debbie millman

Saturday, March 29, 2008

You Look Pretty

I often imagine what it would be like to be other people and I envision what it would be like to be in their skin for a day. I do this with celebrities or scientists or artists and politicians or athletes or friends, and wonder what it would be like to be someone with the profoundly magical talent of Joan Didion or the beauty of Sophia Lauren or the brave, courageous defiance of Nelson Mandela. I consider how I would behave and if I would make similar choices and decisions. I contemplate if I would continue to live life as they do or if I would conduct myself differently.

I also tend to do this with less noble characters; I find myself fantasizing about what it would be like to be silly television characters and imagine myself as a real life Sidney Bristow on Alias or Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy or Bette Porter on The L Word. Would I make the choices they do? Would I cheat? Would I kill? Would I wear fabulously skimpy outfits and take advantage of my newfound athletic prowess or knack for foreign languages?

It feels strangely exhilarating to slip on someone else’s perception for a brief time and inhabit the elusive construct of their norms. I imagine living someone else’s life without my own fears or insecurities and I play with the notion of what would be possible with their beauty or brilliance or balls. I never consider that these characters have any flaws; I imagine that their lives are perfect. They are never unhappy, they are never frustrated, they are never depressed and they are always unfailingly beautiful.

The concept of beauty has been a subjective archetype since the dawn of man. Trends come and go, perceptions change and evolve, and with each passing fad we still seek to achieve this infinitely immeasurable ideal of what is beautiful. Though we have no empirical answers or common definitions, the quest remains a constant.

Last week, while sitting in an airport waiting for yet another delayed flight, I got bored trying to get my wireless internet to work and shut my computer in utter frustration. I looked around and observed the other travelers: some were eating fast food from Styrofoam boxes, some were leafing through trashy magazines, some were tapping out messages on blackberries. Others were yapping loudly on cell phones or arguing with the gate agent. I saw well-dressed people, people in dirty sweat pants, boys in expensive sneakers, women in stiletto heels. I even saw someone wearing a pink wig. As I continued to scan the close-knit crowd, I came upon a young black woman sitting with two children. She seemed to be in her early thirties. Her face looked as if it had been severely burned and was tight and heavily grafted. Clumps of hair on her head and parts of her hands were missing; they too were severely burned and grafted. Yet she sat laughing with her children, and as they cavorted together, I wondered what had happened to her. Was she a victim of 9/11? Was she in a terrible car accident? Was she once beautiful? Was she happy to be alive? I had so many questions I wanted to ask, but knew I never could.

Once we all got on the plane, the pilot broadcasted more delays. In the air, the he reported even more. It was a small aircraft and as the flight attendant finished making her announcements and apologies, she looked around. “Look at all these miserable faces!” she proclaimed. Surprised at her unexpected candor, everyone laughed. But I couldn’t help but wonder what the burned woman thought. I searched for where she was sitting, and saw she was all the way in the back row with her children. She had her arms around them and she was looking down. In that moment, my heart broke.

I have thought about this woman every day since that trip. I think about her as I berate myself for being too fat or hating my hair or wishing I looked younger or prettier. I thought of her on Wednesday as I walked through the West Village in New York City. It was a sunny, crisp day, and as I felt the wobbly cobblestones under my feet, I watched the people walking past me and wondered who they were and where they came from. Suddenly I noticed a woman coming towards me. She was a middle-aged woman, likely in her late forties or early fifties. She was still dressed for winter, and as she approached, I saw that she was actually wearing two coats. Her hair looked like a big birds nest and she was carrying a bag full of tattered newspapers. She was criss-crossing the sidewalk and seemed to be talking to herself. As we neared each other, she saw that I was looking at her and she marched towards me. Unsure of what she wanted, I held my handbag tight. As she came closer, I saw that she had a thick, deep, dark scar on the outside of her hand. She came right up to me and asked me what I was looking at. Nervous about her proximity, I quickly responded, “nothing.” And then, before I knew it, she got even closer. Two inches from face, she demanded, “Tell me I look pretty.” Without blinking an eye I responded: “You look pretty.” And then she put her hand into her mouth and bit down hard on her scar.

As she quickly walked away, I realized that in comparison to less fortunate people, she could be considered pretty. To many, many more, she would seem frightening or sick or sad. But when this strange woman with two coats and bad hair heard she was pretty from a total stranger, for one small moment it was all she needed to hear, and she seemed very willing to believe it.


Blogger Dorothy Snarker said...

What a lovely, thoughtful piece of writing. Thank you.

3/30/2008 05:47:00 PM  

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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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