My smart, kind and sensitive-but-not-fragile daughter was cocooned in personalized fleece and hand-knit warmth. Looking at the scene, I thought, she is so loved. Bedtime was our most sacred time together – a retreat from two siblings, school and schedules. She’d often ask, “Can I tell you something at bedtime?” After reading, sometimes we’d play a mother-daughter round of “Would you rather?” or flip through a magazine and pick out our favorites. There was something so secure about being in her bed together – like two girlfriends sharing secrets at their earliest slumber parties – divulging our hopes and fears, confessing regrets, recounting the happenings of the day, giggling until we snorted …
One night, her last thought before she drifted off to sleep was, “Mommy, sometimes I ask you if I’m fat just to hear you say that I’m so skinny.” Shocked, I responded, “Why would you want to hear that?” “Oh, it just feels so good,” she chirped. I cringed at how easily those words rolled off her tongue. A streak of anger raced through me like an F5 tornado.
The voice in my head was screaming so loudly I feared she needed noise-canceling headphones to drown it out. “You are seven!” “I have worked so hard to never use words like fat or skinny about your appearance – or anyone else’s.” “I have instead focused on your curiosity, creativity, compassion and all of the things your strong and healthy body can do.” “You are seven!” “I shook my head and dodged the question and you interpreted that as ‘so skinny’?” “I hate society for penetrating your earliest perceptions of ‘pretty’ with plastic ideals.” “I hate myself for ever letting you see I was dissatisfied with my appearance.” “You are SEVEN, it should be about popsicles, playgrounds, painting, picnics and ponies!”
A window of innocence I longed to stretch open had now closed, and I felt robbed.
Out loud, I reinforced all of my key messages about her adventurous spirit, inner beauty and ability to include others. I followed all of my rules: Avoid labels, reframe the conversation around personality positives, remove any benefits associated with looks …
My intensions were good. My compliments were sincere. But as I left her room that night, I could tell there was a change. Despite all of my conscious efforts to value the contrary, and rage against the princess machine, my vibrant first grader still wanted validation about her external and, most alarming, ideally thin appearance.
I reflected more. As the everyday woman in her life, this must be on me. Suddenly something became crystal clear: She was calling my bluff.
I cannot take a compliment on my appearance. Since having daughters (the other one is four), I’ve become aware that I should accept compliments, and I want to be a model for graciously receiving praise on a clothing choice or hairstyle. But implying I’m not worthy of someone’s admiration is such a part of the fabric of my being that it’s still my default. My daughter has certainly sensed my insincerity and, likely, my insecurity.
What’s more, if someone compliments her exterior, my response focuses on my greater pride about her character, intelligence, etc. Before she even has a chance to accept the compliment, I’ve rejected it for her. Like trying to erase barely dried ink, I’ve smeared the words and removed their meaning, my actions leaving a stain. Or, I use my “famous line” (as she’s come to call it, using air quotes and eye rolls) for when someone says my kids are cute: “Well I think so, but I’m required,” delivered with a self-deprecating laugh.
My best-laid plans to nurture a humble, socially secure, self-satisfied and giving daughter have backfired – making her question if the person who appreciates her beauty most even notices it.
Maybe that is why she wants my endorsement. And who can blame her? Sometimes a girl just wants to feel pretty and know that the people who matter recognize her beauty – inside and out.
Perhaps I need to embrace that beauty is not a bad word. My daughter and I often marvel at it in nature, art and other people, and we are generous with applause for friends, family and even strangers. I guess one’s appearance can be added to the long list supporting the truth that is it much easier to give than to receive.
A wise and stunning soul, who is also my oldest friend, an artist and a mother whose talents could never be summarized in this fragment, suggested some practical ways of taking beauty off the taboo topic list.
One of her favorite art concepts – different views and interpretations of beauty – may help spark a casual dialogue about beauty.
“Talk about beauty more to help kids develop their definition of it. Explore questions like, ‘Can things that are awkward, opposite or unique be beautiful (maybe even more so than something ordinary)? Can things become more beautiful once you know and love them?'”
“Or, try tying beauty to function or wisdom, like finding a turtle’s shell to be beautiful because it is their home or the patina of a building to be beautiful because aging isn’t just about physical decline.”
Yes, these are ways I can feel comfortable discussing the b word – during playdates, in museums, alongside friends. It reminds me of my grandmother’s standout cheekbones. I noticed those before her wrinkles, every time. I should tell my daughter that.
For now, I am going to make an effort to compliment her outward appearance as much as I do her other strengths, before she’s pushed to seek society’s shallow brand of satisfaction. I will focus on her unique beauty and areas of potential confidence angst, such as fancying the way her (currently) toothless grin spotlights the sprinkle of freckles on her nose.
While my opinion is important to her now, and I hope she’s always somewhat interested in seeking it, it is not most important. I don’t want her looking for others’ approval – even mine.
Instead, I promise to help her explore her faith so she knows she is loved supernaturally and unconditionally and to nurture her finding the kind of girlfriends I’ve been lucky enough to have – the ones who have your back, build you up, see your beauty and celebrate it in all circumstances.
Maybe we can both become better at receiving. What can I say? I am a mom and I just want to reach down like one of those claw games at a dingy arcade and be the one who wins – against all odds – at pulling my girl out of the oversized junk that surrounds her.