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Poem: Pretty by Katie Makkai

See the poem performed on YouTube

When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother
“What will I be? Will I be pretty?”
Will I be pretty? Will I be pretty?
What comes next?
Oh right,
will I be rich which is almost pretty
depending on where you shop.
And the pretty question infects from conception
passing blood and breath into cells.
The word hangs from our mothers’ hearts
in a shrill of fluorescent floodlight of worry.

“Will I be wanted? Worthy? Pretty?”
But puberty left me this funhouse mirror dryad:
teeth set at science fiction angles,
crooked nose,
face donkey-long
and pox-marked where the hormones went finger-painting
my poor mother.

“How could this happen? You’ll have porcelain skin as soon as we can see a dermatologist.”
“You sucked your thumb. That’s why your teeth look like that!”
“You were hit in the face with a Frisbee when you were six, otherwise your nose would have been just fine!”

Don’t worry; we will get it all fixed she would say,
grasping my face, twisting it this way and that
as if it were a cabbage she might buy.

But, this is not about her.
Not her fault she, too, was raised to believe
the greatest asset she could bestow upon her awkward little girl was a marketable facade.

By sixteen I was pickled by ointments, medications, peroxides.
Teeth corralled into steel prongs, laying in a hospital bed.
Face packed with gauze, cushioning the brand new nose the surgeon had carved.
Belly gorged on two pints of my own blood I had swallowed under anesthesia,
and every convulsive twist, of my gut, like my body screaming at me from the inside out
“What did you let them do to you?”
All the while, this never ending chorus droning on and on
like the IV needle dripping liquid beauty into my blood.

“Will I be pretty?” Will I be pretty like my mother,
unwrapping the gift wrap to reveal the bouquet of daughter her $10,000 bought her?
Pretty? Pretty.

And now I have not seen my own face in ten years.
I have not seen my own face in ten years,
but this is not about me!
This is about the self-mutilating circus we have painted ourselves clowns in.
About women who will prowl thirty stores in six malls to find the right cocktail dress,
but who haven’t a clue where to find fulfillment or how to wear joy,
wandering through life shackled to a shopping bag, beneath those two pretty syllables.

About men wallowing on barstools, drearily practicing attraction
And everyone who will drift home tonight
crestfallen because not enough strangers found you suitably faceable.

This, this is about my own some-day daughter.
When you approach me, already stung-stained with insecurity,
begging, “Mom, will I be pretty? Will I be pretty?”
I will wipe that question from your mouth like cheap lipstick and answer no.
The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine will be contained in five letters. You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing, but you will never be merely “pretty”.
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