I’m sitting in the car, waiting to pick up my kids and trying to get a decent selfie for Instagram. So far I’ve taken at least thirty-seven pictures, and none of them are right. My nose is at the wrong angle in that one. There’s a big vein down the center of my head over there. My smile looks stale. Are those wrinkles on my neck? My wig looks too wiggy.
Delete. Delete. Delete.
I take one more. Use a different filter. Okay, that’s cute. I can post it.
When we get home, before I even start dinner, I check my page to see how people are responding to the new picture.
And then there it is:
“You’re so pretty.”
That word has followed me my whole life.
When I was a little girl, people in our church would say “what a pretty voice” when I got on stage to sing. I was a quiet, shy kid in the middle of a big, noisy family of seven sisters, one brother, and two cousins who lived with us because my mom and dad had big hearts. Finding my place was always a challenge, and at home, I spent a lot of time trying to blend in. In church, though, I stood out. I thrived on the love and attention I got when I sang for Jesus. I liked being the girl with the pretty voice, and how people all said I was special.
At the same time, I didn’t like being stuck inside for choir rehearsals, especially on sunny Saturday afternoons. And as I got older, I wanted people to see me as a whole person, more than just a voice. I wanted to feel like my pastor and my church family cared about me. There were times I would walk up to the pulpit to sing and God would bless people through my song, but I’d feel miserable. I would be broken but nobody noticed, and that hurt most of all.
By then, it was more than my voice that was called pretty. My mom and my Aunt Theresa, the first lady of our church, were always reminding me to “look pretty.” Don’t leave the house without earrings and lip gloss. Don’t wear those raggedy clothes in public. You don’t want people to think you’re a “bad” girl.
When I was a young adult, single and touring the country as a backup singer for a well-known R&B star, I had a crush on two particular R&B singers who were in the show. In one city, we all happened to be staying in the same hotel, and one night I encountered them in the elevator. As soon as the doors slid closed, we all started laughing and talking, and then they started telling each other how pretty they thought I was. They were using “pretty” to get my attention so they could just casually ask me to “stop by” their rooms.
(By the way, I didn’t take them up on their offers. I knew right away that their sweet words were a trap, trying to lure me away from God’s plan for my life. Those guys may have said I was pretty, but what they were asking for was a whole different kind of sexy. And no sir, I was not falling for it!)
I went on to sing with my sister Tina as the duo Mary Mary. We won a shelf full of big awards, hit the Billboard charts, and toured the world. We starred in our own reality TV show for six seasons. Then, after almost twenty years of doing music together, Tina and I decided to take some time apart. I’ll tell you more about that later. After a lot of work and a lot of prayer, I released my first solo song, which I called “A Little More Jesus.” It was a big step for me, and I was proud of the music. As soon as it was out, I went to iTunes to check the reviews. The first one I saw said, “No, honey, you don’t need a little more Jesus; you need a little more Tina. What are you doing by yourself? You’re the pretty one, but she’s the singer.”
Okay, that stung really bad. Yes, there have been some doors that opened in part because of how I look, but the reason I stay and the reason my songs continue to reach so many people around the world is because I go above and beyond. I can sing. I’ve spent years practicing and developing my talent, and I work hard. That song that the reviewer dissed went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award, and it wasn’t because of the way I looked.
So yeah, you can say that my relationship with the word “pretty” has been complicated. As a public figure, I’m constantly being judged by how I look and how I act. Being pretty, in some ways, is a job requirement. Yet over the years the pressure of “pretty” has sometimes been a box that felt too tight around me, limiting how I saw myself, how other people still see me, and the places where I could grow. Sometimes it was used to try to manipulate me, bait masked as a compliment.
As I travel the world and talk to women of all ages and backgrounds, I’ve discovered I’m not alone in this. The pressure to be pretty affects all of us, regardless of our race, our age, our faith, or our family. I’ve never met a woman who doesn’t have her own series of stories about how her desire to be pretty, and the efforts that she’s put into it, has marked her life.
So let me say right up front, before we go further: there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be pretty. God created us with natural, human desires to be accepted, loved, and appreciated, and the world has always told women that being pretty is the way to get there.
It starts early. If you grew up with a loving or supportive family around you, I bet that when you were a baby, people were happy to see you. Your family smiled when you came toddling into the room, and every time your parents took you out to the store or to church, someone said, “oh, what a pretty girl.” You heard those words before you even remember them, and the message came through loud and clear: people like you and pay attention to you if you’re pretty.
Of course, not everyone grew up with that kind of attention. Maybe your family was too caught up in their own issues to fill you with praise, or even to notice you. But there were plenty of other places where society’s priorities showed up. You watched movies and noticed that the pretty girls were always rescued from their troubles by handsome princes, but the not-so-pretty sisters went home defeated and alone. At school, you saw how the pretty girls were treated. Teachers paid more attention. Cute guys asked them out. They seemed so happy. And you started to believe that pretty people had easier, better, happier lives.
And of course, how could you miss the whole industry ready and waiting to sell you ways to be prettier?
Centuries before we were using the filters on our phones to make our eyes bigger and our skin clearer, women were buying dyes and powders to smooth their skin and bring color to their lips. Today, your mailbox and your inbox are full of promises to look better, be better, live healthier, and have better sex and better social lives. I’ve read that Americans spend a staggering 84 billion dollars every year on the creams and dyes and lotions that promise to shrink this and pump up that and cover up something over there, and the average woman in America will spend more than $225,000 on her appearance over the course of her lifetime.
And when it comes to women’s efforts to look good on the outside, I’m right there with my credit card in hand. I’m a weird mix of tough city girl and girly-girl, and though I try to be frugal, I love new clothes. Tina likes to tease, saying that “Erica’s always gonna have some lashes and lip gloss on just to go have breakfast.” That’s not exactly true, but I do like to look cute, even when I’m just wearing sweats and tennis shoes to be on the radio at three in the morning, California time. It’s important to me that I look like something.
Okay, Erica, that’s fine for you. But I’m not into all that makeup and jewelry stuff. I don’t take a bunch of pictures of myself. I don’t like how I look. Yeah, I hear you. Later in the book, we’ll talk more about how God wants us to think about our physical selves, but the short answer is that God gave us our bodies, created us in His own image. God delights in His creation, and invites us to delight in each other. Can you imagine how He must feel, then, when we belittle ourselves or come out with a long list of all the things we think are wrong with us? I think it pleases Him when I make an effort to celebrate and respect what He gave me, and it disappoints Him when I compare myself to others. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The pressure to be pretty is not just about whether you put on your face every morning or have a closet full of wigs. Women—especially Christian women—are also being pressured to have pretty lives. We think that in order to fit in, we need a rich husband and well-behaved, good-looking kids, a nice house, a new car, and some type of personal business or brand. We need to wear makeup and have gorgeous hair every time we leave the house, and always be nicely styled, poised, and polite. “Living pretty” means living with “good girl syndrome,” where we feel guilty if we don’t show up at work every day and at church on Sunday with a smile pasted on and a cheerful voice that assures everyone that we’re “just fine, thank you,” no matter what’s going on. We’ve got to sing in the choir and cook for the potluck and volunteer at the school because that’s just what people expect.
We live with these bogus rules: Don’t let the outside image crack. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t say the wrong thing. And social media has just made it all worse, because we start comparing our insides to other people’s outsides—or actually, what we think we know about other people’s outsides based on an incomplete picture of what we see from a distance.
From where I’m sitting as I write this, I can see my car parked outside by the curb. From here, it looks all shiny and nice, with a good paint job and tinted windows. Nothing looks broken.
What I can’t see from here is that the inside needs to be vacuumed. When I took the kids to school this morning, I saw all kinds of juice boxes and toys and junk in there. And I can’t see just by looking at the car whether it’s due for an oil change or running out of gas, but if I don’t check those things every now and then, I’m risking a major breakdown on the highway.
That’s what it’s like to only look at the outside of life. You’re walking into an enormous house and admiring the nice furniture, not knowing that there are termites in the walls or that the whole foundation is shifting underneath you.
Have you ever run into an acquaintance at the mall and pasted on a bright smile even though not five minutes before you were crying in the car? “Well hey, sis! Yes, all is well, and I’m doing great today.” Or have you posted a picture on social media that was the exact opposite of how you were looking and feeling?
Not long ago I was scrolling through Instagram, the way I do, and I saw a friend of mine smiling over brunch with a bunch of her girlfriends. Just a couple of minutes later, she texted me and told me how depressed she was feeling. The pretty image she was putting out to the world wasn’t anything like what was happening in her heart.
We’ve all got to learn to be honest, first with ourselves, then with God.
Life gets out of balance when all we see is what we look like on the outside. If your biggest goal right now is to look good, or your biggest pain is that you don’t like the way you look, be careful. Your focus on being pretty has gone too far.
I’m not going to say that social media is bad, because I use it just as much as you do. I love that with just a few clicks on my phone I can connect and share little corners of life with people I don’t get to see very often. I love that when we all get together in person it’s like a reunion, because we’ve seen the pictures and videos and posts about each other’s major life events. It’s easy to get carried away and to mistake followers for true friends. It’s easy to get addicted to the constant feedback of strangers. People like me!
But girl, you are so much more than your best filtered photo.
Those images on a screen aren’t the real you, and those little hearts and thumbs-up aren’t a validation of who you are. No amount of likes or fancy filtered selfies will make you happy.
It’s easy to lose sight of that sometimes, because there’s a billion-dollar beauty industry trying to convince you that you are nothing more than what you see in the mirror. They want you to buy their cosmetics, use their ad-supported filters, and buy their clothes, so they’ll shove professionally photoshopped photos of celebrities on the red carpet in front of you to convince you that you’d be happy if you could only look like this and live pretty like this.
That “red carpet” promise? It’s a lie. I’ve been on dozens of red carpets, and I can tell you that there’s just as much disappointment and unfulfilled desire there as anywhere else. People spend thousands of dollars to look their best, but the hair and makeup and gowns don’t make you feel loved. A person can win awards and still be sad. Those glamorous dresses are sometimes covering broken hearts and empty wallets. I know, because I’ve been that person.
Let me tell you what the red carpet at a big award show is really like. You start weeks, if not months, before the event, hiring stylists to find you just the right clothes, shoes, accessories, and (for women with curves like mine) the right undergarments. On the day of the event, you spend hours on your hair and makeup, and then pay people to follow you down the red carpet to “dab” you if you sweat.
You’ve spent thousands of dollars to be pretty for one night, but even then, the question remains: are you pretty enough? You can’t answer yet. You still have to spend thousands of dollars more to fly your publicist in from New York so that she can walk ahead of you, getting photographers to take the right pictures and asking reporters to interview you. This is where you really have to be made of steel and be very confident, because there will always be people who say no. They’re waiting for Justin Timberlake. Or if you do get an interview, the camera that’s aimed at you might suddenly shift, and the reporter could walk away while you’re in mid-sentence, because Cardi B or some huge actor or actress just arrived.
Once you finally get inside, there’s a lot of waiting around while other people have their pictures taken. Everyone’s hungry and stressed and giving each other the side eye, because someone has what you want, or wants what you have.
I don’t want to sound like it’s all terrible. Warryn and I have a lot of fun at award shows, and we’re blessed to have plenty of friends in show business who help us pass the time. Making appearances like this is part of our jobs, and it’s a lot of work and a lot of pressure. What looks glamorous on the outside is what humbles me and to brings me back to Him, over and over.
I’ve been blessed throughout my life to have a loving family and a successful career doing what I love and what God wants me to do, but it’s taken a long time for me to work through the issues that came up throughout my life related to being pretty. It’s only been recently that I’ve really understood how those early messages were tests of my spirit, trying to dissolve my identity and thwart my purpose before God could really use me.
It would be easy, given my line of work, to only think about the things that people see, or to lose myself in the “lights, camera, action.” After all, I hire people whose whole job is to talk to me about my image, my photographs, my brand and my platform. But this isn’t unique to show business.
We all like people telling us we’re great and people calling our names. It feels good to our egos, but what God’s shown me, over and over, is that the surface is just the beginning.
Pretty fades. Pretty changes. Pretty doesn’t heal your heart.
Trying to be good enough, cute enough, sexy enough, or nice enough is never going to work.
How do I know? Because I’ve lived it.
I’ve stood at the grocery store with a cart full of food for my family and a prayer that my card wouldn’t declined. I’ve squeezed myself into pants that don’t fit as well as they did last week, and I’ve tucked myself into Spanx so tight I had to sit funny to make sure the seams didn’t pop. I’ve let people see me with a wig cap on and my hair braided down. I’ve lost my temper with my family. I’ve gritted my teeth and pasted on a smile when all I wanted to do was cry over a broken relationship.
In other words, my life probably looks a lot like yours. I’ve struggled with my body image, focused on my flaws, worried about being truly seen, struggled with being myself, and spent a lot of time trying to understand who I am in God’s eyes.
And it’s taken me some time and a lot of prayer to come to understand that I’m not just pretty, but also beautiful. He’s called me to serve Him with what’s inside as well as out—just like He does with you.
In the chapters that follow, I’ll share that journey with you. We’re going to talk about that desire to be pretty, and how it plays itself out in our everyday lives. We’re going to get honest about our bodies and our sexuality. I’m going to show you the traps that can block you from the future God wants for you, and how to uncover the truly beautiful, richly blessed woman God sees in you. Most important, I’m going to show you how to do the deep, lasting soul work that will lead you to a fulfilling life as a royal, loved, and worthy child of God.
It’s not going to be easy, but it will change your life.
Being pretty is where the conversation starts, because we’re all on a quest to be more comfortable in our own skin. But this book is about so much more than what we see in the mirror. The conversation needs to grow from there. Who are we as flawed, loved, and hopeful creations? Why are we here? Where do we fit? How can we take the unique strengths that God gave us and use them to best serve Him? How can we own our stories, love our bodies no matter the shape or size, and celebrate ourselves? These are the questions that excite me these days. These are the messages I want to share with you.
This is a conversation that’s so real to me, and so present in my life. It comes from the conversations I have every day with my sisters and daughters and cousins and aunts and girlfriends. It comes from the honesty and vulnerability that’s been shared at my church’s women’s ministry, which we named More Than Pretty. We dig deep there, and we get real about mental health and forgiveness and family and relationships. And that’s what I want for you, too.
There’s a reason you picked up this book. I believe in divine assignments and appointments. Over and over, I’ve seen God bring me the right people at the right time, sometimes in the most unexpected places. And maybe, for you, this book is that unexpected place. You could be reading anything right now. You could be doing a lot of other things. But something brought you here.
God is leading me to write something now that you’re going to need some time later, wherever you live. I believe that there's something in here that will bless you, change you, shift you, lift you and help bring you to the next level.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being pretty, but there’s so much more to you than what’s on the surface. God has so much more for you.
I’m so excited to share this journey with you.