Do you remember the first time you ever wondered if you were beautiful? The first time you consciously reflected on your appearance? Do you remember the first time you felt hungry for admiration and affirmation?
I can’t say for sure that I remember the very first time, but I do remember a moment very early on in my life that had a huge impact; I must have understood on some deep level how important that moment was because it’s imprinted on my memory so clearly. I was around 5 years old, in my parents’ bedroom; I don’t remember what exactly I said, but I do remember the gray and blue paisley sheets that were on my parents’ bed, and I remember the earnest, tender look in my dad’s eyes as he answered me, the gentle and serious tone of his voice as he spoke, and the way that it all made me feel.
“You are so beautiful, Sophie. You know, you look a lot like your mother, who is the most beautiful woman in the world to me.”
That was it. Those simple words, spoken with such conviction and love at that formative moment in my life, helped me to put aside any childish angst I may have started to feel about my physical appearance. That moment mattered because it gave me the great gift of a childhood throughout which I barely gave my appearance a second thought. Insecurity only started to creep in during my teen years, and even then it was never as bad as the insecurity many of my peers experienced.
My dad made me feel loved and valued for who I was in a holistic sense, and showed me that I was so much more than the sum of my physical parts. It was more than a passing, “You’re so pretty,” dished out a little too readily to young girls (which can actually have the reverse effect to what we intend, making them think that being pretty is what matters most). It was the solemn way he said it, in the context of a relationship where he took an interest in everything I was experiencing and thinking; I instinctively knew he loved me for my whole self. He showed me what it meant to be seen with the eyes of love.
But beyond protecting me from body image issues, my dad’s love gave me an even greater gift: Being secure in his love profoundly changed my interactions with boys and men as a teenager and young adult. What little girl or woman doesn’t desire to be thought of as beautiful, especially by the opposite sex? The security that my dad gave me meant that I didn’t feel like I had to go out and seek validation from guys before I was ready for romantic relationships.
I’m not alone in my experience; there’s a lot of research that shows how a father can impact his daughter’s relationship with her own self-worth and therefore with other men. “Daughters who perceive that their fathers care a lot about them, who feel connected to their fathers, have significantly fewer suicide attempts and fewer instances of body dissatisfaction, depression, and low self-esteem,” writes Dr. Meg Meeker in her book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters. They’re also less likely to drop out of college and more likely to wait longer before engaging in sexual activity (and subsequently) have lower rates of teen pregnancy.
Neither I, nor my two sisters, dated much as teenagers. I watched the girls at high school go from boyfriend to boyfriend, as if they were looking for some kind of golden ticket from the guys they interacted with, but for my sisters and I, dating just never held much appeal—we’d have to meet someone very special to make it more interesting.
As Dr. Meeker writes, “One of the best things fathers can do is raise their daughters’ expectations of life. That will directly affect how your daughter talks, how she dresses, how well she does in school, even what sports or musical instruments she chooses to play.” Our relationship with our dad gave my sisters and I high expectations for what to expect from the men in our lives.
Later on, when we were more emotionally ready for romantic relationships, we started dating more; when I did, I was so grateful for that gift of self-worth which protected me from using men I dated as crutches. Similarly, my deep friendship and closeness with my father helped me to develop strong and rewarding friendships with men, including the man that I ended up marrying.
When I was 16 years old, I went on a special father-daughter trip to Ireland. As a family we prioritized family meals and regular holidays together, and I had been on several wonderful mother-daughter trips as a kid and young teenager that were very special and formative in their own right. But this trip with dad was special; my dad, who died from cancer three years ago, was rather an introvert and not much of a talker, so spending the better part of a week with him all to myself was exciting. We rented a car and drove around the Southwest coast of Ireland; we talked as the mood struck us, listened to Van Morrison on the CD player, and marveled together at the lush green landscape we were passing through. We stopped for sandwiches on the beach for lunch, explored the little coastal towns, and usually ended up finding a local pub to eat in each evening, before making our way to the next Bed & Breakfast on our route.
That trip made me feel so special; it was something just the two of us shared, an adventure he had planned just for me. To know that he had sought out my company, thought so carefully about my tastes and interests, and conspired with my mother to help make one of my biggest dreams at the time (swimming with a dolphin in the wild) come true made me feel so very loved, valued, and seen. In the words of Dr. Meeker to a father about his daughter, “You are her introduction to love; you are love itself.”
The heartbreak of losing someone you love never truly leaves you; there isn't a day that goes by, three years later, that I don’t still have to battle the instinct to send dad an email or fight back tears when I wish I could hear his voice or see his face. But even though my father can’t be with me now, his love throughout those formative years is a gift that has transformed me forever and still guides me in my relationship with my husband today.
Photo Credit: Jordan Voth Photography