I was chatting with my friend Elizabeth Marie yesterday. She is a full-time poet and the mother of a sixteen-year-old girl, which I think is an ideal combination; each job provides material for the other. I've never met her in person, but in photos Elizabeth Marie is gorgeous: enormous laughing brown eyes, flowing silver hair, fine features, porcelain skin and a body that somehow manages to look delicate and strong at the same time.
If Elizabeth Marie heard me call her “beautiful,” though, she would correct me. She's sure she's fat, and sagging, and wrinkled. Well, so she may be, compared to her teenage self (though when she was a teenager she thought she was skinny, odd and goofy-looking). However, both the Mother and the Poet recognize this “I'm so ugly” trap for what it is: a way to poison the next generation of women. “One of the things I need to do for my daughter,” she writes, “is learn to love my changing body.”
Let's gloss for the moment over the fact that we will do for our daughters what we will not do for ourselves – that's a post in itself! - and think about the role we play in forming our daughters' self-images.
When your baby becomes conscious of his surroundings, you are the first thing he senses. You are your baby's introduction to femininity, to nurturing and to the face of love; in short, to beauty. A small child thinks his mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. What changes his mind? Not society; not his own increasingly sophisticated perceptions.
His MOTHER changes his mind.
Children are acutely aware from a very young age of their parents' physical and verbal cues. If a beautiful, perfect mother sighs whenever she looks in a mirror, or constantly talks about how much she hates her thighs or her double chin, her child is soaking up this information as eagerly as he does her explanation of why the sky is blue. Small kids learn how the world works by watching their parents, and so if Mom is constantly broadcasting “my boobs are too small and my ass is too big,” what do her kids learn? They learn that they were mistaken, as they so often are, and Mom isn't beautiful – she's ugly.
Then they begin to mature.
The boys shy away from cheerful, generous curvy girls and chase after girls who agonize over their weight to the point of anorexia, because that's the definition they've learned for “beauty.”
The girls, who've heard the meant-as-a-compliment “you look just like your Mama!” all their lives, look in the mirror and see you – your eyes, your chin(s), your body shape – looking back at them. Well, you've taught them that that's what Ugly looks like. YOU know she's the most beautiful thing to ever grace a high school dance floor, but the lesson she's learned is that Pretty has bigger boobs and a smaller ass. If you think you're ugly, and she looks like you, what else could she think?
If you haven't resolved your body issues by the time your children are born, then fake it until they move out. Don't ever let them hear you criticize your appearance – or your voice, or your intelligence, or whatever it is you criticize. Children, especially same-sex children, identify with their parents. They learn how to BE from watching you. Concentrate instead on your glossy hair or your long eyelashes. Let them hear that you're grateful for your great sense of balance or your strong arms. Talk about what a pretty color your eyes are (“just like yours!”) and how much you like to dance. Don't even think about your chin(s) or your boobs or your ass until you're 65 and the kids have moved out of the house. Then you can agonize about them all you like, if you still want to.
Live your life so that your daughter knows that a woman like you - which is what she is - is beautiful.
Live your life so that your son knows that women like you – the first woman he ever loved – are beautiful.
If you can't be beautiful for yourself, do it for them. You have to start someplace.
Joy and Sassy – you are both so beautiful, inside and out, that it hurts my heart.
I guess that means I must be, too.
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Elizabeth Marie's blog is called “An Incomplete Guide to an Ordinary Life.” In addition to being beautiful, she's a genius. Go give her a read - tell her Millie sent you!