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I Woke Up Like This: On Not Paying the “Pretty Rent” as a Woman Writer

I once heard that the best thing that ever happened to novelist George Eliot’s writing was her choosing to live with philosopher George Lewes, a married man unable to divorce his estranged wife. By following this unconventional path, George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) banned herself from polite society, but freed her social schedule up enormously. I recall hearing similar things about women and hypochondria in the 19th century. “Illness” freed women writers, such as Emily Dickinson, to pursue their literary passions in peace. Devoid of the lengthy toilettes and endless calls required of the nineteenth-century female bourgeoisie, these women could hang out in their dressing gowns (our modern equivalent of yoga pants) and write to their hearts’ content.

There’s a meme that I’ve seen posted on facebook a few times, and it really hit home for me this week. It’s from Erin McKean, and she states, “You don’t owe prettiness to anyone…Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.” In other words, we don’t owe it to the world to look good, and we are not required by any law in the universe to spend an ounce of time, money, or energy on this elusive concept called “pretty.”

Now I know what you’re doing right now. You’re eyes are drifting over to that profile pic with my hair all curled and my makeup done just right. I won’t deny it. I love pretty things: dresses, makeup, sparkly tiaras. I find a great deal of joy in dressing up and looking nice, but the thing is, I don’t love it more than writing.

When I taught at a brick and mortar campus, I was required to dress up every day, but now that I teach online, all bets (and heels) are off. One of the bonuses of working at home is that I can wear sweats 24/7 without impunity, and with the daily beauty rituals gone, I get to spend a lot more time writing. So much more time writing!

But the “pretty rent” was hard for me to give up in the beginning. In our culture, the shlumpy yoga pant wearing mom has been a huge butt of a walking joke for talk show and “what to wear” hosts. I’ve seen episodes of Oprah where she’ll reel some “secret footage” with the mom coming out of a car dressed in sweats and the whole audience will groan. Oh, you terrible woman and your comfortable lounge wear! How dare you not put on real pants! For months, when I opted to wear pajamas to drop my kids off at school, I heard the shrill voice of one of those fashion hosts in the back of my mind. “Oh, she’s really let herself go.” I still put my hoodie up when I drop off my preschooler (as if no one recognizes me at this point, haha!).

But the thing is, no one would look twice at my husband if he showed up to drop off the kids in sweats and a messy bun with no makeup (he doesn’t wear makeup, btw. Just making a point here). And that’s what George Eliot and Emily Dickenson knew way back when. Insane beauty rituals cut into artistic productivity. As a writer, “pretty rent” has a huge price. I often stay up late to write and edit, so that’s why getting up and making myself look respectable feels like a lot more trouble than it’s worth. I also have a very brief window in the afternoon to write before I pick up the kids and the domestic grind begins all over again. A 20 minute shower may not mean a lot to most people, but I can write 700 words in 20 minutes. Add that up over five days and that’s a whole lot of words. It matters.

When I started writing seriously two years ago during NaNoWriMo, I had to say no to a lot of things. Over the course of that month, I came to understand how much of my life was consumed with pleasing others and this included making sure I paid my “pretty rent.” I’m out of that slum now. Maybe a secret camera will catch me one day un-showered in a hoodie and yoga pants and all that live studio audience will see is a sad, worn-out mom who’s lost her fashion sense.

But when I see myself, I see…well, a worn-out mom, yes. But I also see a woman who met her word count goals and is well on her way to becoming a NYT bestselling novelist.