Sitting on the couch a few nights ago, my husband was holding our 2 year old in his lap. He told her, “You’re pretty.” “I not pretty” she said, as my heart climbed into my throat. And every time since she has responded the same way. “I not pretty.” “I not smart.” “I not precious.” Cue the waterfall of tears in my eyes. She’s two! How on earth could a two year old have any concept of not feeling good enough? Why wasn’t she believing every word that comes out of her daddy’s mouth? Sure, this could be just a two-year old thing where she wants to disagree with everything we say, but it still breaks my heart and makes me think.
There is a lot of talk right now in the mommy world about whether or not we should tell our kids they are handsome or beautiful or pretty or any other term that refers to outward appearance. After all, we don’t want to inflate their egos, or make them feel like if they some day don’t fit into a nice little box of perfect skin, hair, weight, and attire, then they are no longer worth being loved.
For a long time, as a grown adult, I definitely struggled with my appearance. I went through periods on and off of avoiding food because I wanted to feel thin. I went through periods of not smiling for photos because my teeth aren’t perfect. I’ve felt about two inches tall when my husband ran into an ex-girlfriend that I had heard of but never met… and she was the most gorgeous girl I had ever seen. It left me questioning how he could possibly want to be with me. That kind of insecurity almost ate our marriage alive.
I had thought I conquered the feeling of insecurity when I was in high school. I coped with my inability to fit in with the beautiful, barbie-like popular girls by becoming as alternative as possible. It was a way for me to stand out, to garner attention from my peers so that I felt worth existing. I dyed my hair pink at the first chance I got when I was 15. I went to skateboarding camp and read Transworld and drew sharpie tattoos of emo lyrics around my wrists and dreamed of the day I could get my first tattoo. I wore glitter decorated converse with more sharpied song lyrics on the sides. I became more creative as high school went on, I gathered a collection of stilettos that I wore to school every day with my band t-shirts and my collection of H&M clothes from NYC before the store existed in my state. I even had a phase with pink tutus and fairy wings. *gag* haha. I felt ugly without my “style”. I found my self worth in my style.
That style was more of a disguise. I didn’t feel good enough by myself. I didn’t feel good enough without my arms full of jelly bracelets and my rainbow hair colors. I couldn’t bare to look like everyone else, with natural hair, mainstream-style clothes, or even to listen to mainstream music — my pop-punk and my punk rock and my Devendra Banhart made me special. Without processing it this way back then, I see now that I was afraid of melting into the background and becoming invisible. I didn’t see that there was value in my brain. I was very close to being the top of my class – I would have been if I had studied ever. I was one of 4 students in Algebra 120 at the university when I was a senior in high school. I procrastinated with my extra online classes and did economics, government, and health — the ENTIRE courses — in a day and a half.. the day before I graduated high school. And I did well – A’s and B’s, despite not sleeping for 36 hours.
(All I can say looking back is hahahahaha… even though my hair is the same red right now. I guess some silly things just become a part of you. )
Sometimes I wonder how I got to that point. I can’t help but wonder if it started when I was 3 and in the Easter Cantata at my church. I loved to sing. I loved music more that anything. I was told many times that one day I would be the “next Twila Paris” after that first concert. How one day I would have a CD on the shelves. In 2nd grade I was put into 3rd grade even though I was already the youngest in my class, for english and writing and reading. It continued until we began AP classes. School was a breeze for me. I was told how one day I’d be a doctor. How my future was so bright. For a while I wanted to be an oral surgeon so I could fix cleft palate in third world countries. To this day I wish I had gone down that path. But then the social world ate me alive and instead of feeling confident in how well I could do or the things I could be one day, I began to feel like I was nobody. I found notes in my desk drawn back and forth by my so-called “best friend” and another classmate where they were talking about me and how ugly I was and how goody-two-shoes I was. I was made fun of for trying to do the right thing by calling my mom at a sleepover to ask if I was allowed to watch a pg-13 movie with everyone. There was a lot more. It didn’t stop until after I moved to a new school to get away from the mean words. And that’s when I found my identity in the music I listened to and how well I could fit in with the boys by skateboarding. Eventually my identity became rooted in boyfriends. Eventually I lost sight of any actual goal I ever had. I only wanted to find love. What I had never understood was that before you can find real love, you have to love yourself.(Our wedding day. <3)
When I read about moms not telling their kids that they are pretty, to help them learn that their appearance isn’t what is important, I don’t know what to think. I haven’t figured this out yet and I definitely don’t have a solution. All I know is that at first, I felt pretty. I felt smart. I felt special and important. And then the other kids (who were either jealous or just mean) stole my confidence. Sure, if I had not felt those things, they couldn’t have been stolen from me. But if I hadn’t felt those things from my mom and from others as a little girl, would I have ever had the guts to do many of the things I have done? I didn’t become a doctor, but I have accomplished many things I am proud of. I have traveled, I have moved to places where I knew no one just for the adventure. I have volunteered, I have helped people, I have raised money for good causes, I have been in a band and played concerts, I have toured, I have adventured, I have learned, I have loved… I have survived. I have married a man with a heart made of gold. I have had three precious babies. My mom always believed in me and she always saw the beauty in me. She still told me even when I didn’t believe her. That is what got me through.
I do agree with asking about a little girl’s passion for books instead of immediately commenting on how pretty she is. But for me, knowing that at least my mama loved me and SHE thought I was beautiful and smart, that helped me to carry on when everyone else told me in their special way that I was worthless. I want my girls to know that always, ALWAYS, I will love them. No matter what, I will always see the beauty in them, the intelligence, and the importance. I want them to know that they are worth more than their appearance, but that they are beautiful too. I don’t think that there is anything toxic or anything wrong with appreciating beauty. In fact, I know all three of my little girls need to be appreciated for the whole persons that they are. I am not going to pick them apart.
You see, this little two year old who is already doubting her value, has a smile that lights up a room like fireworks on the Fourth of July. She has a dimple that just melts your heart, and big beautiful grey eyes that are filled with wonder and curiosity. The ends of her hair shine like gold and the top is starting to get darker like her aunt’s and her nina’s both did. She has a little chip in one of her front teeth from a sledding accident last winter but it’s beautiful too because its a reminder of her fearlessness. She is very petite, and her miniature little hugs are one of the best things in the world. Her giggle is like music. She may say “I not pretty.” But she still very much IS. And that isn’t something I will steal from her by denouncing it or ignoring it or minimizing. I’m going to tell her and her two sisters, alongside the rest of her many wonderful characteristics, that they are pretty every day.