By Lauren Gonzalez/for the MISSOULA CURRENT
I remember what I was wearing. I remember the words that were whispered just loudly enough for me to overhear, and the name of the girl who spoke them. I still hear her words burning in my ears on the days I’m not feeling my best, the days when the mirror seems to echo back the hurtful things she said. If I am honest, that is more days than I would like to admit. Some folks maintain that words cannot really hurt – “sticks and stones” and all that – but I beg to differ.
I worry about my children’s future encounters with such people (my husband and I both suffered through acne, braces and glasses – good luck, kids!), and about the moments when they are those people. We have all been on both sides of the spectrum. I can certainly describe situations in which I was the mean girl. Those times do not feel much better, and I like to think that those moments in which we are the punching bag serve a bigger purpose, showing us how it feels, and reminding us not to do the same to others.
When I look back on the experience now, two things strike me: the degree to which I still allow a few careless words to define me and shape my life, and the universal nature of such stories. We all have them. I recently recounted the tale to my husband and a few close friends, and they each responded with similar stories of hurtful words that deeply affect their lives to this day. It is truly astounding how someone else’s words, spoken during our most vulnerable and formative years, can so quickly become the lens through which we see ourselves and our world (particularly when you consider that these mean-spirited comments are really less about us, and more about the person saying them). I mean, come on, I am not “Josie Grosie” anymore!
As you might expect, many of the painful stories I heard concerned physical appearance. We live in a society that places a great deal of emphasis on the genetic traits with which we are born (and over which we have absolutely no control), and it feels easy to pick on those that stand apart from the herd. This has happened since the dawn of time, and the modern response, for many folks, is to draw attention away from aesthetics. We are encouraged to praise our children for their intelligence and talent, rather than their looks, and particularly with girls. Admittedly, my husband and I chide each other when we overhear the other telling June that she is “beautiful,” because we fear that emphasizing her looks will create a self-obsessed child who cares only about her appearance. Still, this approach has always bothered me, because it is only part of the answer.
The emotional wounds I carry concern my physical appearance, and although it pushed me to focus energy and attention on developing other aspects that I could control – getting good grades, telling funny jokes – it never stopped me from asking the question, am I beautiful? And it always colors my answer: no. When I discovered over a year ago that we were expecting a girl, my heart broke for her already. I knew that from the moment she entered the world, she would have an inherent need to feel beautiful, worthy and adored, but this world would judge her on her looks, and sometimes leave her feeling unwanted. Whether or not we address a girl’s appearance with our praises and verbal comments, she will wonder whether she is enough on the outside. If we try to ignore her looks and praise her only according to skill and intelligence – if we do not address her outward beauty – the world will, and not always kindly.
The trouble is this: I am telling my daughter that beauty is not important when I live in a culture that rewards it richly, and something seems “off” about that. Still, it seems dangerous, right? I am playing with fire when I tell her she is pretty, and then tell her not to care so much about her looks. The truth is, we are not all supermodels. The world is unfair like that. She will learn this.
Sadly, I do not have the magical solution to this problem. I want so badly for no kid to ever experience hurt or negativity around how they look. I want for all kids to treat each other with kindness, and resist forming these crazy social hierarchies based around who has good hair, and who has clear skin (seriously, are these kids aliens?) I cannot hand you an “a ha” solution, but I can tell you how I plan to proceed: I plan to tell my daughter she is beautiful (and my son that he is handsome) often. I cannot help myself. In my eyes, they are God’s gift, and that is part of parenting. However, I also plan to praise their other qualities – things like wit, intelligence, problem-solving abilities, kindness, perseverance and depth. I plan to talk to them about aesthetic beauty – how it can be defined differently by different people, how it is just one part of a person, and that while it is a gift to be thankful for (like any other), it is not the only factor by which we should decide which are worthwhile human beings.
As my kids grow and start to define beauty for themselves, I hope to help them recognize it in others without attaching tremendous value to it. Mostly, I hope that my kids feel safe talking to me (or another influential adult) when they do not feel like beautiful, worthy humans. As I told my own painful story to my husband the other day, I realized that I had never before told anyone. I experienced it, took it in as truth, and let it shape and define my future, because I did not trust anyone enough to sit with me and help make sense of it.
So when a child trusts you with such stories, try not to be so quick to brush it aside and insist that looks do not matter – even children can intuit that they do. Rather, help them see that everyone’s perspective on beauty is different; that nobody’s “brand” of beauty is going to resonate with everyone, and that there is certainly much more to them than their looks. Most importantly, help them to uncover their own definition of beauty, to figure out what they find beautiful about themselves and others, and nurture those things. And hey, give yourself a little grace. You are not Josie Grosie anymore.
How do you address beauty and physical appearance with your kids? I would love to hear your ideas. Leave a comment below!
Lauren Gonzalez is a Missoula mother and parenting lifestyle coach. For honest mom empowerment, sign up for Lauren’s monthly newsletter at www.LaurenCRS.com and check out her services offering connection and support. You can also follow Lauren on Twitter @TheRealGonzie and find her on Facebook.