Has anyone ever said something to you that was so true you wanted to punch them as soundly as if it were a lie? Here is what someone said to me, and it was so piercing that I wanted to get all up in her face and roar, “Go away with that thing I wish I had never heard but will now have ringing in my ears for the rest of my life!”
“You know,” she said, “your daughters are not going to think they are beautiful because you tell them so. They are going to think they are beautiful if you believe in your own beauty.”
Oooh, the witch.
Now that I have wiry, unpredictable hairs sprouting up randomly out of my head and neck; now that my belly is not an area of my body so much as it is an independent item that must be hauled up in one hand and dropped down the front of my waistband—now is the time to start believing in my own gorgeousness? Whoa. Let’s slow down a notch here.
Body Image Gets Passed Down the Generations
When my girls were little, and I was a terrible ogress about them eating junk food, sometimes I would say, “My grandchildren! My grandchildren!” I would threaten to bore them with the same story once again about how the cells they were building now would make the milk their own babies drank years later.
But it was more than preservatives and food coloring that we needed to avoid. Their daughters will be nourished by my own sense of beauty, which came from my mother and which I will pass to them.
My grandmother, a belle of the 1920s, bound her generous bosom so she could mimic the waiflike profile so much en vogue at that time. Eventually the style moved on. I don’t know if she told my adorable, ringlet-headed, saucer-eyed mother that she was a beautiful child. I do know she told her she was too skinny as a young girl and then later made it known that it was a shame her husband had the better legs of the two of them. My mother has always told me I was lovely, but I can faithfully mimic her grimace as she patted her neck in the mirror while I watched her put on her makeup. She was probably about my age now when she started that squinty neck-pat, along with the fretful conversations about the bags under her eyes.
By this point I have racked up years of “do as I say, not as I do” beauty self-assessment for my girls. Is it too late to change my tune? Here is what my therapist friend says to statements like that. “Let’s imagine,” she says, “that the person speaking is not you but a friend you care about. Now let’s imagine she is talking about whether or not she should quit smoking. Would you tell this friend that the moment to quit had passed?” No, of course not.
Honesty vs. Insanity
First, let’s examine my credibility factor. Recently I had to supply a photo of myself for public use. It occurred to me that I looked a lot like Karl Malden, or perhaps Jerry Lewis, in this or any photo. This was just an honest, objective assessment; the pictures spoke for themselves. A friend was in a similar predicament. She produced two gorgeous snapshots of herself, which did not surprise me because she is gorgeous. “Oh,” she said, truly unhappy, “I take a terrible photo.” “This is an unreliable opinion,” I thought. By which I meant, “She is CRAY. ZEE.” Because look—she was as gorgeous in each of those pictures as she is live and in person.
This was my honest, objective opinion.
Wait. How is it that she is crazy, but I am just honest? “You are beautiful,” she said to me. “She thinks this because she loves me,” I said to myself, understanding instantly that in my accounting system, this rendered her assessment less credible. “You are crazy to think otherwise,” she said. Hey, now! That’s pretty funny talk coming from a crazy lady. “You can’t even tell that YOU are beautiful, dollface.”
So that brings us to calculating and adjusting for the love factor. I can’t imagine for one second that I could ever look at my children and see anything but beauty—clean or dirty, rested or exhausted, young or old, the sight of them makes my heart soar, and I feel quite sure that it always will, whatever changes time brings. That I love them is inseparable from this (of course) entirely objective assessment but in no way impacts its credibility. They are always beautiful to me, and, as my little boy reminds me often, I am to them. He thinks I am beautiful. Maybe he thinks this because he loves me so much that the sight of me makes him glad, and I could look like Karl Malden’s homelier cousin, yet he’d feel the same way. But regardless, when I complain about what I see in the mirror, it’s clear that it insults him.
An insult—by its medical definition—is something that causes damage to tissue. Our sons or daughters, in utero or out, are building their tissue from the moment they are ours. Building the matter that will sustain them and the lives that spin from theirs, traced back through ours to the whole miraculous chain of cellular artistry that makes people and trees and walruses and hummingbirds. To be alive, really, is to be beautiful, but the daily bombardment of age-defying lip plumpers modeled by already-perfect-yet-Photoshopped-anyway 20-year-olds makes us forget that beauty has nothing whatsoever to do with any of what they are selling.
The Love Factor
All those old adages are true. Beauty is more than skin deep. It does come from within. If we tell ourselves we are ugly, it's like telling ourselves that we are stupid or failures because there is really no fundamental difference among these. When you nail that math problem or the layup or are kind to someone even when they don't deserve it, it doesn't matter what you look like because you're experiencing the beauty of being you. What we want our daughters to believe in about their physical beauty runs through the same pipes as the intelligence and strength and character we’d like them to define—not via comparison to a fickle cultural standard but for themselves.
So you know the fretful sigh you heave as you see yourself in the mirror during those moments you aren’t averting your eyes from it like a Victorian mourner? Stop it. Stop squinting at your thighs when you put on your bathing suit. Stop making hilarious remarks about the state of your thrice-postpartum, dearly departed “abdominals.” And don’t just stop saying it. Stop thinking it, too. You know kids have radars for that. “I know when you are mad even if you don’t say anything,” said a little child I know to his mother. “I can hear it with my tummy.”
Beauty is absolutely in the eye of the beholder, where it belongs, whether you are looking at your wee one or at yourself in the mirror. It is remarkably hard to speak as admiringly to yourself as you would to your daughter. But, as is so often the case, it is about ten times as important as it is hard to do.
Their tummies are listening.