Pretty is as pretty does is perhaps one of the worst phrases ever. It is a double edged sword. It has popped up through the years in my life in various contexts, and a few weeks ago, I caught myself actually thinking it with respect to my daughter. Is this a phrase I would want to use with her? What does it really mean?
I would love your input on this, dear reader. Have you ever heard this phrase before? What does it mean to you? Is it just us Southern-raised girls who hear this? Is it an American thing? Where did it come from? Perhaps I shall ask Google. Results: The free dictionary says "Pretty is as pretty does. (old-fashioned)
something that you say which means that you should judge people by the way they behave, not by their appearance 'She's very pretty.' 'Yes, but pretty is as pretty does. I haven't been terribly impressed by her manners.'" Something else links it to a windbag-sounding British book from 1853. Oh geeze.
At any rate, I think it's a deceptive phrase that on its face is simple and well-meaning. Somebody, however, first said it to me when I was quite young and feeling quite non-pretty. Around puberty, I guess. It stuck in my head like glue. I chewed on it like gum. You never know what phrases are going to do that, but this one did. To me it said - "We don't really know if you're going to turn out nice-looking, but if you act nice to people they might think you're pretty so be as nice as you can!" Not that this phrase had so much power over me, but I do find myself caught in that "look nice and be nice" circle that I think many women find themselves in. This leads to me second-guessing actions and decisions that I think may come across as "rude" or "impolite." This leads to me (and women in general) apologizing too much. This leads to women getting paid less than men for the same job. This leads to all sorts of similar crap that I believe, at the very heart, is caused by society telling women to be 'pretty,' 'nice' and 'polite.'
I imagine it has this affect no matter how attractive the girl/woman actually is to whom it is said. If I thought I was pretty and somebody said that to me, I would surely think, "They must think I'm not very nice." Ultimately, this tiny phrase just makes women self-conscious about constantly trying to look and act pretty. Look pretty, act pretty, a combination of both... it's such a vicious, pointless cycle. And the word 'pretty' - which I've used so many times in this entry already that it looks and sounds weird - it's a nonsense word. Pretty. What does it mean? It's a horrible word that at its heart means --- "Constantly care what others think about you - how you look and how you act."
I will try to never use this with my daughter. Some iteration may slip out.... and so I'd like to propose that the iteration be, "Be true to yourself and kind to others. Beyond that, don't care what people think of how you look or you act." And by "iteration" I mean, scrap it altogether, burn it and tell girls things whose clear intention is to empower them.