To give sweetness back some of its former glory, think of it as a form of compassion. Compassion is a real, deeply felt understanding of the fact that everyone in this world experiences pain, and that pain always sucks, for everybody. It’s an honest desire to help other people get through their pain, to lessen it or prevent it, when and how you can.

You can be kind to others without being polite to everyone all the time; and you can be outspoken, demanding, and downright disagreeable without being a bad person or a “mean girl” (another epithet that’s flung around to oppress girls—do you ever hear anyone being called a “mean boy”?).

Another wonderful thing about compassion is that the more you live and get scuffed up by life, the more it can grow. Every hard day you’ve ever had, every hurt or trauma you’ve experienced, is actually a strange kind of blessing; it’s a door into the suffering experienced by other people, a chance for you to realize, even when you’re overwhelmed by your own pain, that this is what it’s like for other people, too. Pain is terrible, and you shouldn’t seek it out. But when it happens—and it always happens, to everyone—it can help to realize that, through this pain, you are learning about a part of the human experience that you will one day be uniquely qualified to help other people survive.

Pretty → Confident

Oh, “pretty.” Where would I be without you? I would be living a far more centered and less insecure life, without the memories of that one year in college when I pretty much ate only tuna salad sandwiches without mayonnaise in the tuna salad, and also I would pick the bread off, and people would kindly tell me that I “looked tired” almost every day, probably because I was somehow surviving on two to three handfuls a day of celery and cold tuna. That is where I’d be, without the concept of “pretty.”

Again: There is nothing wrong with being pretty! Pretty things are pleasant to look at. The problem comes when “pretty” means “a female human that a male-dominated culture has deemed fuckable,” which is what it has come to mean under that same male-dominated culture. But pretty doesn’t have to mean a person with genetically assigned perfectly symmetrical features and a body that is thin but curvy and that doesn’t need to use a wheelchair to get around, and who is graceful and young and preferably blond, doe-eyed, and white. If you have ever been in love, you know that at the height of it the object of your affections was the most beautiful sight in the world to you, right? So you have to acknowledge that there is a culturally understood definition of what’s pretty, and then there’s what all of us weird, complicated human beings actually find pretty, and those two sets do not line up. Attraction is subject to powerful, mysterious forces way beyond the scope of the dominant beauty ideal. It’s a good idea to tune in to those forces, the ones that tell you what you want and what makes you happy, and turn the volume way down on (a) what everyone else thinks you should want, and (b) what you imagine other people think of you. And while you’re at it, try to think less about how you look, and more about how you feel. (This is not always easy, I know, especially if you are a teenage girl on planet earth.)

To do all this, you need confidence, which, like compassion, is something you gain by living. The more you get to know the specific person you are, the more qualified you’ll be to realize both what you want and what makes you worth wanting.

Innocent → Learning

Innocence, as I say, is often used to mean “seems young and vulnerable in a manner that would allow me to get away with wacky bullcrap and never once get called out.” The people who are attracted to that are, not surprisingly, the kind of people who are really super into getting away with wacky bullcrap, which is why telling girls to aspire to that version of “innocent” is basically like saying “the zoo is much more fun when you actually climb into the tiger exhibit.”

But young? Vulnerable? Those things are awesome. They mean you’re open to experience. You’re not set in your ways. You’re still figuring things out, which means you’re thoughtful, and that you have the confidence to change your mind. You’re not less than anyone else just because you haven’t been around as long as they have. Your mind is alive to and engaged in the world in a way that’s hard to hold on to later in life. You’re learning.

The idea that girls are supposed to stay “pure” is a trap designed to keep you from getting out there and exploring the world—because, you’re told, it will only rough you up, dirty up your soul, sully you, make you less. But learning is not a trap. It means that you’re standing in front of failure and embarrassment and disappointment—and joy, and surprise, and all the good things that come with experience—and you’re ready for them. That you’re not afraid to explore. It means you’re ready to grow up, even when that process scares you. I can’t think of anything braver or more powerful than that. ♦