ARC Review: Pretty Bitches Edited by Lizzie Skurnick

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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.

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I knew I had to read this book as soon as I saw the title. Every single word that the authors discuss in this collection of essays has a history of dehumanization and insult when attributed to women, even though some of them don’t feel so on the face. Some of these personal stories were very relatable, some interesting to get to know while others didn’t leave that much of a mark – but ultimately, this is a noteworthy collection of essays, not just to understand the implications behind using these words, but also to see if there are ways we women ourselves are using them to put down other women or if we can reclaim them for ourselves.

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Too by Adaora Udoji

The author really drives home the point that woman are shamed and made to question themselves very often because they are “too” much of something, and that it’s a word which is used over and over to make women shut up and stick to their lanes. The author talks about how it affected her personally and how important it is for us to not let go of our voice and keep telling our stories, even if they are too much.

Professional by Afua Hirsch

As a black woman studying to be a barrister, the author talks about how the word “professional” in and of itself is a barrier to her and most women like her, how professional standards are often defined in a way conforming to White men and anyone not them automatically falls short of those standards. From being told to tone down the voice, to dress properly, to not keeping natural hair, the burden of being a professional is too much on women and the author tells how it took her very long to realize that she didn’t have to conform to those standards which were never made for her anyway.

Effortless by Amy S. Choi

This was a very important essay about how women (especially of color) are expected to adhere to white beauty standards but we are also expected to make looking beautiful feel effortless; how we should never talk about all the things we have to do and juggle and buy to get that perfect look and behave as if we just wake up that way. The author’s message that –  if we put all the time that we use to make everything look effortless into actually loving ourselves the way we are and just talk openly, we would save so much effort – felt really important and resonated with me a lot.

Princess by Carina Chocano

The author talks about how nothing much has changed in the depiction of princesses in pop culture from her childhood to her kindergartener’s childhood, it’s still a young girl without much agency who is swept away by a prince. My hope is that we are seeing little changes these days and that they will get better in the future.

Ugly by Dagmara Domiñczyk

Ugly is a word that is often used to make a woman feel powerless says the author, and there’s always a lot more meaning hidden behind using that word, but people use it because it’s easy. She asks us to embrace ourselves, both the beautiful and ugly sides of us, and whichever we want to be whenever we want to be.

Shrill by Dahlia Lithwick

This was a brilliant essay and something I felt deeply in my heart – how shrill is a word that is used for women not because there’s something wrong with our tone but because we have dared to speak up in a public space, and how we have been conditioned to lower our voice and soothe the men around us so that they can finally listen to the actual crux of the matter. And the author justifiably asserts that in recent times when we are having more discussions about female anger, she doesn’t care who calls her shrill anymore and she will express her unfiltered opinions. Maybe we should too.

Lucky by Glynnis Macnicol

The author talks about how the word “lucky” is used almost as a sly remark while referring to her because she is a forty year old single women – the meaning behind its usage that she has escaped all the responsibilities women are supposed to have like marriage and motherhood and is leading a charmed life, but she is never congratulated for her accomplishments like a man would be. Everything about her is attributed to “luck” and not all the hard work she had put in over the years. But she also understands that she is lucky indeed to be born in a generation when women can lead independent lives and have control of their destiny.

Mom by Irina Reyn

I think the author was talking a bit about imposter syndrome and not feeling worthy of the word, but I unfortunately didn’t understand the message in this essay.

Mature by Jillian Medoff

The author talks about the dichotomy of the word mature – how when she was young it meant her body was too noticeable and men couldn’t stop staring or commenting on her big breasts; but now as a fifty five year old professional, mature means she is too old and slow and sliding into obsolescence and may not be considered worthy of her job despite her decades of experience. Mature is a word that might have a gender neutral positive meaning but it never does when applied to a woman of any age.

Ambitious by Julianna Baggott

Ambition in a woman is definitely scorned and the author talks about how she was derided directly or just as an aside about how she could possibly be balancing her writing while being a mother of four – their point being that her ambition to publish and her later success made her a bad mother. And while she doesn’t necessarily believe in reclaiming the word, she thinks ambition just means figuring out what we want to do and desiring to do it well.

Victim by Kate Harding

I understand the author’s wish to be called a victim and not a survivor because that’s her choice, but at times I slightly felt she was dismissing the others’ choice to call themselves survivors. Or maybe I misunderstood it. I just didn’t completely get what the author was trying to say except that we should be able to choose individually what we want to be.

Disciplined by Laura Lippman

The author’s story about how she was repeatedly called disciplined and organized, for being able to write one mystery novel per year while working and winning awards, but never a genius or natural because that word is usually reserved for men. She is absolutely right when she says that neurotic and eccentric men are hailed as geniuses while women who work jobs, fulfill their passions and also run a home and take care of children are never called the same for being able to do it all, maybe even derided for being so passionate about their dreams. So she has decided to not wait for anyone and claim whatever word she wants for herself.

Yellow-Bone by Lihle Z. Mtshali

The author’s take on how colorism and the self-hatred of being too dark persists until today despite decades after abolition of apartheid in South Africa, really resonated with me. It’s so painful to know that while black people won political power, the influence of white people on economics and culture still remains and their standards of beauty are still considered the norm.

Zaftig by Lizzie Skurnick

While talking about how much hardships they overcame on both her Black and Jewish sides of the family, the author wonders if she is squandering their legacy by spending too much time worrying about her weight, and if she should instead reclaim the words that were used as slurs against her. Interesting food for thought.

Crazy by Mary Pols

The author’s personal experience itself wasn’t relatable, but when she talks about how the word “crazy” is used to talk about any woman who doesn’t fit the boxes the men have made for her, when she tries to be more, or when the men are trying to gaslight women to cover up their own mistakes – it was too hard not to resonate with the message because we have all heard it. The word has been so extensively used that even we women shame ourselves for being called crazy and the author implores us not to fall into that kind of self-hatred and just be what we want to be.

Small by Beth Bich Minh Nguyen

Small is not a word I would have associated with myself because I was always the tall one, and even the big one. But the whole idea of small being used in the context of making ourself take up less space, diminish ourselves and not voice our thoughts loudly is something I feel deeply about and I don’t know when I’ll get into the process of unlearning it all. I’m so glad that the author is much more comfortable in her body and confident in herself that the word small doesn’t bother her anymore.

Funny by Meg Wolitzer

I’ve never been a funny or humorous person, but I still felt it when the author says how her overt expression of humor, and being funny, and acting it out became a bit distasteful to other men as she grew up because in our gendered society, it is they who are allowed to express themselves fully but women never have the same freedom.

Sweet by Monique Truong

Tracing the origins of how sugar became such a prominent food group with its link to slavery and colonization, and using the example of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, the author talks about how we just love to diminish the worth of a woman and all her qualities and accomplishments to the single word “sweet” as if that single word can encompass the complete personality of a woman.

Nurturing by Racquel D’Apice

The author talks a lot about how giving birth to a baby doesn’t make anyone a natural at nurturing, but loving and trying to take care of the baby gradually does. And that is why she says it is very condescending when men use the word nurture in terms of saying women are good at it, because they are more emotional rather than practical or logical. I thought the author did a great job trying to dissect this myth about nurturing and talking about it as a realistic process that anyone can and should develop.

Pretty by Stephanie Burt

The author tells us that pretty is often used as an infantilizing word, meaning not really beautiful, not upto the mark, not perfect. But it all stems from the patriarchal beliefs that feminine presentation is somehow weak. And that’s why as a trans woman who transitioned late in her life, the author talks about embracing the word pretty and everything that comes with it – being feminine, the pink, the tulle, the makeup and et al – because there is power in them too.

Intimidating by Tanzila Ahmed

As a desi myself, I related so much to the author’s experiences – how we are taught to be educated and independent, but don’t act too smart or intelligent with guys because they don’t like feeling intimidated by their partners; how we should stay silent and listen and take care of them and let them take care of us even though we are perfectly capable ourselves. I know I’ve done it myself and it’s frustrating but I actually liked knowing that the author has managed to not have to sacrifice her sense of self for the sake of a relationship but also a bit sad that she is still single probably because the guys can’t handle a well educated smart woman.

Good by Tova Mirvis

Growing up in an orthodox Jewish community with her name literally meaning “good”, the author talks about how her whole upbringing was divided into being good and bad, with good being obedient and quiet and religious and everything else being bad. Her struggle between good and bad, trying to suppress herself to ensure that she was being good was tough to read but I loved that she managed to break out of it, and her lesson that we should just live our truth instead of asking ourselves if it’s good or bad, is very important.

Tomboy by Winter Miller

The author’s journey of being called a tomboy but unable to accept it and then trying to find the right word to identify herself from lesbian to gay to queer to dyke to androgynous, it’s a fascinating read and I liked how confident and comfortable the author seemed in being exactly herself.

Aloof by Elizabeth Spiers

This was another very relatable topic where the author talks about how a woman is always expected to be a validator for a man, especially so if she is a woman with some sort of power, in which case she has to make all other men around her feel comfortable. But when a woman has both some form of power or agency but is also shy, reserved and silent, sinister designs are attributed to her and called as aloof whereas a man in the exact same situation would be called “the strong, silent type”. The author talks about this hypocrisy with many examples and I realized how true it is, but there’s also nothing we can really do to change it.

Exotic by Emily Sanders Hopkins

I’m actually not sure what to say about the author’s essay except that it made me a bit uncomfortable and I’m not sure what to take away from it.

Fat by Jennifer Weiner

As someone who’s heard talk about my fat body, the need to not be lazy and diet and exercise and many other snide comments for lots of years now, this essay hit me hard. And I think I just don’t wanna say anymore except read this one. It’s important. And don’t fat shame.

Feisty by Katha Pollitt

I used to attribute the word feisty to some of my favorite fictional characters in my reviews until I realized the negative connotations of the word, how it’s just another word for angry woman disguised as a compliment; and the author explains it very well through her own experiences.

Words You Shouldn’t Call Women

There is a whole list of words and animal names detailed in this section which are still used to describe women, some of which are positive compliments when applied to men but definitely not in case of women. Knowing some of their origins makes it sound hilarious but their usage in our daily life is definitely not.

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PS: Thank you to Netgalley and Seal Press for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

5 thoughts on “ARC Review: Pretty Bitches Edited by Lizzie Skurnick

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  1. I definitely have to read this one.

    “Nurturing” stood out to me. I recently watched a dating show where a bisexual man said he only wanted to date women because they’re more nurturing and I felt so sad and frustrated. Like, do you want a caring partner or a partner who manages your emotions for you?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nurturing was definitely one of the most significant ones for me too.. but the whole book just gives voice to the myriad number of ways we are put down .. Definitely worth a read and I hope you’ll like it 😊😊

      Liked by 1 person

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