So I posted a picture on Facebook this morning that I took of myself last night while I was bored waiting for the train. I hadn’t posted a picture of myself in a while, and in a social media culture that now demands at least three selfies a day, I figured it was time. (I mean, it’s been almost two weeks! What if I look radically different or had some fun you don’t know about?!) I took the picture specifically to showcase this cute t-shirt that says “Brooklyn” in a curly script. I’m covered in sweat in the photo, but that’s okay. I was trying to create an artistic, summer heat wave kind of vibe.
When I feel moved to take a solo selfie, it’s for one or two reasons. I either look great (have TV makeup on or something like that), feel great (just achieved something I’m proud of, had some kind of personal epiphany, experienced a random moment of joy) or both. And like everybody, I like to look good in photos. But I’ve found over the years that the photos I look best in are the ones I take with the intent to express something internal and translate it through the camera lens, not the ones trying to capture some kind of external beauty or even a moment in time.
It’s somewhat gratifying to finally look good in photos, because I grew up an ugly duckling, or at least I felt that way in middle school. (I know. Everyone does.) Objectively you might say braces and a perm are not the best look for anyone, but I certainly wasn’t the only girl in my grade suffering through that same lethal combo, and some of them still managed to be considered “pretty” even with kinky curls and fluorescent pink rubber bands surrounding the metal spikes on their teeth. Some of them had looks that conformed to societal beauty standards (tall, thin, blonde), and others just had enough self-esteem, popularity and/or money to buy the right clothes that helped them get away with it.
By the time I got into high school, ditched the braces and grew my hair out, I felt better about how I looked. But because I had never been praised for my looks by my peers, I hadn’t learned to define my personality based on my appearance. I was aware of what I looked like, and I knew my looks had some power. I understood that my face, hair and body left me somewhere safely in the middle between pretty and ugly. I never tried to conform to the blonde beauty standard, but I was clean and well-groomed. I expressed myself with silver jewelry and brown lipstick like every other white, left-leaning 90’s gal. I wasn’t ugly, but I was brunette, and I did have big thighs, so I got called “dyke” a few times, a label I wore proudly. Thankfully that was pretty much the extent of the bullying I went through at school, because life at home was hard enough.
Unless you grew up with a certain type of narcissistic mother, you might not understand this, but my mother bullied me mercilessly. Not about my looks – they were the one thing that could earn me her praise – but about everything else. The lesson I learned from my childhood was that I couldn’t do anything right, but that my mother thought I was beautiful. This was a contradictory message, of course, because when you teach a child that they are inherently flawed by constantly criticizing them, they’ll never feel beautiful, no matter what you have to say about their appearance.
And that’s why when I compliment my daughter, I compliment her not just on an array of things beyond her physical beauty (her behavior, her academic skills, her creativity, her humor), but I also make sure that she understands just how physical beauty is derived. Yes, to a certain extent physical beauty is out of our hands. We’re given the genes we’re given and we look the way we look. But what makes a person truly beautiful is the way their spirit shines through. My daughter is lucky – she’s “pretty” in the ways I never will be. She’s long and lean and has blonde-ish hair, and no one could deny that those attributes will make life easier for her in certain ways. But what makes my daughter truly beautiful is her essence. Her spirit. Her tenderness and her pluck. I never tell my daughter that she’s pretty, because to me pretty doesn’t matter. But her beauty touches me so deeply, I often cry just thinking about it.
I felt compelled to write this because still today my mother will take an inordinate amount of pride in my appearance, constantly complimenting me, suggesting that I’ve lost weight (I haven’t really). “You look good, Carolyn,” she’ll say. “I wish I had a shirt like that.” As I’ve come clean with my mom about the pain of my childhood, we’ve talked a bit about her narcissism and how she has always viewed me as an extension of herself, but she doesn’t get it. What she knows is that if I look good, she looks good. “YOU LOOK LIKE A 100 LB 14 YEAR OLD TEENIE BOBBER IN THIS PICTURE. LOVE IT!,” she wrote underneath the sweaty photo I took in my Brooklyn t-shirt, as if that’s what I was going for. Yes, please, single adult males: please find me as attractive as a 100 pound 14-year-old girl. Guh. Why any grown woman should feel pressure to look like a 14-year-old skinny girl is beyond me. Women, we all agree we’re not doing that, right? I mean, Forever 21 is one thing. Eternally 14? No thanks. Like Shakira’s, my hips don’t lie, and they are not going to fit into that mini from dELiA*s. I wish that my mother understood I’m not trying to look like a 100 pound 14-year-old. I’m trying to look like myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I like looking youthful and I always appreciate a compliment, but the reason I finally look good in photos is because I finally feel beautiful on the inside. I’m no longer defined by that critical, confusing voice that told me my face was great but my insides were all wrong. I look beautiful, when I look beautiful, because my spirit is shining through. And when I look at my daughter and take in her beauty, I do sometimes see a reflection of myself, but never an extension of myself. I see the ways in which she looks like me: big, brown eyes, lovely cheeks. But I mostly see how precious she is, her beauty ranging from soft and sweet to funny and fierce. I see how much life she has inside her, a creative force all her own, and the energy of her childhood dreams. That is what makes her beautiful. That spirit that will move her through life, moving others along the way.
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