It’s not that they don’t know the answer….it’s the only way they know how to start a conversation. (i.e. “Hot enough for you?” “aren’t you hot in that?”) Again, you’re not going to reach everyone….you’ll have some just simply walk away. Others may talk back who may not have said anything at all. Pick your battle. ( I have a particular shade of lipstick that REALLY emphasizes the color of my eyes. I can’t wear it without people saying “WOW. your eyes are BLUE!!!” I don’t wear it if I don’t feel like talking to people. 😉 )

    3) We all have our crosses to bear. A photo was posted from a 12th night party a few years ago. I was told that I was “too fat” for the 18th century. The woman went as far as to say that I was too big for even a Rowlandson depiction. I was pissed. Not because I was called fat. Duh. I’m fat! I was pissed because I was called “inaccurate” for the 18th century. Please. The 18th century had fat people. It had skinny people. It had ugly people, as well as pretty people. I work hard at my impressions. I’m sure I felt the same way you felt when you were called “too” pretty. My first response that I would have said to your friend, Will, would have been “what is TOO pretty? Are you jealous?”

    4) Use your assets. Use it for the power of good! I was inspired to start The Fat Reenactress because of that comment. NO ONE can hurt/insult you unless you let them. I like to think I inspired other larger women to up their game, to be “Fat and Fabulous in ANY time period!” Be the poster child for pretty. All social classes had pretty people. To state that you are “too” pretty doesn’t diminish your scholarly accomplishments. And you don’t “fail at your mission” if you get at least one person interested in history. Someone who gets inspired to look things up for themselves, or to study something more in depth. Pick your battles. You will win more than you realize.

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  6. I’ve gotten this sort of comment, also the comments from public and reenactors alike that I’m “too clean to be on the frontier” never mind that we’d just done a laundry washing demonstration that talked about the documented pride people took in looking as clean and neat as possible, even in harsh conditions, and the conditions we were portraying weren’t very harsh. Some people aren’t coming to events to learn, they just want to watch the sideshow. If they let me, I sneak in some education, but you can’t get everyone.

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  7. […] So what, then, of fantasy dressing in the past? What sense can we make of historical representations of “Oriental” fashion? How do we understand what our clothing and our appearance means? Every choice we make is layered with meaning, in the present and in the past.  For women, routinely objectified by society, the meaning of our clothing is particularly important, even when, or perhaps especially, when it is not what we want to focus on. […]

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  8. I agree with Julie’s 2nd point. Pretty isn’t a problem; it’s an opportunity.

    There will always be things that attract the public’s attention more: a girl in a pink dress, the boom of a cannon, the sight of a man on horseback. These are all inroads to engaging with the public. Good living historians capitalize on these openings & appreciate every chance to interact with their visitors. After all, even through a camera lens, every interaction is a chance to share something of ourselves and our love of history.

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  9. I will say, that often times when I go to an event or site, I almost feel as if interacting is trying to reach through the fourth wall. If I’m on a guided tour, you can’t get me to shut up, but if I’m just allowed to wander, I tend to make comments or discuss things with friends and hope the historian will pop in or ask a question that will lead into a conversation. A lot of times, if I take pictures, I’m hoping that it will be a way to engage reenactor without disrupting or disturbing them.

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  10. First, I would be very hesitant to read too much into the preference of some people to take photographs of you–or anyone else–rather than talk. There are some people who visit sites and events solely to take pictures (because they are amateur photographer and this is interesting subject matter) or, more subtly, interpret and engage with material better visually than verbally and creatively than passively. I’ve often been asked for photos, presented with a card or asked for an email address, or even given a printed picture the next day. It’s how some people engage. Not everyone is a verbal engager–some are visual, and, for myself, I’m not going to assume that’s gendered, objectifying, or personal.

    I also agree with Julie. “Too pretty” is an opportunity. I’m not a terribly “pretty” person, but when I do an upper class impression, I’m clearly going for a “look” and impression that is intentionally cosmetic, and get questions and attention geared toward that “look.” It’s fantastic. My giant silk hat prompted more conversations at an event last year than the cannon I was standing a few feet from–about class, gender, fashion, trade, all kinds of things that went well below the surface of “too pretty.” Even when I’m going camp-follower, small tokens of pretty–a ribbon or a new apron–provide an “in” to talking about the nuance and humanity of these people we portray.

    And hey, maybe we’re all a little too pretty. I’m guessing Will has all his teeth and no pockmarks, right? (Accept tongue in cheek joke for what it is….)

    Also, I love your borderline insipid pink dress. I love historical-almost-ugly.

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  11. This was an eloquent post discussing a difficult issue, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I have noticed this at WWII events, where people will come up and talk to the guys I am standing with, but then ask me for a picture and walk away without engaging at all. It feels like the assumption is that I am there to look pretty, or to support a partner–not that I know anything in my own right. I’ve responded by transferring to a women’s unit, where we are existing in an explicitly female space (WAC tents, HQ, etc.). But I’m not sure that’s a great solution, and it’s certainly not an answer for every event/period.

    All this to say, I definitely have discussed this among friends, and I’m glad to see you calling it out. I understand why some of the other comments say that you should use it as an opportunity, but I totally understand that that’s not always possible. At least, sometimes I have trouble finding my voice when I feel especially objectified.

    -LR

    (P.S. On a side note, I love ugly historical projects! Hooray!)

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