My daughter is beautiful. She runs and laughs, sings and dances with joyful abandon. She lets her hair hang loose and doesn’t worry if it’s in her eyes. She dresses the way she wants to, whether that means a dress and a skirt and pants to the grocery store or a swimming suit complete with tutu for yoga with mom.
She has no idea that her singing is off-key (and off-timing, and off-words … well, completely off), that her hair still bears a resemblance to a baby mullet, that the outfit she’s chosen is slightly ostentatious. Which is fine. Because she is beautiful just the way she is.
I love those things about her. I love her cheesy grin and the little scar on her cheek where she face-planted on a toy while rough-housing with her brother. I love the determination with which she attempts to dress herself. I love her resolve to try everything her brothers try, and I love the way that, sometimes, she does it better.
I love it all and I wonder how I can preserve these moments and save these feelings so I can give them to her 10 years from now when she is less joyful and more fearful, when she worries what people think, when she fears she isn’t “enough,” when she feels the sting of people’s stares or realizes that she looks different from the models on magazine covers.
But she is only two years old, just learning how to pronounce her name correctly, and that is a long way off. Right?
That’s what I thought until I recently noticed the way she looks at me. How she watches me get dressed, the way she insists on testing out my mascara and smoothing lip balm all over her face. I remember the way she seemed entranced one evening when I was getting ready to go out with my husband. She picked some shoes out of my closet, asked for some lip gloss, wanted to try on scarves right alongside me.
I was flattered. And taken aback. The coolest girl I know wanted to be like me. It was a heady realization to know that someone actually is looking to me — right now! — to figure out how to be a human being, a woman.
And that’s when I was hit with another, less heady, realization: I had no idea how to teach her that.
What I knew was that I was supposed to be beautiful. I knew that people talked about being smart like it was a good thing, but backed slowly away after that. I knew that I wasn’t allowed to be satisfied with the size of my hips or the curves of my body — or the lack thereof. I knew that I must be attentive at all times, lest somebody see my ugly cry face or catch me with a hair out of place.
Of course, I’m not alone in that. I recently attended Dove’s Fifth Annual Self-Esteem Weekend, where I met Jess Weiner, a Dove Beauty Ambassador and expert in the space of women, girls, and confidence. She shared that 72% of girls globally feel pressure to be beautiful. Sixty percent of girls stop doing things they love because of the way they look — maybe they don’t have a “dancer’s body” or they feel self-conscious in a swim cap and goggles.
“It’s shocking how universal the language of self-doubt and low self-esteem is,” she said. It weighs heavily on me to think that my own daughter will be part of that majority, especially knowing that she is looking to me to show her the way. While I have been careful not to denigrate myself or my body in front of my kids, I am hardly a poster-girl for confident womanhood.
But when I told her I didn’t know if I was capable of owning whatever beauty I may possess, Weiner said something else that resonated with me: “There is a quiet confidence that comes from knowing who you are.”
Quiet confidence. I hadn’t put words to that feeling, but once she said it, I knew that it was something that had been slowly developing in me over the past 7 ½ years — since my first son was born and my husband commented that our baby was lucky to have inherited my nicely shaped head. His head was (and is) quite nicely shaped. And he got it from me.
As he grew and I could see the resemblance between me and this beautiful child, I began to think that maybe there was something beautiful about me, too. The feeling continued to grow as my family did. My second son has the same cheesy grin I wear in pictures from when I was his age. His sister, vivacious little sprite that she is, has the same cute overbite I had until my orthodontist prescribed headgear. (Lucky girl.)
It goes deeper than that, however. I’ve always thought that my personality — reserved, thoughtful, serious — is the worst. I’m a complete drag and no fun to be around at all (at least at first). But seeing those same traits in my kids, who are who they are and are just fine that way, made me more inclined to be kind to myself. There’s really nothing wrong — and, in fact, there is a lot that’s right — in thinking things through and being slow (and careful) to speak.
I have felt the subtle empowerment that Weiner talked about as I have realized, through raising my kids, that I don’t have to conform to the life-of-the-party, keep-them-laughing, too-cool-for-school expectation. I can be who I am, and I can be pleased with who I am.
Dove recently released a video about beauty legacies. It shows how daughters often adopt the same attitudes toward their bodies that their moms have — for good or ill. I certainly recognized the ways my mother’s comments and actions influenced my attitudes toward my body as the scenes played out.
But as I’ve thought about how I’ve developed sureness and satisfaction with who I am, I feel that for me, the process is kind of flipped. My kids are the ones who have given me my beauty legacy. It is through them that my confidence in myself — my appearance, my mind, my heart — developed. I feel beautiful because of them.
Right now, they are relatively untouched by media images and societal expectations for how boys and girls should look and act. I believe they are happy to be who they are and, I hope, they don’t feel pressure to be anything else.
Seeing the way they unabashedly pursue their interests, how they fearlessly stand their ground, how determined they are to be true to themselves has given me strength and confidence to do the same. I can be pleased that my body bears the scars of living, happy to show my joy or my pain, excited to try new things — even if I might stumble or fall in the attempt.
And when the time comes that my kids are more aware of the conflicting messages, of the labels and the impossible expectations our society has for them, I think I’ll be ready to help them navigate and hold on to who they are. I think I can do that now because they have shown me how.