“I’m madly in love with you and it’s not because of your brains or your personality. It’s because you’re beautiful, inside and out.” Grandpa, from the movie, Little Miss Sunshine
At 20, I never felt like a pretty girl. I tried really hard to feel that way, to do things that made me look sexy and feel attractive, did things that made men look at me because that seemed, in my mind, to mean they liked me. None of it was real though. No matter how many boys asked me to dance (not that many actually) or tried to take me home, I always felt like I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t pretty enough, like I could never *be enough*. I was taught early that women are sexual objects and if a man gives you attention, it’s best to receive it in a sexualized way.
These stories that women have, many similar to this one, begin in the home. These are stories that women of my generation tell over and over again. Mothers who were cruel and withholding of affection. Mothers who told their daughters that they were ugly, either straight out or subtly, as did mine.
My parents are beautiful people and I’ve always been looked at askance for not showing up in such glowing beauty as they manifested. I always, always felt like the ugly duckling, the ugly sibling, the sister who wasn’t as pretty as the other one, the poor little ugly girl in the pretty, pretty, rich family. I know that I did not make up this story about myself, it was one that was told to me and played out so many times that it became ingrained in me: not good enough; not pretty enough; so what if you’re smart (are you, really?); not pretty; not pretty; not pretty.
A few months ago, my mother was going on yet again about the things I could do to be prettier. I looked at her and said, firmly but kindly, “Mom. Stop. I’m 49 years old now and I am not going to suddenly change into a woman who wears makeup every day and curls her hair. It is far more important to me to be a good person and to continue to work on my inner beauty than what’s on the outside. I know that you are only trying to be helpful but when you tell me all of the things I should be doing to be prettier, what I hear is you telling me how ugly I am. I need for you to stop that now.”
My 80 year old mother looked at me wide-eyed and said, “Okay. I’m stopping.”
And she did! She has, in spite of severe memory issues (not diagnosable as anything but old age), completely desisted in her efforts to make me more beautiful. I tear up when I think of all of the agony and anger I spent on this over the years. Time I spent thinking she was one-upping me, when really she was trying to help me in the only way she knew how. She’s not very evolved, my mom, but she is sweet. She does love me. I’m still stunned by how telling her what I needed, finally, did the trick.
But this is about one more woman who feels like she’s ugly, not about happy ending with my mom. Carrying around that story, the one about how you aren’t pretty enough, opens you up to people who affirm it. At 20, at 30, maybe even at 40, I was still living in the story about my failure to be pretty enough, as if I could ever have been *pretty enough*. So when I dated men, they were men who told me that I was too fat, too unfit, too plain, and plain old not-good-enough looking for them. I had women friends who confirmed that my ass was too jiggly or that I was flabby or that I would never lose enough weight to look like that girl on the cover of a magazine.
DO YOU SEE THAT PHOTOGRAPH UP THERE? That’s me. That is a photograph of me, taken just before my 21st birthday, after I begged my Dad to take some pictures of me like he did for all of the pretty girls he knew. He didn’t really want to, but he did it. This is the only one I have left, thanks to my mother who has kept it in a frame on her coffee table for years. A boyfriend stole all of the rest of them, negatives and all. One of the men for whom I was never good enough, never good looking enough. May he rot in hell.
And this is me now, at almost 50. I am so much more forgiving of my flaws, both those that the world looks at like wrinkles and jiggly bits, and those that only I see, like my willingness to pick up and carry a lot of weight for other people and my hurt, the myriad hurts earned over a lifetime. Here is, I think, the crux of the problem: all of this hurt that our families give us to carry, is this what families are for? To provide us with hurdles to overcome? Is that the real function of family and not this story we are given about how family is here to support us and to help us to thrive? Maybe. Maybe the real gift that some families give is the gift of learning to look deeply into ourselves for whatever it is that we need. For my children, though, and for the children I know in the world, my preference is to give them something kinder–a knowing that there is someone in their lives who looks at them and sees their incredible depths of beauty.
By now you may be wondering, why are you writing this? This series of somewhat incoherent stories and thoughts?
Because I’m upset and, yes, angry. I’m angry that that girl at the top of the page was never told how beautiful she was and I’m angry for all of the girls who are never told how beautiful they are. I want girls to know that they matter, that they are powerful, that what they bring into the world is just exactly what the world needs, what their family needs, and everything that they themselves need, including beauty. Beauty is not blonde hair or a big ass or skin tight clothing. Beauty is confidence and exuding the knowledge that you have an innate power that brings something bright and needed into the world.
Do you have a daughter? How do you teach her that she has power, strength and beauty beyond all compare? How might we empower and change the world by giving our girls exactly what they need to thrive?
This post, this thought process is dedicated to my Pink Tent GIRLS: Martina; Sarah; Rachael; Shira; Chloe; and Lauren. I hope that each one of you know that I see you, and that, “I’m madly in love with you and it’s not because of your brains or your personality. It’s because you’re beautiful, inside and out.“