It’s a magical age when you go from being ‘attractive’ to ‘attractive for your age and circumstance.’ All your accomplishments become excellent reasons for why you should be married, though hardly selling points for falling in love. And no one quite knows how to wrap their heads around the fact that someone attractive, accomplished and mostly inoffensive could ever be single, remaining oblivious to the fact that unattractive, unremarkable, offensive people get married every day.
While people are pleased and happy to acknowledge and praise your skills, your fashion sense, your commitment to your job, your volunteer work, your availability to teach Sunday school or lead the youth fundraiser, and your bravery in “living your life,’ it’s often a lead-in to lament that “it’s a shame no one has snapped you up yet.”
Pity-prettiness is conditional. You’re still pretty enough, it says. Pretty enough to not be single for the rest of your life, as if singleness is merely a manifestation of genetics.
When I was in summer camp leadership, a friend of mine had a whole repertoire of folk songs memorized, and we all would learn various funny, antique lyrics. The one the girls thought was funniest was called “If I Die an Old Maid in the Garrett.” They lyrics are about a lonely spinster wondering why in the world she doesn’t have “a wee, fat man, who would call me his own dearie.”
We sang it because the lyrics were comical, but one time when we finished a rousing round of the chorus, one of the male staffers shook his head and said he didn’t like us to sing it.
“Why not?” I asked, surprised.
“Well…well,” he thought for a minute, “… because all of you are too pretty to die old maids!” He said, with the flourish of bestowing a compliment.
We all looked at each other, unsure of how to respond. The thing is, pity-pretty isn’t a compliment. Pity-pretty is an assessment and estimation of value, based on cultural expectations.
At the same time, I know that this language of pity-pretty is used by friends, elderly relatives, acquaintances, and church family with the kindest and most loving of intentions. They want to build me up, encourage me that it’s “not too late.”
And so, we smile and accept these sunflower compliments, and put them in water with a good boulder or two of salt. After all, at least it proves they think we’re not complete mutants. At least they’re not among those that are saying “No wonder she’s single!”