There are two truths I can’t square up. My daughter is a dead ringer for me. And my daughter is beautiful. Not just proud-mama beautiful but strangers stop me on the street to tell me beautiful.
I sometimes find myself looking at her and thinking, in my proud mama moments, how beautiful she is and then my mind does gymnastics to figure out how it is that anyone can think this beautiful little girl looks anything like me… Because I would never use the word beautiful to describe me. On my best day, I’d try for handsome features or pretty. And I’ve always been ok with that. I know my own failings — I should exercise more, I take compliments poorly, I have a weakness for chocolate …
But this isn’t about my self esteem, it’s about hers.
Right now, she hears both those truths and sees nothing wrong. But, if I talk about how I wish I was thinner or taller or had less wrinkles, how soon will until she sees the conflict I see? Worse, will she draw the same conclusion I drew years ago that I was in need of improvement? Spending too much time thinking life would be better if only …
I hate the idea that she will spend so much time thinking about her appearance. But telling her appearance doesn’t matter would do her a disservice as well.
Lately, it seems that a woman’s appearance is not just a topic of conversation but an opportunity to judge and shame. We’ve moved past the days when the biggest news about Hillary Clinton was her haircut and replaced it with whether it is appropriate for Michele Obama to wear a dress that shows off her muscular arms. And then we make girls who don’t have equally toned arms feel bad for wearing the same dress.
Everywhere I look, I see lists of celebrities who have “gone fat” while nearly all the pictures would be better labeled “celebrities who got healthy.” And then there are the stories about girls who were sent home because their clothes were outside the dress code – generally these girls are fully clothed and yet something about their attire might lead someone to linger too long on a body part – and now we’ve made it their fault.
This is not progress. It sets ridiculous standards for young girls. We are teaching our girls that there value is weighed by their attractiveness but that that same attribute must be hidden lest someone else be unable to control themselves.
So what do we tell our girls? If we tell them it doesn’t matter, we aren’t preparing them for the world where they will be judged — not just in the silly tabloid fat-shamming, slut-shamming way but when it comes to job interviews and networking and relationships.
I recently read Senator Kirsten Gillebrand’s book where she talked about how awful she felt when told her post-baby body wasn’t ready for primetime and then the realization that there was some sad truth to it. But on the other side, she found a happier, healthier place for herself. We have to get rid of that middle step. The judging and shaming shouldn’t be part of the conversation.
Appearance says a lot about a person. We should teach our children to dress appropriately, to respect their bodies, to play up their assets and to feel comfortable in their own skin. And our bodies should be respected. We should encourage our children to love activity and exercise, to put the right fuel in their body and to know that if you do those things that your body will be the strong machine it needs to be to help you achieve your goals.
But to make them believe those things, we must believe them too. Which is why I am working hard to make sure that not only do I keep my mouth shut when those nasty self-criticisms pop in my head but to banish them from my head entirely.
I have to talk about all the things that should be more valuable than beauty: brains, creativity, kindness. I have to show her that part of my day is taking care of this body because it’s what allows me to do everything I do. So I plunk down my yoga mat in the middle of the kitchen when all I want to do is curl up on the couch.
And I let her do makeup with me but tell her she doesn’t need a drop because she’s already beautiful. And I’ve started walking around without my makeup because, like fancy clothes, sometimes you need them and sometimes sweat pants and a clear face are a good thing.
It’s not an easy road but it’s a necessary one because I have to convince a beautiful little girl that she is smart and funny and curious and brave and it’s harder to convince her of that if she thinks she is supposed to be thinner or more muscular or fill out a bikini better.