(me, left, and my older sister)
Growing up, I never thought of myself as ‘pretty’. Pretty was my older sister, who got stopped on the street by modeling scouts and asked out by Eric Cantona when Manchester United visited Singapore. I was the awkward, bookish sister, who wore pink plastic glasses and could hang with the boys, but was never seen as a ‘girl’. Until I moved to Japan at twenty-two, I had no idea how to put on make-up. People started to compliment me on my appearance, but somehow the word ‘pretty’ never made me feel good. With my new-found skills with the curling iron and make-up brush, I returned to Singapore to start my first full-time job. As the only female fresh graduate, I was sometimes called ‘sweet young thing’ by (mostly male) older colleagues. They may not have intended it maliciously, but it never made me feel good.
Why? Until recently, until yesterday even maybe, I was not able to unpack those feelings. But at yesterday’s Singapore Writer’s Festival Gala with Roxane Gay, Kasigo Lesego Molope and Joel Tan (most of all, Joel Tan) about Language and the Body, I felt an epiphany coming on. People make assumptions about your physical appearance all the time, especially if you’re fat. Roxane spoke about how she used to be afraid of the word ‘fat’, but now sees it as a shield, her shield. You can no longer use it again her, because she has reclaimed it for herself.
Similarly, people make assumptions if they find you ‘pretty’—and especially the young and pretty. In countries like South Africa, India, Japan, men think they have the right to cop a feel when no one’s looking. It’s okay as long as no one sees me. I’m just plucking a wildflower. Wouldn’t you? While casual sexual violence is less of a problem in Singapore, casual sexism is everywhere. Men think they have a right to comment on your appearance—and I know I’m going to get comments from my male friends about this. Aiyah, why take this so seriously? People tell you pretty then accept lah, what’s so difficult?
There is a time and place to call girls pretty. The workplace is not one of them.
I was not, and will not be the last young female staff to be called ‘sweet young thing’. It was casually tossed out whenever we had another ‘pretty’ new face interning with our company; to be honest I was relieved my male colleagues had turned their attention elsewhere, that I was finally being appreciated for my ability to get work done instead of attracting attention with my appearance or inexperience.
Oh but we meant no harm, I’m sure my ex-colleagues will say. I knew they meant no harm, so I said nothing. But these words do harm. It implies that you judge first by appearance, not competence. Why do no similar labels exist for young men, or if they do, why did no one bother commenting on the physical appearance of fresh young male hires? It was almost as if there was an unspoken understanding that male graduates were hired on their competency and technical brilliance, while women were hired because they had ‘softer skills.’ At the same workplace, a senior female colleague advised me that I should learn how to use my feminine ways: “you know, there are some things we women can do that men never can”, while a cloud of suspicion always hung over young, attractive female staff who got promoted faster than the rest, not helped by the mostly male-dominated senior management and board.
To be fair to my former workplace, the sexism there was probably milder than what I’ve heard from friends in other companies and industries. And because Singapore is so conservative, I’m sure there’s going to be pushback: what’s the big deal? Women have been using their looks to get ahead for centuries. We’re just calling a spade a spade. Let’s see. Are you talking about palace dramas? Are you saying the workplace is an imperial court, and the CEO is the emperor? So what should we call all these new female hires?
Being called ‘pretty’ when I was young made me squirm, being called ‘sweet young thing’ at the workplace made me feel like no one was taking me seriously. And so I tried to look less ‘pretty’. I dressed conservatively; my office wardrobe is still almost entirely neutral shades of white, black and blue. I still don’t like (and don’t think I ever will) frilly dresses, and somehow am relieved that my daughter doesn’t either. As the only liberal arts major surrounded by engineering and finance grads, I wanted to be recognised for my effort and competence, not my face. Only recently did I come to realise how much this affected my self image and how I present myself to the outside world.
I started to write and publish more over the past year, and was often asked for a profile photo. But I don’t like taking self-portraits and almost never take selfies. All I had was an accidental self-portrait that I took at Toji last year which I wrote about here, the only photo I had taken in years which I felt good about. But my dear friend Sudhir laughed when he saw the photo.
“Why are you hiding under a curtain?” he asked, before trying to make me feel better. “Well, it does fit in with the whole ‘serious Asian female author’ image.”
Should an author, especially a female author, and a non-female author have a particular ‘look’? I began to realise why I liked that photo so much. It gave me hope that people would recognise me for who I was, or what I wanted them to recognise me for: my writing, not my face. I realised how much I had internalised society’s own prejudices about what a serious, intellectual woman should look like: unfeminine, aloof, and definitely not ‘pretty’.
But the ‘curtain photo’ (as Sudhir calls it) did not, as my husband commented, really look like me. It was an image I was trying to project about myself, so people would take me and my writing seriously. No need to waste money on professional headshots, he said. And so, over the weekend, I put on some make-up and he took some photos. With the help of Meitu’s amazing face-smoothening and lighting filters, I actually feel good about how I look—while at the same time, still looking like me. I still don’t like the word ‘pretty’, but I think I’m going to do a Roxane Gay with this. It’s nothing I should feel ashamed or embarrassed about. It’s just me. And if that’s the first thing you want to say about me, well that says more about you than me.