You Are Beautiful

I am not sure Facebook is at all good for me. I tend to read a lot of articles there about parenting, NONE of which is a good idea to internalize (change it! fix it! make it better! you suck, btw!). Then today someone posted that tear-jerker IKEA ad in Spanish today about how all kids want for Christmas is for you to spend more time with them. Thanks Ikea, I know that, and I would love to, but I have this silly little job thing. Now I feel guilty about not being rich enough to stay home.

Anyway, what I really wanted to write about is this other item I saw today that pops up on Facebook on a regular basis. It’s about how to talk to your daughter about her body. You’ve probably seen it. It goes a little like this:

“How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works. Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight. If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that…Don’t comment on other women’s bodies either. Nope. Not a single comment, not a nice one or a mean one….”

While I don’t want to troll well-meaning friends on Facebook, or to post an entire essay in FB comments, I want to say somewhere that I really disagree with this. Really. Very much disagree.

I do not find this to be an inspiring message, but rather one that erases joy.

Imagine how this would play out in real life. Negative messages are pouring in from all sides. Possibly the child herself is hearing from other actual people at school or on the street that she looks bad, wrong, or ugly. Even if not, the whole world is telling her she isn’t good enough and doesn’t look perfect through the pervasive images and messages on every billboard, television program, and magazine ad. In this poisonous atmosphere, how is the silence of your closest family to be interpreted? As support? Probably not. More likely as disapproval, hesitance to voice the awful truth, shame, or disgust.

I think that much more to the point would be a countervaling and voiced opinion that the child is beautiful. Period.

I am not saying that being beautiful should be the only thing or the main thing that a parent complements about a girl. It would be best to mostly talk about other things — how strong, or smart, or fast, or whatever, that she is — but sometimes, not too infrequently, it would also be nice to tell her that she is beautiful. Beauty is something that our culture values a great deal. One way to change everyone’s perception of what falls into that category would be to talk about a lot more kinds of people and bodies as beautiful. With words. Out loud.

I feel strongly about this issue because I don’t have to imagine how parental silence on this topic would play out in real life, I know. I was “the ugly girl” starting in elementary school and continuing through high school. To be jeered at in the halls, to be the butt of jokes, and to be certain myself of how completely awful I looked was a basic fact of my life. I don’t know what my parents thought of my appearance. They never said. I didn’t ask. I assumed that compliments they gave me in other areas stemmed from their ideals (I was smart, I was good at art) but also covered up the big unmentionable dreadful thing, which was my completely unacceptable appearance.

As an adult I now realize that my parents probably had no idea of what I experienced in school. But that is my point. You don’t necessarily know what everyone else is saying to a kid, and silence is so vague, so hard to account for, and so easy to assign an unintended meaning to.

Now that I am nearly forty I usually feel that I am over the bullying I experienced in school. I’ve been surprised to find that mentioning the whole “ugly girl” thing is fairly taboo. Twice recently I mentioned (in a normal conversational context about high school, or whatever) that this happened to me, only to be met with horrified silence and a quick change of topic. I don’t know what that is, but it feels related to the persistent assertion that if you are the right sort of person, then the best way to deal with the body and how it looks to NOT TO DISCUSS IT. Why? If it’s so important to the world that people be beautiful, and it seems to be, let’s try to take charge of the conversation by participating in it. Otherwise the only voices out there are the wrong ones.