Anything but plain

In old books, especially, women and girls are constantly being described as “plain.” “One sister was so lovely it looked as though she were made of the finest spun gold. The other was mousey and plain.” There’s always “the plain one.” The perky, thrilling girls who torment and delight and influence everyone around them are never plain. The plain girls drift silently to the back. They vanish. We assume that they must be dull, boring, and slightly stupid as well. Plainness is like a disease; it infects every part of a person.

People don’t use the word a ton these days, but I’m still terrified of it. I’m waiting for the day when someone will call me “plain” and all the potential and vivacity and spunk will drain out of my life and I will put on a big brown bonnet and retreat to my corner.

(there it is. waiting. source)

But seriously, I hate that word.

Being plain is like being nothing. It’s like being a blank canvas that no one wants to paint on. It’s like you barely exist. You’re not even fascinatingly strange looking. You’re not even captivatingly unusual. Nothing about you stands out.

Personally, I don’t believe in plainness. I don’t think it exists. I’ve never seen a person who looked plain. And I refuse to allow people to be rendered invisible and meaningless by their appearances. How can you have a face and be plain? Features are intriguing. They’re always different, quirky, and interestingly assembled. And like I mentioned before, when I talked about tiny little beauty, we, as people, are covered with interesting, identifiable beauty. We can’t even help it.

Anyway, I’m going to write a book about some sisters living a long time ago, wearing heavily embroidered brocade gowns and entering society. And it’s going to be like, “One sister was delicate and fine, as though she was made of spun gold. The other was bold and compelling, with a fantastically prominent nose and a wit big enough to match it.” Hell yeah. That’s me, baby. Anything but plain.

*  *  *

Un-roast: Today I love my belly. I just looked down at it and it’s cute!

Post on Un-schooled about how pretty much my whole life has been a big experiment.

39 Comments »

Kate on February 3rd 2011 in beauty, body

39 Responses to “Anything but plain”

  1. JJgal responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 11:47 am #

    I think I’ve always been afraid of being called plain. In looks and in personality.

  2. Lilli responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    If it helps, Kate, i don’t think anyone who’s ever even looked at your blog could consider you plain :)
    But yeah, i think it’s a horrid way of describing people, because once someone is labelled ‘plain’ they tend to almost subconsciously become ‘plain’, like they feel they have to accept that label…

  3. Tempest responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    “The other was bold and compelling, with a fantastically prominent nose and a wit big enough to match it.”

    LOVE THIS. LOVE. Women with fantastically prominent noses and matching wits unite!

  4. jean responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    There are plenty of plain women in classical literature whose personalities shine: Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, Mary Garth, to name a few! That word has always held mixed meaning for me because so many of my favorite characters are plain, while their beautiful counterparts are usually small-minded social climbers. Jane, especially, made the quality of plainness seem mysterious and even sexy.

  5. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    @Jean
    Thanks for the counterexamples! You’re right, except for Elizabeth Bennett. The Bennett girls, especially the two eldest, are famed for their beauty! It’s Mary who is the plain one, and nobody likes her…

    But there are plain women in classic lit who are plain and awesome. Not many, though, and it very rarely sounds like as much fun!

  6. Christin@purplebirdblog responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    I love to let my freak flag fly, so I’m definitely anything but plain!

  7. B1 responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 1:41 pm #

    Being plain… I also do not think that anyone is ‘plain’ by any measure. But I guess I realized that I was NOT ‘plain’ when I was in 6th grade. It was a large elementary school and I was walking down the hall and a first grader said hello to me by name. I had never met this little boy, but he knew who I was. It was about then that I also realized that I really didn’t like the fact that someone knew me by name and I had no clue who they were, so then the longing to be ‘plain’ started to grow in me.

    I’m NOT ‘plain’ by any measure, but I don’t know how to just be quiet all of the time, or stand on the sidelines and not do anything, or be mousey in any way. I can be quiet some of the time and can stand on the sidelines for a short period of time and can even blend into the woodwork, but then something rises in me that I can’t take it any longer and I have to DO something or I’ll burst!

    I don’t like to be the leader, I don’t want the responsibility that goes with it. But often times, it’s the fact that I can see resolutions that then people look to me to take charge.

    And I hate it when I hear people complain about the same things over and over and yet do nothing to change it. Fear… that’s what it is. Fear to shine. Fear to take chances. Fear to be in the spotlight.

    I have a rule in my life that started at a young age and that was that I would not let fear run my life. So, when I was in 2nd grade and couldn’t climb to the top of a tree house because I was afraid, I changed and forced myself to climb up to the top and made it. Since then, I guess I’ve not been afraid to be bold, to stand up for what I think is right, and have not allowed fear to rule everything in my life. Granted, I’m finding areas that I didn’t realize that fear had taken over, but I’m still learning and living.

    Sorry for the length of this. I guess I can never be ‘plain’.

    un-roast: I like my brown eyes and how mysterious they are but smile when I smile… wrinkles be damned!

  8. mia responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    You’ve never seen anyone who looks plain? We all come across plain women every day. You just don’t notice them because they’re so plain and unmemorable.

    You’ve heard of women being described as “having the face for makeup,” right? “Plain” can be a great canvass for makeup.

  9. lk responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    @B1!!

    OMG! Hello Sista. It’s like you have written my story.

    I’ve always WANTED to be plain. To be the one who isn’t noticed! It’s not that I’m stunningly beautiful, or even pretty, but I’m bold. I’m bold and I’m loud and I do as I please and you can either be with me or whatever – go your own wrong way. :)

    Helen Hunt in Twister. I wanted to be her. Plain white tank top. Plain blue jeans. Unnoticed when standing in the corner rather than walking into a room, even silently, and attracting attention!

    I hate that! I hate having a ‘presence’ that everyone talks about. I hate leading, yet I’m asked to do it all the time just because of who I am inhererntly. How I wish it would just go away and I could be plain.

    un-roast: My legs. They’re long and strong and beautiful!

  10. Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    I have also always had a complex about being “plain.” I remember growing up always feeling desperate for a particular talent – something that would make me stand out and prevent me from being plain. It took me many years to realize what you say in this post – that no one is truly plain. Part of my own journey to that truth has been working as therapist and understanding just how complex even the most “simple” person really is.

  11. MWN responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 4:34 pm #

    “I’ve never seen a person who looked plain.” That’s good point. “Plain” is a cop-out of the author, who is too lazy or boxed in and resorts to vague typecasts. I believe so much that the personality really enhances how the observer takes in the appearance.

  12. Autumn responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    I love this (and in fact it inspired a post of my own)–”plain” always seemed like more of a put-down than the word itself implies, and you articulated why. It robs us of our humanity, the very notion that any one of us could be a blank page. It seems to be vaguely synonymous with “mousy,” which to this day is probably the comment about my looks that has stung the most (I’ve gotten it twice in my life and it has stung because I feel like a fucking LIONESS, not a mouse!) People do still use “plain” when they’re trying to be soft or gentle, I think–they don’t use it as much as a put-down, even though in many ways it is, if a…well, a soft, gentle put-down.

    (The post you inspired is here: http://www.the-beheld.com/2011/02/championing-jane-eyre.html )

  13. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    @Autumn
    I love the way you said the thing about feeling like a lioness. That was so cool.

  14. joan responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    I am so sorry, but I would have taken “plain” any time over the million’s of “uglys” I heard. I am not considered ugly or even plain anymore, but it is tough to be a girl who was not even considered plain. You average or better than average girls will never ever understand and you are lucky.

  15. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    @Joan
    I’m so sorry that people called you ugly! That’s horrible and cruel.
    I hate the idea of beauty as a scale: ugly, plain, average, slightly above average, pretty, very pretty, beautiful, extremely hot, MEGAN FOX!!!
    Maybe some people want to lump all women into these categories, but I think most people understand things to be much more complicated, and much more interesting! Not everyone would put Megan Fox at the top of the ladder, and I am sure that most people do not find you ugly.

  16. Just Josie responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    I hate the idea of beauty as a scale: ugly, plain, average, slightly above average, pretty, very pretty, beautiful, extremely hot, MEGAN FOX!!!
    ===
    Ha! Same. I mean, who even gets to decide such things? What such arrogance on their parts! People who enforce beauty standards are the ultimate projectors. It’s fine to have preferences, but you really needn’t project them all over the world, subsequently shaming any and everyone who doesn’t fit into your bullshit fascist beauty standards.

    Personally, I have been called plain. It stings with a surprising intensity. And the thing is, it’s especially irksome, because I think I know myself pretty well. I think, even, that I’m pretty well aware of the perceptions others hold of me. But it really gets under my skin for people to be arrogant enough to presume they know me on such a deep level — especially when we’re not even friends. People can be so thoughtless. When I think about it, it feels like my self-esteem sort of began its descent in my post-back surgery days, and that it’s never made it comeback (yet!). Or, more accurately, it has, but the people who know — nay, “know” — me and who enjoyed that feeling of superiority they got to lord over me knowing that I was insecure, won’t let me enjoy it. And everytime someone says I’m “plain” or “boring”, it’s like a little jab. And I’ll try to defend myself against it, but they prattle on carelessly, insisting that OF COURSE they know. I figure I’ve got somewhere between 2.5 — 3 years and then I’ll have a fresh start and what my now-classmates think won’t really matter. In the meantime, I’m going to revel in the social awkwardness that is me reading my books at lunch rather than socializing with a bunch of shallow, asinine idiots. *dorky thumbs-up* :P

    Un-roast: I’m going to be a Big Sister!

  17. Deanna responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 6:15 pm #

    First of all, I truly love writing about these topics. Glad to find that other women do too.

    To me plain means blah. I think back in the day it was used more for someone who was unremarkable in appearance – - not ugly but certainly no beauty.

    When I was in my teens I used to be called ugly because I had a big nose, a small face and scraggly hair. I was determined to make something of myself by being more graceful, more talented, smarter more whatever to make up for not being pretty. I felt that if you had skill and talent you could look good (and I still think that’s true).

    As it turned out, I wasn’t ugly at all. I just looked different. I still look different and although I am now married with two daughters (who are stunningly beautiful…but hey…I’m their mom) I notice that when I go out with my blonde friends who have had work done (I live in Southern Cal.) I rarely get noticed. I always say that if I were dumped for a young hottie, I’d never date again! I’d just read a lot and spend time commenting on blogs.

    No…but the truth is that for some of us women who have a different form of beauty, those who find us beautiful really find us beautiful!

  18. Dana Udall-Weiner responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 6:17 pm #

    “…a fantastically prominent nose and a wit big enough to match it” –love it! Interesting debate about what it means to be plain, and whether it even exists. Seems that (and this may be an obvious point) whether we are plain or pretty or Megan Fox-hot, we all share in common the problem of being evaluated and objectified and compared. And these comparisons–even if they are of the positive variety–can be very detrimental. But maybe if we gave ourselves credit for the other aspects of ourselves–like our wit or our intellect or our ability to listen–those comments about appearance wouldn’t sting so much.

    Also (did someone already mention this?) I’m not sure I’ve heard men called “plain.”

  19. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    @Just Josie
    You’re right. It’s arrogance. It’s entitlement. It’s pure stupidity.

    On a happier note: Hooray for reading books instead of talking to people! And congratulations in advance about your big sisterhood!! When is that happening?

  20. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    @Deanna
    I love that you’ve come to appreciate your beauty. And it’s so true– when you look differently beautiful, the people who like it LOVE it, and the rest of the people, well, they aren’t as important.

  21. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 6:30 pm #

    @Dana

    I wonder that, too. I haven’t heard men called plain. Not that there aren’t other mean words for men’s appearances.

  22. Kayla responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    I love this. :)

  23. San D responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    Emily:
    Mama, am I good looking?
    Mrs. Webb:
    Yes, of course you are. All my children have got good features; I’d be ashamed
    if they hadn’t.
    Emily:
    Oh, Mama, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is: am I pretty?
    Mrs. Webb:
    I’ve already told you, yes. Now that’s enough of that. You have a nice young
    pretty face. I never heard of such foolishness.
    Emily:
    Oh, Mama, you never tell us the truth about anything.
    Mrs. Webb:
    I am telling you the truth.
    Emily:
    Mama, were you pretty?
    Mrs. Webb:
    Yes, I was, if I do say it. I was the prettiest girl in town next to Mamie
    Cartwright
    Emily:
    But, Mama, you’ve got to say something about me. Am I pretty enough..to get
    anybody…to get people interested in me?
    Mrs. Webb:
    Emily, you make me tired. Now stop it. You’re pretty enough for all normal
    purposes
    Emily:
    Oh, Mama, you’re no help at all.

    Our Town, by Thorton Wilder

    As you can see, women, have been asking for validation for many years.

  24. Lonelily responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 9:32 pm #

    Does the term plain Jane come from Jane Eyre? Maybe that’s a stupid question…anyway, I don’t like the term either. I also don’t like to be called “cute.” Not that it’s an insult, but why, if a guy is first talking to you, would he refer to me as cute? It’s not like I’m a child or a puppy or something. lol

  25. Sarah responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    Sarah Plain and Tall. I always hated that book when I was a kid. I was always afraid, when we read it in class, that someone would say it was about me. Not sure why, since no one did. Maybe because I’m short?

    In Australia, rather than plain, they tend to use “average” although average actually means you don’t look good. You’re kind of ugly. “Ah, yeah, she was pretty average.” If you say that to your friends, you’re probably not going to go out with her again. It’s weird.

  26. Wei-Wei responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 9:33 am #

    “Plain” doesn’t mean plain. “Average” doesn’t mean average, either – both words mean “not outstanding”, or in the looks realm, “not pretty”. Therefore, plain and average = ugly.

    Wait, what?

    I thought the spectrum is supposed to go from fugly to ugly to average to pretty to absolutely gorgeous. Since when is average the same as ugly? Just another sign of black-white thinking in society. Bugs me so, so much.

  27. Raven responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    You mentioned “mousey,” and that’s always bothered me more than plain. I never saw anything wrong with plain, since it often reminded me of Laura Ingles Wilder or Louisa May Alcott who may have seen themselves as being ordinary or plain in appearance, but were anything but in character and intelligence.

    Mousey, however, makes me think of the color of my hair after I gave birth to my daughter. A lot of things changed about my body, and since I was already a big girl, I focused on other things. Like chin hairs I’d never had before, and the fact that my *copper* hair turned a mousey brown. It’s never gone back since, so I henna it and pretend like my outer appearance better reflects my inner experience.

  28. Rabbit responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    Plain = invisible. I am plain. I worked really hard at it in middle school because I was the scapegoat of my elementary school class, and by the time I got to high school it had become habit and as a result (that is how I saw it at the time, now I am not so sure) the teasing/bullying became almost nonexistant. I see “plain” as being a defense mechanism.

    @Raven: I love “mousey”. :) People have been using it to describe me for years, and it makes me feel like I have an identity, like maybe I’m not actually so plain anymore. My hair has always been the “mousey brown” you seem to dislike, and my facial features have also been described with that word. It’s not an insult!

  29. Lovely Links: 2/4/11 responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 4:18 pm #

    [...] know how plotlines with sisters in them inevitably describe one sister as beautiful and the other as “plain”? How dismissive is [...]

  30. Katie responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    There have been some amazing critical analyses of Mary Bennet from Pride & Prejudice that argue that her prescribed plainness allowed her to be a vehicle for quote-unquote “feminist” attitudes. Basically, Austen couldn’t give the feminist agenda to any of the pretty daughters, so she gave that voice to Mary.

  31. denny responded on 05 Feb 2011 at 1:53 am #

    @San D

    I remember that Our Town passage! We had a guy read the part of the daughter and it was so ridiculous and funny. It really made me rethink the importance of pretty in regards to myself.

  32. Autumn responded on 05 Feb 2011 at 11:44 am #

    You know, rereading comments here has made me rethink “mousy.” I mean, mice are cute!

    @Katie: Excellent point–I think this plays into why people are so keen to point out “hot” feminists as the exception (to read what Gloria Steinem has to say about coming out as a feminist is fascinating in this regard).

  33. Jael Paris responded on 05 Feb 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    I always think of someone who is plain as someone whose features aren’t distinct. When someone describes them they say, “Well, she’s not tall or short. She’s…well, she has hair…” And when I hear these descriptions I think, “She must be a killer spy for the CIA.”

  34. Kate responded on 05 Feb 2011 at 8:25 pm #

    @Jael
    LOVE IT. That’s now my favorite interpretation of the word “plain.”

  35. Louise, aged 15 responded on 07 Feb 2011 at 4:02 am #

    Oh dear! I’m scared of being branded ‘plain’ too! No one is plain though. Everyone has amazing thoughts and talents and is completely individual so ‘plain’ should not be a descriptive word for anything but an inanimate object.

  36. Go There, Read It! Something for everyone… « AVERAGE FANTASTIC responded on 07 Feb 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    [...] …on being “plain“ [...]

  37. Faith responded on 07 Feb 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    As a plain-looking woman, I rather enjoy my plain-looking-ness. I can get away with a lot more than if I were beautiful or even just “pretty”. People expect different things from pretty or beautiful people.

  38. Nobody's Girl responded on 05 Dec 2011 at 6:58 am #

    sister number 2 sounds like cyrano de bergerac.

  39. Melinda responded on 05 Apr 2012 at 10:23 am #

    I know my response is late, but this really hits home with me.

    @ Joan…I’ve been called both “plain” and “ugly” throughout my life. Sometimes the terms can be used interchangeably. “Plain” is a euphemism for ugly in some instances.

    As a multiracial woman, I have encountered a lot of ignorance and racism, especially when it comes to my looks.

    I’ve heard nasty comments about the texture of my hair and my appearance in general. Being called a “Plain Jane” is pretty hurtful, because it really isn’t that different from saying that somebody is unattractive. Lots of jealous girls have called me plain. And of course there are men who would be quick to put me in my perceived place by telling me I’m “not all that”.

    My own husband once told me that I was nothing special to look at.

    I agree with those of you that said the word “plain” definitely carries a sting, because it doesn’t just mean unattractiveness…it also implies that there is absolutely nothing noteworthy or exceptional about you as a person, inside or out. It means you’re not worth talking to. It means no one should give you the time of day or bother getting to know you.

    I know that this is not true of myself at all. I might not be what certain people in society find beautiful, but I’m definitely no “Plain Jane”. I’m not bland or dull in any sense.

    I know that some people, especially catty women, wonder why my husband is with me. He is tall and conventionally attractive, while I’m sort of quirky-looking. People seem to have this notion that so-called “plain janes/ugly” women don’t deserve to have fun or male attention. We should simply be content with whatever comes our way.

    Which is (excuse my French) bullshit. Because no one should settle for anything but happiness.

    I hear people say this about women all the time: “Why is he with her? He could do sooo much better”. Sadly, they aren’t talking about the woman’s personality or character most of the time…they are putting her down for her appearance. Obviously they believe that she is too plain or unattractive to be with somebody who is considered a catch. And if the guy treats her well? The universe has turned upside down, because only “pretty” girls are allowed to have decent men interested in them.

    Also, I want to mention something I’ve noticed. There is a long-standing trend of blonde women being described as beautiful, while women who are NOT blonde (this includes women of color) are often described as plain. That really bothers me. No disrespect to my ladies with blonde hair and blue eyes, but those of us with dark hair and dark eyes are sick of being called “plain” in comparison.

    Like when people describe a so-called Plain Jane, she is often said to have hair that is some shade of brown or black. And if you have dark brown eyes, like I do, there seems to be no hope that you will be viewed as anything but plain.

    Unroast: my booty fills out my blue jeans nicely! ;)