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When Did PLAIN Become Synonymous with UGLY?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I love it when an idea for a blog post gets dropped in my lap on Thursdays when I read the Dear Prudence column from Slate magazine.

The letter that piqued my interest today is from a young woman who feels she’s too plain to flirt, yet she wants to meet someone and fall in love. Here’s her letter:

How do I find out whether I am attractive? I have always believed that I am plain. I try to dress well and take care of myself, but my face and body simply aren’t going to stop traffic. I have a good sense of humor, am a good conversationalist, and have lots of friends. I have had romantic relationships, but not in a very long time. I chalk that up to circumstance, timing, chemistry, and (honestly) my plainness. Men are visually oriented, and I think I have an honest understanding of what society considers attractive. As a result, I don’t flirt. To me, there is little more pathetic than an unattractive woman flirting as though she is hot stuff. But my friends want me to find someone, so they tell me to engage in behaviors that I don’t think jibe with what I look like—dress provocatively, flirt, try to be seductive. They tell me that I am attractive, but they are either lying or trying to make me feel better. How do I find out? And does it matter whether I am objectively attractive?

There were several suggestions running around in my head, questions I’d want to ask about where she hangs out, what her social circle is like, etc., before I read “Prudence’s” answer. But here’s how Prudence (Emily Yoffe) responded:

I’ve never seen you, yet I can guarantee that you are much better looking than you think you are, and your friends are sick of your unstyled hair, your baggy clothes, your unflattering glasses, your comfy shoes, and your face untouched by makeup. Don’t be surprised if they have discussed having an intervention and nominating you to be on What Not To Wear. You probably have striking eyes, or great bone structure, or lovely legs, and they can’t understand why you want to go through life presenting yourself as a walking Hefty bag. I think you’re protecting yourself from rejection by your own pre-emptive approach of daring any man to find you attractive. If you actually made an effort to look and act alluring, and men didn’t respond, that would hurt. So you do everything you can to scream, “I am not interested in an encounter with the opposite sex!” And when they get your message, you proudly say you will not be the kind of woman who humiliates herself by using the devices of seduction. I say, listen to your friends when they tell you it’s time for a makeover. That doesn’t mean you have to come off like some desperate hussy. It means using the expertise of a makeup artist and a personal shopper to polish up your exterior so that you can draw in potential suitors who will then be delighted with your sterling qualities.

Unless there was part of “Plain Jane’s” letter that was deleted, or a picture she sent in with it that only Emily Yoffe had the benefit of seeing, the response really confused me. “Plain Jane” stated that she tries to “dress well and take care of” herself, and that her concern with her friends’ advice is that they want her to wear more provocative clothes, flirt, and try to act seductively. How did Emily Yoffe take those statements and jump to the conclusion that this girl has “unstyled hair” and “unflattering glasses,” dresses in “baggy clothes” and “comfy shoes,” and doesn’t wear makeup? There’s nothing in this girl’s letter to indicate any of that. breakfast club ally sheedyIs it merely Yoffe’s own prejudice against women who see themselves as “plain” that she would automatically assume this girl dresses like Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club? To me, there’s a HUGE difference between dressing “well” (as “Plain Jane” described her sartorial choices) and “baggy clothes.” I actually pictured P.J. in nice, tailored clothes that may (or may not) be more modest than what most women wear when out on the prowl—skirts to the knee, tops that aren’t cut-to-there and are long enough that her midriff doesn’t show, understated (and tasteful) makeup and jewelry, and shoes that wouldn’t show up on a street-walker. In other words, nice, modest, and appropriate for who she is and how she perceives herself.

I felt quite a kinship with “Plain Jane,” as I’m someone who also has a quite clear understanding that I’m not most men’s definition of “attractive,” and that I’d only be making myself look and feel ridiculous if I tried to ape the flirting behaviors of women half my weight/with great bodies—even if they may not have the “pretty face” I’ve always been told I have.

And then, the more I thought about this, the more I realized that this is a lot like the response to Anne Hawthorne’s size from one of the readers of Stand-In Groom that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. While that reader felt that Anne could not be attractive because she’s described as being a size 18/20, I’ve had lots of other readers comment on how thankful they are that I portrayed a woman of that size as being beautiful, in the eyes of more than just George.

So, of course, my imagination took these two letters and started developing a scenario in which “Plain Jane” ends up meeting “Prudence,” who realizes that her knee-jerk reaction to the description “plain” as meaning “messy, homely, doesn’t take care of her appearance” is WAY off base.

I’m really thinking about using “Plain Jane’s” description of herself and incorporating it into one of my upcoming contemporary characters (I may turn it on its ear and use it for one of the guys, though).

What about you? What was your initial image of “Plain Jane” when you read her letter? What did you think of Prudie’s response? What advice would you have given “Plain Jane”? How could you use either/both of these letter-writers’ attitudes in a story?

  1. Thursday, November 12, 2009 3:37 pm

    To a certain extent, I agree with Prudence. Someone who thinks she’s plain in the way the letter writer did will more than likely act withdrawn, perhaps do no more than basic hygiene, and not pay attention to how she looks. That’s not to say she’s messy or sloppy or looks like she just got out of the gutter. But the mental aspect will very often come through in the physical actions.

    I think the interesting thing in this story is that both sides come in with preconceived ideas–and those ideas come out in the response. My initial reaction was to agree with Prudence. But when I read your response, I could see your point. I guess the moral of the story is not to put me on a jury, huh? 😀

    I think the idea of a makeover is a good one. Isn’t it amazing what a new haircut, some new makeup, and a new outfit will do? It may sound very shallow, but it’s true.


    • Thursday, November 12, 2009 3:47 pm

      The first title of this post was “Characterization = Perception.” My personality type is such that I get to (have to?) see both sides of an issue. Yoffe’s response surprised me in the beginning because it wasn’t what I expected—and I’ve been reading this column for enough years that I pretty much know how she’ll react and what advice she’ll give before I read her response.

      I’m keeping this letter (and the response) in my Characterization file, because both of these ladies’ words/attitudes/prejudices are too good to let them slip away!


  2. Thursday, November 12, 2009 3:38 pm

    I honestly don’t know what advice to give her. I think she probably is attractive in her own way but doesn’t look like a runway or magazine cover model and these days women are led to believe they need to look like that. I certainly don’t suggest flirting and acting like she feels that she needs to. I am someone who is not attractive but when I picture someone who considers themselves “plain” I picture a quiet, girl-next-door, beauty that will be noticed by the right person. I can’t believe what Prudence responded to her though!!


    • Thursday, November 12, 2009 3:51 pm

      This is one of those times when it would be helpful to have a picture of the person calling herself plain, isn’t it? For me as an author, though, it’s so rife with potential for using in a story because I only get to use words to get the reader to form a mental image (perceive) what the characters look like. And a lot of that is using words that will play upon a reader’s preconceptions (i.e., when I use plus-sized or size-18 to describe Anne) . . . but then also backing that up with a more concrete physical description—as well as an aesthetic description/reaction of the other character’s perception of her.


  3. Thursday, November 12, 2009 3:39 pm

    Well…you’ll probably hit me for this on Saturday…but I kind of had the same mindset that Prudie had about Plain Jane. I’ve known several women who fit that description and they used their “plain” state as an excuse to not try to put out an effort to be appealing to anyone else.

    The letter seemed to me to show a real lack of self-worth (“my face and body simply aren’t going to stop traffic”, “there is little more pathetic than an unattractive woman flirting”, “They tell me that I am attractive, but they are either lying or trying to make me feel better”) and from that it’s not hard to extrapolate that this person picks clothes to allow herself to hide from attention. Sure, it might be “dressing well” in her mind but that doesn’t mean she really is dressing “well.”

    I think Prudie sensed this woman’s just too comfortable in her self-created shell and needed a jolt to say that status quo is not OK. I have no problem with someone who wants to be “themselves” and not care what other people think about their clothes or attitude but if you do that then you need to expect to be alone a lot of the time. It just seems this woman has a low opinion about her looks…despite her friends telling her otherwise…and her being “herself” was more beating on herself.

    Then again, I’m a guy, so I’m sure a lot of women will write off my thoughts. I just (as a guy) get really tired of an average looking woman who is not at all unattractive playing the “I’m not pretty am I” card all the time while making no real effort to listen to the response. Just because she’s not a size 4 with a chest that doubles as a flotation device it doesn’t mean she’s plain or ugly. Unfortunately, society hammers home that body image problem to so many women and it squelches self-esteem…and I think that’s what is happening to PJ.

    This, to me, captures PJ: “behaviors that I don’t think jibe with what I look like—dress provocatively, flirt, try to be seductive.” How is flirting with a guy she may think is attractive something that doesn’t jibe with how she looks? I can dismiss the provocative or seductive and say it’s fine to not act like a tramp…but ANY woman has the looks to flirt with a guy they’re attracted to at ANY time. Just because he may not like your physical appearance doesn’t mean the next one won’t like it.


    • Thursday, November 12, 2009 3:54 pm

      I love this response, Jason. It’s great to have a “third” point of view here . . . when we girls get together and discuss the concept of “attractiveness,” we rarely have the benefit of having a man to tell us that we’re full of beans.

      And you really gave me something to think about with your last lines: “ANY woman has the looks to flirt with a guy they’re attracted to at ANY time. Just because he may not like your physical appearance doesn’t mean the next one won’t like it.” Not only as a romance writer but as a single woman, that’s something I really need to take to heart!


    • Thursday, November 12, 2009 4:07 pm

      By the way—I thought you were going to be on your way out of the country Saturday. Have your plans changed?


      • Thursday, November 12, 2009 4:25 pm

        My flight leaves at 1:30 on Saturday. My wife & daughter are going to mill around Panera for an hour so I can sit in the first part of the meeting. If it was any other subject than what to do after you get the first book done I would have probably skipped it. My wife insisted I go for a little while.


    • Leslie (greyfort) permalink
      Thursday, November 12, 2009 6:55 pm


      The thing that kept running through my mind while reading Jason’s response was the time in college when I was sitting with my brother floor (the school had a guy/girl ratio of 5:1) and several of the guys (with me present) were bemoaning on the lack of pretty girls at the school. (yes, obviously these particular guys were morons for saying this in the presence of a girl) What astonished me though was that as they were saying these things I kept thinking of all the gorgeous girls that I *wished* I looked like and thinking “Are they idiots, those girls are beautiful!”


  4. Thursday, November 12, 2009 4:36 pm

    I had the same mental image of Plain Jane as you, Kaye. My initial reaction was that if her friend are pushing her to dress and act slutty to get a man, she needs new friends. I’m all for friends who help us overcome our insecurities (and OBVIOUSLY PJ has many!), but pushing us to be someone we’re not just so we can snag a man isn’t what a friend does. (Those women have seen too many movies.)

    However, I do think Prudie had at least one good point: this woman is seriously undervaluing herself. That may or may not be expressed outwardly—like you’ve said, we can’t tell from just the text. And Prudie may also be right that it’s a coping mechanism, just like wanting a guy you can never have—then he can never break your heart.

    I find it interesting that PJ started off her letter with “how do I found out whether I’m attractive?” (or was that the heading in the column?), but then insisted that she wasn’t.

    Oh, and I have to agree with Jason—there’s nothing wrong with a plain woman flirting, and her saying that is further evidence of a self-esteem issue. On the other hand, I do know what it’s like to flirt with someone and find out that behind your back he ridiculed you for thinking you have a chance with him (and I don’t consider myself plain).


    • Thursday, November 12, 2009 4:43 pm

      The irony is, for as much as I claimed I identify with this woman and her insecurity with her looks when it comes to whether or not to flirt, I love to flirt—mostly with guys I know I’ll never have a chance with or will ever see again (such as waiters, store clerks, flight attendants, and—my favorites—gay men, for whom I seem to be a magnet).

      But when I think about the “flirting” I engage in (making eye contact, striking up conversation, trying to make him laugh) and the “flirting” I imagine when I read P.J.’s friends’ advice to her, they’re two very different types of behavior. I pictured the flirting her friends were encouraging her to do to be more along the lines of a predator-prey type action—or maybe “mating ritual” would be a more apt description—where the whole point of what she’s doing is to get a man to want to have s*x with her, not build a genuine relationship built on mutual respect and intellectual connection. But, who am I to say that one kind of flirting is better than another . . . I’m the one who’s never been kissed!


    • Thursday, November 12, 2009 5:12 pm

      Whoever did that is a complete loser. You were better off without him. 🙂


  5. Thursday, November 12, 2009 5:23 pm

    The questions she asks at the beginning and the end of the initial letter are fascinating to me:


    “How do I find out whether I am attractive?”

    [ . . .]

    “[My friends] tell me that I am attractive, but they are either lying or trying to make me feel better. How do I find out? And does it matter whether I am objectively attractive?”


    It’s like she’s decided she can only flirt if she doesn’t make a fool of herself.
    But she’s convinced she will make a fool of herself if she’s not “objectively attractive.”

    I think she wants general permission from society to put herself out there in a feminine way. She wants someone to tell her she has a RIGHT to do so.

    Kinda messed up as a society, aren’t we?!


  6. Anonymous permalink
    Thursday, November 12, 2009 5:28 pm

    I’m going to offer another perspective here. I have some physical abnormalities and have lived my life being ridiculed, laughed at, and called ugly (among many other things). This girl says……..”How do I find out whether I am attractive?” Someone who is genuinely physically unattractive knows it. People can be very mean. I don’t ignore my appearance because of it. I get up every morning and spend time on my makeup and hair and dress nice. I work in an office and make a point to look my best. My guess is that she’s just not drop-dead gorgeous according to today’s magazine standards and so she feels inadequate. There may be nothing wrong with the way she dresses, and a huge makeover may not be necessary. And I don’t think she needs to necessarily be flirtatious or dress/act seductive to get a man either! She probably needs to change who she hangs out with.


  7. Thursday, November 12, 2009 5:53 pm

    I think Prudie had it way wrong in drawing her conclusions. I pictured her as you did, Kaye, tailored look, modestly dressed. Not frumpy. It’s the letter writer’s self-esteem that is an issue, her opinion seems to be the polar opposite of Prudie’s. Letter writer doesn’t believe her friends, she may not believe anyone, even a so-called “objective” opinion. I think she will become more attractive when she radiates from within. Attractive is as attractive does.

    My self-esteem was so low when I was young that I believed the reason I wasn’t asked out was because I was unattractive to guys at school. Had me wondering. It wasn’t true at all. Not meaning to brag, but I was attractive and even was equipped with those floatation devices. LOL! I was told by several later that they were intimidated. I was always very modest and quiet so I never even knew. I just saw the flirtateous girls no matter how they looked with the all the boys. But I am so grateful now. I have just the man I always wanted. And by the way, he is very objectively and unobjectively attractive. As for me, I’m at last comfortable in my own skin (complete with scars and stretch marks) and no longer self-conscious and insecure.

    BTW, Michelle. You are attractive. So don’t let anyone’s objective opinion tell you otherwise! 🙂


  8. Leslie (greyfort) permalink
    Thursday, November 12, 2009 7:01 pm

    While I wasn’t really picturing “Jane” I was picturing what her friends wanted her to do and I was shocked by Prudie’s response. So I think I was making the same assumptions Kaye was.

    Ironically (?!?) I watched The Ugly Truth last night (The R rating IS for language – there is one resturant scene that I fast forwarded through but no nudity in the movie) and so in a way I was picturing some of that movie while formatting my thoughts to the advice.

    At the beginning of the movie Katherine Heigl’s character is talking to Gerald Butler’s character on the phone – he assumes she’s a dog. Obviously she’s not.


  9. Tuesday, March 23, 2010 10:59 am

    I know this conversation happened a LONG time ago, but a friend just sent me a link to it today.

    I am “Plain Jane.” I wrote the letter to Prudence back in November. A friend of mine “busted” me because I had expressed a similarly-worded sentiment to her not long before the letter appeared. She’s the one who sent me a link to this.

    Thank you for disgreeing with the advice I got, it was useless. I think some of the comments here are much more enlightening.


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