Pretty Bitches – Lizzie Skurnick (editor)

While I’d never heard of a couple of the words explored in this book before, including yellow-bone, most have been attributed to either myself or women I know. I expected to get fired up reading this book and assumed I’d finish it with an overwhelming need to fix something, anything, everything, like I did after reading Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.

Unfortunately, while some chapters stood out to me and made me want to know more about their authors (these are marked with 😊) I could take or leave others and even had a few ‘did you seriously just say that?!’ moments with one author.

For each chapter I’m including a quote that either spoke to me, said something I wanted to remember about what I’d read or most accurately summed up my experience of reading it.

Warning: I don’t usually include swearing in my reviews but a couple of the quotes I chose include it.

Preface by Lizzie Skurnick 😊

I began to realize these words weren’t pinpricks. They weren’t the punishment. They were the justification for the punishment: the jobs we lost, the promotions, the houses, the money, our respect, our bodies, our voices.

Introduction by Rebecca Traister 😊

“But now I mostly hear it as an aggressive word, a mean word, a word that suggests that the act of fucking itself is mean and aggressive and often particularly aggressive toward women … It’s really a shame.”

Too by Adaora Udoji

I didn’t yet know how easily that word could be weaponized against me as a woman, used against any woman, pulled from the ever-ready “stay in your place” toolbox.

Professional by Afua Hirsch

Woman are disadvantaged by ideas of the “professional” before we even walk through the door, because to be truly professional is to conform to the ideal on which it is based: an elite, white man.

Effortless by Amy S. Choi

We can’t change our culture when we lie about what the culture is. We can’t accept ourselves until we stop pretending that we already do.

Princess by Carina Chocano

A princess was nothing if not a pretty doormat, a machine that suffered abuse and exploitation nobly and exquisitely, not to mention without complaint. It was this quality – more than her hotness or her duets with songbirds – that caught the prince’s attention: how gracefully she endured abuse. Then he married her, turning her nobility of spirit into the other kind. Making her status official.

Ugly by Dagmara Domińczyk

The word for ugly in Polish is brzydka – which sounds eerily close to the word for razor blade, which is brzytwa. And for most of my formative life, ugly cut me. Quick and to the bone.

Shrill by Dahlia Lithwick

Shrill is much less about what the speaker is saying, as it turns out, and more about the listener’s capacity to cede ground. Shrill, in other words, is the word people use to signal they aren’t ready to listen – not to your voice, but to what you’re actually saying.

Lucky by Glynnis MacNicol

It was, I discovered, possible to live a notable life as a woman who had never achieved either of the two things women were noted for: being a wife and giving birth.

Mom by Irina Reyn

According to linguist Roman Jakobson, the reason ma is a root of the word for “mother” in so many global languages is that this is what babies are capable of saying first.

Mature by Jillian Medoff

Chuckling, Fuck Face let his eyes go from my breasts to my face then back to my breasts. He stared at me with intent, as if we were sharing a sleazy secret. “Jill sure is mature, isn’t she?”

Ambitious by Julianna Baggott

Here’s the message that I received early on: male ambition is good and necessary. People assume that any man who’s gotten far in his career has a lot of it. Female ambition, on the other hand, is dirty. It’s selfish. It’s ugly. Female ambition is suspicious. It comes at a cost. It’s necessary to get ahead – we’re told – but if a woman uses it to get ahead then she’s sacrificed her soul. And she’s going against society’s virtuous goal for her: motherhood.

Victim by Kate Harding

And it is true that any attempt to sort human beings into categories necessarily shaves of some of our humanity, replacing each unique individual with a type.

Disciplined by Laura Lippman

Anne Lamott once wrote that she thought if people knew how she felt when she was writing, they would set her on fire. That seemed about right to me. I knew no more powerful feeling, that was for sure.

Yellow-Bone by Lihle Z. Mtshali 😊

Yellow-bone is a loathsome term that we borrowed from American blacks. Though it refers to all light-skinned black people, in South Africa, it is mostly used to refer to light-skinned black women. Yes: people are woke, black pride is a thing, and #melaninpoppin is a popular hashtag. But black men post pictures of light-skinned black women, writing that the “yellow-bones” will give them beautiful kids.

Zaftig by Lizzie Skurnick

Because what if we reclaimed zaftig – and, like my grandmother, left the proportion of lipid to lean out of it entirely? What if we took out the sexy part, too? What if we made it, like my grandmother did, about being strong?

Crazy by Mary Pols

When Natalie Portman spoke at Variety’s Power of Women event in 2018, this was part of her speech:

“If a man says to you that a woman is crazy or difficult,” the Oscar-winning actress said, “ask him, ‘What bad thing did you do to her?’”

Small by Beth Bich Minh Nguyen

Being small was another way of being silent, and that’s what white people were always expecting of me too.

Funny by Meg Wolitzer

Being funny, or at least trying to be, felt like a real part of me, and I never questioned it – until suddenly I did.

Sweet by Monique Truong

These too are compliments: sugar, honey, candy, sweetmeat, honey bun, honey pie, sugar pie, sweetheart, sweetie, sweet cheeks, sweet lips, sugar tits, and sweet piece of ass. The slippery slope from compliment to insult begins with sweet.

Nurturing by Racquel D’Apice

My frustration lies with the people who say “Women are more nurturing” but mean “Women are nurturing and emotional rather than practical and logical,” which bleeds into “In a family, someone should stay home with the kids, and I think the people who should be doing that are women.”

Pretty by Stephanie Burt

To be pretty is to be appreciated and girly but small and impractical and, also, perhaps, defenseless.

Intimidating by Tanzila Ahmed

Society has all these expectations of how women are to show up in this world. Be yourself, they say. Be less of yourself. Be independent, but not too intimidating. Take care of yourself, but make a man feel like he can take care of you. Be everything, but not too much.

Good by Tova Mirvis 😊

You are allowed to change. You are allowed to decide what you believe. You are allowed to think what you think, feel what you feel.

Tomboy by Winter Miller

Tomboy is someone else’s idea about my gender.

Aloof by Elizabeth Spiers

Strong, silent women exist. Yet women who exhibit emotional control (women are always emotional!) and are taciturn in social situations (and they never shut up!) don’t get the benefit of being “strong, silent types.” In women, that alchemy of reserve and resolve makes a lot of people uncomfortable. They are people at once feminine and at odds with traditional ideas of what femininity connotes.

Exotic by Emily Sanders Hopkins 😊

They didn’t ask him his race; they just typed “white.” (Maybe race is just what you look like to white people.)

Fat by Jennifer Weiner 😊

And there it was. Fat. The other F word.

Feisty by Katha Pollitt

Feistiness takes the unpredictable, dangerous energy of anger and renders it funny and harmless. To call someone feisty is to imply they are in the one-down position. It’s the one-word version of “You’re so cute when you’re mad.”

Content warnings include mention of eating disorders, racism and sexual assault.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Words matter. They wound, they inflate, they define, they demean. They have nuance and power. “Effortless,” “Sassy,” “Ambitious,” “Aggressive”: What subtle digs and sneaky implications are conveyed when women are described with words like these? Words are made into weapons, warnings, praise, and blame, bearing an outsized influence on women’s lives – to say nothing of our moods.

No one knows this better than Lizzie Skurnick, writer of the New York Times‘ column “That Should be A Word” and a veritable queen of cultural coinage. And in Pretty Bitches, Skurnick has rounded up a group of powerhouse women writers to take on the hidden meanings of these words, and how they can limit our worlds – or liberate them. 

From Laura Lipmann and Meg Wolizer to Jennifer Weiner and Rebecca Traister, each writer uses her word as a vehicle for memoir, cultural commentary, critique, or all three. Spanning the street, the bedroom, the voting booth, and the workplace, these simple words have huge stories behind them – stories it’s time to examine, re-imagine, and change.