by Belle Tuten
“I so sorry I was ugly.”
My cousin’s three-year-old daughter stood before me with solemn eyes peeking between her blond curls. She had some crumbs stuck to her lips.
She meant that she had taken and eaten the cereal O’s I had brought as a snack for my baby son. I said “That’s OK, honey,” and sent her on her way (valiantly not laughing).
It struck me that “Don’t be ugly” is what many Southern mothers say to their little girls (and sometimes to their little boys) when what they mean is “stop misbehaving” or “mind your manners.” It made me wonder what that phrase meant to girls, and to think about all it meant to me.
“Don’t be ugly” = don’t play rough games; don’t use strong language.
“Don’t be ugly” = don’t hit back.
“Don’t be ugly” = don’t smart off to your mother. Or your grandmama. Or the pastor.
“Don’t be ugly” = don’t argue with the teacher who thinks girls can’t do biology, math, science.
“Don’t be ugly” = don’t tell the music teacher that a boy comes into the practice room every day and harasses you. You’re pretty sure it must be that skirt you wore last week.
“Don’t be ugly” can mean “stop misbehaving,” or “mind your manners,” but it can also mean “don’t bring up uncomfortable subjects” or “don’t make a scene” or even “don’t tell the truth.” It can also mean “don’t do anything” even when someone else is doing or saying ugly things to you.
I can’t help remembering the scene in the Senate this past week, when Elizabeth Warren was, essentially, told not to be ugly to a fellow senator. The letter Sen. Warren wanted to read was later read out by four other senators, all male. Nobody told them, “Don’t be ugly.”
I decided to put that phrase aside forever.
I will do the activities and say the things that I want to say.
I will speak the truth; I may do it nicely, but I will do it.
I will not be silent when others are doing or saying ugly things.
I will do something. I will respond.
When ugliness is required, I will be ugly.