Not a Pretty Girl

Kelly Coffey

Following massive weight loss, I learned that thin & pretty DOES NOT equal happy & healthy

My friend Sandra Costello asked to take photos of me after I wrote a body-positive piece that went viral. 1  On the phone she said “People know you’re fit, but I want to make you look pretty.”

“Eff pretty,” 2 said the part of me that still hearts Nine Inch Nails; 3 the part that still wants to shoot the whiskey and smoke the Camels I dropped years ago. That she thought I gave a crap about looking pretty felt insulting.

“Eff her,” said the part of me that checks herself in mirrors, the part that still sucks in her stomach even though she has a six-pack, the part that’s almost as proud of her shapely shoulders 4 as she is of her two daughters. That she didn’t already think I was pretty made me feel defensive.

“Eff me,” said the part of me that’s still being held hostage on the playground, getting pushed and punched to the tune of “Sme-lly Ke-lly Big Fat Be-lly.” Today I’m completely safe and can’t walk across a room without bumping into one of my blessings. That I am wasting even one brain cell thinking about how pretty I am or am not makes me want to clone myself so I can throw a drink in my face. 

“Great!” I said, and we scheduled a photo shoot.


My relationship to ‘thin and pretty’ is complicated. Today I’m a healthy size 8, 5 but I was morbidly obese from early childhood into my 20s. As a girl I nurtured distaste for thin and pretty women. I let myself imagine I was funnier, smarter, and deeper than they were. That idea lifted me up just enough to keep me from drowning in the waves of criticism that were oft thrashing around in my complicated little head. 6

Kelly pre-op 2

A kite’s got nothing on me.

I fancied myself Superior In All Other Ways, but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing that my life would be more Steven-Spielberg-meets-Sex-in-the-City and less David-Lynch-meets-Animal-House if I could only manage to get “thin and pretty.”

Kelly Coffey Diner

11 years ago, my cheap pleasures and active addictions brought me to a messy physical, emotional, and spiritual bottom. Rather than address how I was hurting myself, I had gastric bypass surgery. Surely this would turn things around, bring me peace, bring me joy, and make me happy.

Wouldn’t you know it, a year later I was thin and “pretty” and…

…hold for it…


I was still living from binge to binge, and still going nowhere – fast.

Well, eff.


The photo shoot was at Sandra’s sunlit studio in an old industrial park in Holyoke, Mass. We spent hours playing with angles and light and poses and clothes. Her enthusiasm and attention made me feel like I was a joy to look at. We shot the shit, 7 and I forgot about the camera a few times. In short, I had a blast.


Who the hell is that?!

She emailed me a photo the next day. It was of this delightfully demure-looking blonde with a fresh smile and bright eyes and hair all tousled in a whimsical breeze. She was super pretty. And she was me. 8

What with the whole mirror-checking, shoulder-pride thing you might expect I’d be thrilled. But, no – looking at that photo made me angry.

I was angry that as a little girl I was taught that thin and pretty is the most important thing a woman can be. I was angry that I may never feel like I’ve completely freed myself from the shackles of that idea. I was angry that the world had to bear the burden of yet another photo of yet another shiny, smiley white girl. I was angry that you couldn’t see one trace of the pain and the humor and the demons and the gratitude that fight for the microphone in my head. I was angry that suddenly there was a photo of me that might suggest that thin and pretty equal healthy and happy, an idea I’m working diligently to squash like a bug on a windshield.

I’m on something of a blissed-out joyride today (my own dark, edgy  version, natch). I am, for the most part, happy and peaceful. But being pretty didn’t get me here. 9 Sliding into the “Normal” BMI range didn’t get me here, either. What got me here was changing how I treated myself every day.

Once upon a time I ran with every craving and compulsion I had – even more so after I lost half my body weight, because I wanted to make up for lost time. But today, I’m committed to treating myself well. When the urge hits to turn a blind eye to that commitment, and it does, I use that as a prompt to take care of myself. 10  When driven to do things I know don’t serve me, I follow a short couple of steps that help me do something caring instead. 11 It’s a great system, and it’s why I have the incredible life I have today. Thin and pretty got me free drinks, it got me laid, and it got me out of a parking ticket, but it never got me what this practice has given me: genuine, sustainable health and happiness.

I teach women like me how to treat themselves better over a lifetime. I help them recognize and dethrone shame (the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with us).  I show them how to use the drive to harm themselves as a prompt to treat themselves well. I teach these things because they don’t come naturally to me, and talking about them helps me keep living them, day after day.

How we choose to treat ourselves in this moment is what matters. Making lots of small, caring choices helps us feel good about ourselves. Over time, those choices bring us to more health and happiness.

Of course, what we value also has a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves. We’re hard-wired to value beauty, 12 but what we tend to think of as “beautiful” is fleeting and, for the most part, randomly assigned. 13 I’m way more attracted to hot personalities and strong identities, boldness and honesty, creative vision and mastery (the skill mastered doesn’t much matter). I’m teaching my two daughters to value strength and exploration and playfulness, so that their strong, smart, and funny adult selves can feel intrinsically, unselfconsciously good no matter how they look or what they weigh.

We can all share a good laugh that I’m doing this in a body and with a face that satisfies most of the requirements of white, American prettiness.

Needless to say, like every other mother, I have my work cut out for me.

The End.

Me and Sandra Costello

Me and Sandra Costello

Oh, Hey, Sandra – Thank you for being a woman with drive and clarity and passion. You are a shockingly talented photographer.  You’re also funny as hell and disinclined to bullshit, and that, my friend, is beautiful.

Sandra Costello does her thing in Western Massachusetts.

Liz Washer, The Most Talented Makeup Artist This Side of The Mason Dixon Line, does too.


  1. I used to be 300 pounds. Now I’m not. And there’s things I miss about my 300-pound body. That piece listed five of them.
  2. Apparently, avoiding f-bombs makes my writing more accessible. There’s no accounting for tastes.
  3. I saw them and Soundgarden last week. Trent, Chris – If you’re reading this, we should hang.
  4. Shapely means muscled. Toned means muscled. If you want to be shapely and toned, that means you want muscle. Trust me.
  5. Really I exist on a pretty wide spectrum – my clothes claim to be anything from a 6 to a 12. It depends on a lot of factors. Part of how I continue to take care of myself and my body each day is by avoiding the scale like the plague, so I can’t honestly say what I weigh.
  6. Criticism from family “You’d be so pretty if you were thin.” Criticism from my peers. Criticism from my gym teachers. Criticism from every piece of media I ever saw that didn’t include anyone who looked like me unless they were the great-aunt or the psycho in a cabin in the woods.
  7. Shooting the shit in a photography studio. Man, I crack me up.
  8. I’ve got haters. That’s what I get for daring to write a love letter to my large body. Now I imagine they’ll give me grief for calling myself pretty. This will make it easier for them to be identified and avoided, in case you’re ever searching the internet for someone to hire, marry, sleep with or let near your children.
  9. Let no one doubt –  being easy on the eyes helped. If you’re reading this, you may have clicked on the link because of how I look. Oh, irony. (I know that’s not the real definition of irony. Leave me alone.)
  10. Think about that for a minute. What would life look like, and how might you feel, if every time you felt like doing something harmful, or sabotaging yourself, you automatically took care of yourself instead? I don’t know about you, but I think about doing stupid shit All The Time. No wonder I’m in such good shape. Ha!
  11. Want to hear more about it? You can click the button below.
  12. Any neuroaestheticians want to confirm that? Or correct me?
  13. Thanks again, Ma!
Showing 13 comments
  • EClaireMyers

    AH!! I was at two of those Soundgarden/NIN shows!!! This is the first I’m seeing your site, and I already feel the kismet 🙂

    • Coffey

      Can you even believe how good Trent looks? I could eat him. Glad you found me. How’d that happen?

  • BeSeven

    Here’s a poem of mine you might want to share with your daughters.

  • Sarah May

    I’m 2.5 weeks out from having gastric bypass. I have felt the same as you that thin in pretty means life will be easier. I realize now life is just messy for everyone no matter how fat or skinny someone is. I love how you talk about treating yourself better. It’s something I’ve been working on before surgery. Thank you for this article.

  • born2lbfat

    I’m happy and healthy and FAT…and beautiful despite physical abnormal appearance. I was in Psychology Today regarding appearances. Being told I was not to smile made me think they were going to show the “sad fat person”, that was not the case. http://born2lbfat.com/my-abnormal-photo-shoot/

    • Coffey

      Amen and amen and amen. I’m glad you’re out there inspiring people.

  • Danielle

    my husband has been telling me for years that it is about building strength, not the numbers on the scale that will make a difference. I never listened to him. After dieting, restricting calories, and juice fasting with no results, I’m frustrated but I know now that I need to change my approach. Your stories are really inspiring. Don’t ever stop sharing!

  • Alice Bowmaker

    I love what you just wrote it totally echoes the journey that I am on now and the values that I try to convey to my clients. I think a lot of people miss the point with exercise and health. The perspective is to exercise/eat well because we don’t accept ourselves and want to punish ourselves and but it should be just the opposite. I would love you to do a guest article on my website: http://www.inspiredbodyandmind.com, Alice x

  • Pen

    Well done m/
    I spent most of my life dictated to by media, friends, family and school that I was “pretty”. It was their way of trying to give me a confidence boost despite me being fat. I saw the pity in their eyes, the “if only she…”.

    I was 16 when I truly saw myself, when I hit my biggest low. I couldn’t fit into my prom dress and I was too ashamed to go. I saw this “big fat bloated ugly cow” – the bullies words tattoed into my head, not mine.

    I spent a year completely transforming myself, even giving myself a nickname so that when I started college and I was studying music, dance and theatre and I would be a new person. I was a new person… visually, but deep inside I still couldn’t understand why I had guys checking me out, I still looked at thin girls and envied them. I had always thought that if I was thinner I wouldn’t just be “pretty with pity” I would be sexy and beautiful. My grandfathers death after college set me right back and the weight piled back on.

    Skip to 30’s and I got ill, like proper ill, from yoyo dieting. I’ve always been a type 1 diabetic and had heart condition and kidney artery issue so when I got ill it broke me, phsically, mentally and emotionally.

    I had no choice, I couldn’t go back to the way I was befote, dieting, shaming myself if I binged, watching the lbs on the scales. Just then I decided… Screw media, screw society, I want my body to tell me what it needs, I’m going to stop listening to my brain. It started slow and the docs recommended to start simple with basic natural food, as years of dieting and body stress gave me ibs. Skip to now. I’m 36 and I don’t give a sh!t what media etc says what the perfect body is, thats their idea, not mine. I workout on my rowing machine because I know it keeps my sugars in check and rebuilds muscle. I go hiking because it clears my mind and helps me see the bigger picture.

    I am warrior strong throughout, being pretty is the last thing on my mind now. Being strong, independent, healthy (not weight or shape just not ill) and happy comes from doing what you love, what makes you feel good and not what others think will be good for you. I started singing again too 4 years ago after over a 10 year gap.

    I would love to see more women reject societys version of what is pretty, sexy and beautiful and let us all shine through. 🙂

    Your story is inspirational and like us all, we are human and theres no such thing as perfect in this world unless you look to nature.


    • Coffey

      We’d have a great coffee date, you and I. Thanks so much for taking the time to tell me your story. I’m a little jumpy that I get to connect with women like you through my writing.
      Take good care of you, as you are.

      • Pen

        I feel the same way too when I read about womens lives and obstacles they have had to overcome similar to me. It’s not an easy world for women to live in and be happy with themselves. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and only we as women are able to take charge of our own identities and expectations and rebel against a society designed to mold us into their ideals.

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