So Hard to See: On Girls, Self-Esteem, and Why I Care About My Daughter’s LooksDara Pettinelli
“He got to be good-looking cause he’s so hard to see.”
It’s a lyric in the classic Beatles song, “Come Together.” No matter the band’s intention with the lyrics, the line has stayed with me because it speaks to my experiences with my own looks. I’ve been judged on them for as long as I can remember. We all have. It’s the one attribute no one can see past, not immediately anyway. Those of us who’ve ever felt ugly understand the belief that we have to be attractive in order to be seen.
Despite how my parents remember it, I was an unattractive child. This made me vulnerable to bullies and invisible to everyone else. I have distinct memories of being treated differently because of my looks, both by my peers and by adults. Teachers called on me less, asked me to quiet down more. Peers picked on me first and picked me last for teams. A big, fat kid is never going to get the kind of attention she wants, and so the very act of existing is uncomfortable.
Once I grew into my looks, so to speak, and started getting positive attention for them — attention I thought I wanted — I never trusted that I was truly beautiful; the person inside the shiny new shell was still the same, so why all the fuss now? This inner conflict led me to mistrust and resent the approval of others, while hungry for it at the same time; love is conditional, I learned to believe.
“You’re so big!” “You’re so beautiful.” “You’re so lucky to be so tall.” “Your skin is perfection.” It’s all just noise. But it’s noise you can’t tune out when searching for your value as a girl, and later a woman.
I do think we’re making some great cultural strides to change the dialogue around what it means to be a girl and what feminine qualities we value beyond the surface, but beauty still reigns — and history proves it probably always will. My belief, perhaps my hope, is that if my girl is attractive from day one, the world will judge her for who she is at the core because they won’t be distracted by what’s on the outside. As long as she’s nice to look at, kids will let her be and grownups will fawn over her. She’ll never wrap her entire self worth in her physical shortcomings because confidence is easier for pretty girls to feign.
I know the retort to my rationale is that pretty girls have problems too. I know this. We all do. No one escapes life, not even Paris Hilton (though I’d still trade places with her because duh). And pretty girls may argue that people are unable to see past their looks, but I’ll take on that argument any day. Good looks are what allow strangers to accept more about you. Good looks buy you a very long leash, especially when you’re a kid. The particular pain that comes from bad looks, however, is one only us others can understand.
For my entire early life I believed that love was contingent on my weight. When I was fat, I was treated awfully. When I was thin, I was lavished with praise and attention. One night when I was around 16 or 17, I asked my dad at dinner: “Would you love me if I were fat?” My dad, being the sarcastic jokester that he is, said, “No.” I don’t think my dad truly meant that, but I took it quite literally, especially at the time. (This was during my compulsive binging and purging phase.)
The problem is despite my evolution in looks, I never felt caught up because who I was on the inside never changed with who I was on the outside. When I got to college freshman year, there was this amazingly hot RA in my dorm building. My friends knew I was crushing on him and one day they informed me that he wanted to go out with me. Instead of getting excited, to their confusion, I got upset. “Why would you lie to me like that? That is so mean!” I cried to them. Within a few hours my crush had arrived at my door to ask me out on a date. No one was lying and yet I still couldn’t believe I was worthy of positive attention.
The damage was already done. It’s damage I’m still trying to undo. At ages 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 I unconsciously started to identify with my bullies and believe their critiques; my inner voice took on the sound of their taunts.
A few weeks ago, my therapist asked me to look at a picture of myself as a kid and say something to it (yeah, I paid for this). “What would you tell that girl, Dara?”
“You have good hair,” I said, smirking at the photo, unable to believe what I was doing.
“Beyond the physical. What do you want to tell her about herself?”
I sat there and let the thoughts run through my mind, traveling like molasses beacuse this.was.hard. You’re funny, I thought. You’re a decent writer. A hard worker. But I couldn’t get these out of my mouth because the loudest thoughts were the ones saying: You’re not good enough.
I recently read an amazing post by blogger Kelle Hampton on BabyZone. In this post she pleads with her daughters, ages 6 and 3 respectively:
“So, please. Please. Don’t change that light. The world needs it. Don’t dim it, don’t wish you had a different light, don’t let yourself believe that your light isn’t good enough, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you need to change. A beautiful girl shines her light, just as it is. Be you, sweet girls. Be you.”
Of course I’ll love my kids no matter what. They’re not even conceived yet, and I cannot wait for their arrival. But all I can do at this point is hope that I will be the kind of mother Kelle Hampton is.
Should my kids go through what I went through, I assume I’ll be compassionate because I’ll understand. But there’s a part of me that’s afraid. Afraid that a daughter, more so than a son, will force me to confront all the ugly things I think and feel about myself and in turn cause me to be overly critical, harsh — to bully her into changing not because it’s what she wants but because it’s what I want for her. For me.
Having a child is sending your most vulnerable self into the world. It requires unconditional love, which the world does not dole out like air. This is why I hope she’s good-looking.