“Mom, do you think I’m beautiful?” I asked as we headed home from the grocery store. I was 13. She paused, looked at me, then back at the road ahead, and said: “Well, of course. You’re very attractive.” There was another pause. “You know that.” She laughed then, and I did too – not because anything was particularly funny, but because I didn’t really know what she meant by “attractive” or where it ranked in terms of being better or worse than beautiful.
That question, and her response, still stand out among my childhood memories. Asking whether or not I was beautiful was the first and only time I ever asked either of my parents to explicitly say something about my physical appearance. They often told me I was smart and funny (and all the other things I assumed ugly people were), but never beautiful.
Without knowing what being beautiful truly meant, I could just tell by watching my mother – the way she never overate, the meticulousness with which she applied makeup to her cheeks, nose, and forehead each morning – that it was the ultimate compliment to receive as a woman.
“Attractive,” I knew, wasn’t “beautiful.”
While I’m sure my mom likely would not remember that conversation, I obviously never forgot it. I often looked to it as a young woman trying to make sense of my obsession to become beautiful and its consequences on my burgeoning self-esteem. And it was the memory of that conversation that most shaped who I imagined I’d be as a mom one day.
By the time I found myself pregnant, I was a PhD candidate in English with a focus on, among other topics, feminist writings. By then I had read all the psychology studies enough to know that it is critical that girls hear two things from their parents: that they’re beautiful and (fill in the blank).
Remembering the lump in my throat the day I asked my mom whether or not I was beautiful, I told myself that as a 21st-century mom armed with the “formula” for breeding high self-esteem and confidence, I would be “different.” That’s not to say I wouldn’t praise my girls for other attributes, but to be the mom I felt I needed as an insecure woman, I knew I needed to do more on the whole “beauty” part.
I imagined that “more” as consisting of me and my girls doing things like boycotting Barbie and Bratz dolls and any other societal representations of beauty or having daily, “I’m beautiful” affirmation “sessions” where we would proclaim our “beauty” in the mirrors of our home.
And, of course, along with doing these things, I would, as their mother, be the “perfect example.” As recommended by the experts, in that role I wouldn’t do things like criticize the creases at the backs of my thighs (otherwise known as cellulite) or my big (ahem, I mean, larger than average) butt, at least not in front of them. And I would do this all while pursuing my writing dreams as a working woman. All of this, I imagined, would save me from having the self-esteem issues of my girls looming over my consciousness : and perhaps save them from having to endure the unhappiness I once felt.
Yep. I had it all planned out : until I had my first daughter.
Like most things in parenthood, my pre-parent plans didn’t quite pan out when the children were actually in the picture.
Faced with an infant who couldn’t understand the word “beauty,” let alone its relevance in her world of colorful toys and drool, I didn’t feel it productive to emphasize her beauty when she was so good at demonstrating other praiseworthy talents like intelligence, compassion, and the sneaky ability to crawl into corners to go through mommy’s wallet.
Though everyone around her focused mostly on her beauty, I felt in my “mommy gut” that it was my job to teach my daughter about everything else that made her valuable.
So now, rather than over-focusing on their outfits, I tell my 20-month-old and newborn daughters that they are loved and good at things (like in the case of my toddler, drawing zigzag and curly lines on paper and putting on her own, or mommy’s, shoes).
In doing this, my thoughts on beauty have changed. Thinking back to that conversation with my mom, I now see things not from the perspective of an insecure girl, but as a mom who understands that her own mother was doing her best to de-emphasize the importance of looks to her daughter.
Now, rather than worry about recreating my old self in my girls, I just do my best to show them how valued they are and hope that that’s enough. Of course, it may not be, and if one of my daughters were to ask me if I thought she was beautiful, I would say “yes” without skipping a beat. I would say “yes” not assuming that she knew it already because of all I’ve “taught” her or because I want to out-do my mom’s brand of parenting but assuming that she needed to hear it from me as her mom. I’d say, “Yes, you are beautiful and so much more.”