Once upon a time, I wrote an article called, "I Am Beautiful, Girls." (You may have read it here.) I still get letters trickling in from people, women mostly, who can relate or want to share their experiences with me. Overall, the response to the article was overwhelming and overwhelmingly positive.
There is one argument, or counterpoint, that is brought up over and over again, though. I'd like to talk about it, because I believe it to be something worth talking about. The argument goes something like this: Why do we have to talk about physical beauty at all? Why is it important? Why do we need to praise our children for being beautiful? Can't we just praise our daughters for being smart and creative and capable and kind and strong and all of the other things that matter? Why does it matter whether or not our girls feel beautiful, when we know that physical beauty is just a trick and a lie? Why are we still going on and on about beauty, when the topic of beauty has torn us apart? Isn't telling our girls that we are beautiful just another form of vanity, or of focusing on the surface, on things that don't matter?
The thing about this argument is that I agree with it. I believe in it. I believe that the kind of mother who would say to me, "Why can't we just shut up about beauty, and praise our girls for being smart," is a mindful, aware, intelligent, awesome kind of mother.
The problem is that it is a respectable ideal that doesn't actually address the reality of sending our girls out into the world. We can refuse to talk about beauty in our households, but, the truth of our daily lives is that our daughters are navigating a world that not only talks about beauty, but is outright obsessed with it. The worst part is that the world is obsessed with a disgusting, unfair and rigid idea of what it means to be beautiful.
I totally get the impulse to want to shun the topic, because the topic brings a lot of people a lot of pain. But, not talking about it doesn't prepare our girls for reality. If you spend your daughter's first years of life never telling her she is beautiful, never making a big deal out of her physicality, because you rightfully recognize that it falls absolutely dead last on the list of things that is important about her... what will happen when she gets out into the world without you, and absolutely everybody and everything thing around her, every piece of sensory and social input she receives will be telling her, "You are nothing if you're not beautiful?"
I believe that helping to shape her ideas of beauty, by exposing her to all kinds of beautiful things, including the beauty in our own varied shapes, in our own bodies as mothers, as the biggest role model our girls will ever have, is a better idea than not talking about beauty at all.
Here is some of what I wrote in response to a critique of "I Am Beautiful, Girls" where a writer asked why we can't just shut up about beauty:
This "I Am Beautiful, Girls" thing was something I just sat down and wrote on my personal blog, never dreaming that over half a million people would read it, so it's been crazy. I think that different people get different things out of it, and maybe lots of people read it differently than I meant it. Or something.
But, my point wasn't ever about needing my girls to feel beautiful, according to the way we define beauty. It wasn't about how I'm not really beautiful, but that I'll tell my girls that I am, hoping to trick them into feeling beautiful, even when they're not... like when the boob thing happens or if they get fat, or whatever.
It's important to feel beautiful because we are a nuanced species obsessed with beauty. We're obsessed with the boring trick-biological kind that society sells us, the kind that likes youth and breedablility. We're also obsessed with art and music and color and light and photography and I don't know... artifacts and pottery and city sky lines (of which our very own Pittsburgh's is the best, by the way) and literature and interior design and pink radishes, or whatever. Being surrounded by beauty makes us saner and happier. It makes us better people. It is why we build community flower gardens in collapsing neighborhoods. It is why we go out on Earth Day and clean up the Monongahela Trail.
We find beauty all over the place. We surround ourselves with it. Seek it out. Long for it. Some people die for it. It's important. It is important that we understand that we are a part of the tradition of beauty on this planet. That we are marvels, too, as beings, as people, as bodies, as composites of mutated Hydrogen molecules, as little creatures evolved from the stuff in the belly of a dead star.
It is not important, however, that we feel like princesses. It is not important that we feel like we look good in jeans. It is not important that we feel like we have nice butts, or that our skin is smooth enough and our waists are small enough. It isn't important for me to teach my children to feel physically beautiful. I am trying to teach them that, even if they end up a little funny-looking or something, they should still hold their heads high, and believe they are pretty, somehow. (My children aren't funny-looking, just as a disclaimer.)
The whole point of the "I Am Beautiful, Girls" piece is that... by putting myself down in front of children, I was teaching them that the rigid, unfair and totally moronic standard of human beauty that we're being sold (and eating up with a spoon) is valid. That it is what human female beauty really means. In the whole rest of existence, weird and imperfect things can be beautiful and we pay money to look at them in art museums and hear them live in concert, but in being a woman, only this ONE THING equals beauty. And, since I wasn't beautiful because I was too fat and old and lumpy and saggy, and I'm the biggest role model to my children, and we live in a gross society, one day, they will suddenly decide that, unless they are thin and young and pretty, they aren't beautiful. And from then on, they won't exist within the longstanding and heartbreakingly important tradition of loving and revering beautiful things that is pretty much the meat of our existence.
My deal isn't that I'm not beautiful, but that I want to trick my kids into thinking that I am. My deal is that beauty doesn't mean what we think it does, what I think it does, after existing for a lifetime in a world that sells me my insecurities and laughs all the way to the bank.
We are WIRED to love beauty. Meant to love it. We are TAUGHT (and bought and sold) to love pretty, and dresses, and feeling attractive. Feeling beautiful, for me and in the spirit in of my article, doesn't have anything to do with feeling attractive (or even the slightest bit appetizing.) It's the art installation kind of beauty, only in human form. The kind that, when it's done right, is powerful and sexy and religious without being the slightest bit pretty.
I guess what it all boils down to is that I don't believe in treating beauty like it isn't important. It is astoundingly important to me, and to the world. I also believe that we aren't doing our daughters any favors by attempting to squash their thoughts and feelings about beauty, to lock it all away in a cupboard and brush it under the rug, expecting that they will know what to do when they inevitably come face to face with a world that is obsessed with something they were denied and hidden away from.
What about if we praised our daughters for being smart and also celebrated how beautiful they are? What about if we did those things in an environment that embraced all sorts of beauty -- the kind with pretty eyes, and the kind with scars on their sagging stomachs? The kind of beauty with a flower in her hair, and the kind with a tooth missing in front? The kind that is willowy and the kind that is earth? The kind that sparkles and the kind the oozes and spreads? The kind that sings and the kind that stains? What if we didn't try to deny our primal, almost instinctive obsession with beautiful things, (beauty means survival, it is meaning and love and growth and food and art and sex and life), but if we celebrated it instead, using our intellect and artistry and power and resilience and strength and humility and experience and grit and teeth as women, to blast apart society's stupid, poisonous idea of beauty and allow ourselves and our children to be who they are, which is gut-wrenching, pure and obvious beauty incarnate?
That's what I meant when I said that I've started telling my daughters I am beautiful. That's my (radically) practical answer to the idealistic question of why we can't just shut up about beauty and let our girls be smart and strong and capable. We can't do that because they are all of these things, and every part of who they are deserves to be acknowledged. We can't shut up about it because they are beautiful beyond measure, and that matters.
This piece was oringinally published on Last Mom On Earth.