My earliest childhood memories where I remember feeling incredibly beautiful were interwoven with feeling magical. I was a mermaid, I was a fairy who could talk to animals, a star who could control the weather.
My friend, Lara, recently pointed out an article about a book by Lisa Bloom who claims that we hurt girls every time we tell them they are pretty. That we set them up to be insecure and to face a future where they feel their value fade along with their looks as they inevitably age. You can read all about it here, and here, and here.
I was five. six. seven. I felt like a flower facing the sun when my mom would tell me, her voice full of awe, how beautiful I was becoming.
If my dad, who I rarely lived with, ever told me I was beautiful, I don’t remember it. He focused more on fitness. Thin or fat (of which I was the latter.) He actually followed the modern approach of complimenting hard work, character, and achievement. He gave compliments for good behavior freely, and I was convinced that he wished I was a boy.
These messages were confounded by a sexualized household where my own erotic appeal was judged by my step dad as casually and frequently as the erotic appeal of a grown woman – and it was clear to me that sexiness was parallel with goodness.
At 36 I’ve graduated from ingenue into a ball busting middle years lady. When did everyone start calling me ma’am? When did I stop plucking white hairs from the crown of my head and just let them come?
As a kid I was confounded by the relationship between my age and my sex appeal. And now at 36, the pendulum has swung but the conundrum persists.
Not too long ago, I was sitting at the breakfast table with my niece, who was seven and prone to self doubt. We were coloring, and out of nowhere she looked at me and in an accusatory tone said, “You never tell me I’m pretty.” I panicked. I stammered. I reassured. “You are beautiful. Are you kidding? I’ve never seen a pair of lips as sweet and lovely as yours.” I started listing physical attributes – each compliment completely sincere – in an effort to prove not that I thought she was pretty, but that I loved her.
“She’s fat” has become code for “I don’t like her” among young girls. “You are fat” means “You are terrible.” It certainly means “you are not beautiful.” We are raising a generation of people who give each other the same consideration that tabloid editors give to stars without makeup. When did this get so out of hand?
Standing in front of the mirror, regarding our own aging bellies and breasts, what are we really telling ourselves when we think “you are fat.”?
I have no idea what to tell anyone anymore. Can I tell you that you’re pretty? Can a compliment about your accomplishments possibly compete with a compliment about your beauty in this world we live in?
How do we capture that magical feeling? Mermaid. Fairy. Star.