“Don’t waste the pretty” my mother said to me the other day, her way of complimenting me on my appearance, achieved after the requisite primping ritual. This was not the first time she has said this to me in recent years (since my separation and divorce) and each time it makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable. I smile rather unconvincingly in acknowledgement and try to identify what it is about that comment that causes me to squirm.
Don’t waste the pretty – on its face, it means that I am attractive and should be dating now, putting my energy toward finding a suitable handsome prince, gathering ye rosebuds while ye may. Even on this superficial level, I feel the exhortation is a kind of veiled criticism of my lack of attention to this area of my life. I have had larger pressing issues to deal with in the past couple of years: moving from one country to another, buying a condo and all the attendant paperwork and financial juggling that required, finding a job and negotiating my way through the minefield of office politics, to name a few. You perhaps expected that I would be creating an e-harmony profile and sifting through potential suitors in my non-existent spare time? And maybe, just maybe, the idea of a relationship and all that entails – dating, awkward silences or blathering small talk to fill them, and those “oops, sorry, no-you-go-first” situations until you develop enough familiarity to be able to relax – seems to be all too much to contemplate right now.
So, if I am wasting the pretty, what does this mean? I suppose first of all, it means that when the pretty is gone (and if I understand my mother, this is imminent) then I will no longer be attractive in all senses of the word: neither physically attractive nor a desirable commodity.The currency I now possess for a limited time will soon be devalued and as worthless as the crepey skin on which it is written. It also is reminiscent of the values that inspired the idiom: “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Failure to exploit the barter value your physical appearance represents is akin to wasting your demonstrations of affection and failing to get paid fair market value for those goods and services.
To me it also means that making the effort to look “pretty” – traditionally feminine and frilly, or as my daughter would say, adhering to a heteronormative stereotype – only makes sense when it has the purpose of showing your colours to potential mates. This peacock plumage painted on the female of the species will be considered tawdry and in poor taste – mutton dressed as lamb – when one reaches the age it is considered unseemly to be a sexual creature, when it becomes fodder for low-brow jokes, although to be fair, these are often directed at both sexes. Why is it wasteful to bedeck yourself in florals and perfumed scents for your own pleasure? If high heels tap across a dance floor and there is no one to hear them, do they exist?
And below this murky surface is the even darker shadow of shipwrecked bones surrounded by the circling sharks. What you have wasted will soon be gone forever; the wasting spectre glares back accusingly with a richtered grimace and crooked pointing finger: “Don’t waste the pretty”.