The other day, I read a parenting post stating decisively that people shouldn't tell a little girl how pretty she is. Physical attributes, the thinking goes, are neither a good measure of a person nor permanent. The unstated judgement is that valuing appearance is shallow and leads to irreparable vanity. Instead we should praise her strength and intelligence and sense of humor and other more "laudable" traits. The goal is to teach self-worth based on character, not her body.
That sounds really good. I almost bought into it, until I looked into the mirror.
It's so easy for a child to latch on to the most ridiculous of ideas. For me it was the understanding that I'm not pretty. I never thought of myself as ugly, just unremarkable. I don't know the genesis of this thinking. It was probably a generic criticism, mixed in with the other flotsam of girlish competition. Unfortunately this one became entangled in all the other insecurities native to a young girl and fell to the floor of my consciousness, slowly seeping its particular poison through the years.
Looking back I can see subtle ways my behavior was shaped by this one idea. I ached to be pretty and found myself drawn to beautiful people, hoping their magic would dust off onto me. When it didn't, I withdrew into my mind and distanced myself from the disappointment that was my body. I neglected to value myself, and as a consequence didn't care for myself. Exercise was pointless. Beautiful clothes and jewelry were for beautiful people. I would just have to make do. Still, in my secret heart-of-hearts, I longed to be a princess, if only for one Cinderella night.
This doesn't mean I lacked all faith in myself. I took pride in my strength and determination and smarts. I was determined to make a difference in the world. But on the occasions that a man did -- miraculously, I thought -- notice me, I was careless with my body and my heart. I once asked a lover if he thought I was beautiful. He prevaricated until finally admitting that he didn't. Despite my shredded heart I stayed.
Over time I've learned to admire my parts. My college roommate taught me that every girl deserves pretty lingerie. My sister-from-another-mother has taken me shopping and shown me how to flatter my curvy figure. I've been given lessons in makeup, and compliments on my eyes. Sometimes, when I least expect it, I look in the mirror and find beauty there, wrinkles and dimples and spots and all. I am grateful for those moments.
To be honest, I don't know if thinking myself pretty would truly have changed anything. Still, I will tell my daughter every step of the way that she is smart and funny and strong and, yes, beautiful. I will tell her until she knows in every cell that both her mind and her body are to be cherished and respected and cared for. I will declare her beauty to the world and I will not be satisfied until she can do the same.