skin deep

Tonight I read a post on the lovely Thea Smith’s blog (Do I Really Wanna Blog?) titled Unpretty. It brought to mind a piece I had published previously on Web Child. It seemed fitting to post it again, as an extension of my comment on Thea’s thought-provoking and honest blog. It also seems to be a logical continuation of my last post – The Naughtiest Girl Goes to a Party.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Skin Deep

Mirror, mirror on the wall… this seems to be my current ironic refrain as I survey my almost 40-year-old reflection each morning. My usual daily routine is a perfunctory application of make-up and the reluctant acceptance of whatever style my willful head of hair might deem appropriate. But, just as I obtain a certain level of satisfaction and think that I look okay my eight-year-old daughter comes and stands beside me. As our mirror images gaze back at us, her blemish-free skin, graceful posture and fuss-free ponytail put my paltry efforts to shame – and bring to light some issues which concern me.

Indiana is beautiful. Of course, as a mum it’s what we say about our kids. But, objectively speaking, Indy seems to have an arrangement of physical features which is generally accepted as being aesthetically pleasing in our society. I say this in as detached a way as possible because for most of my life I have struggled to make peace with the concept of physical beauty and its place in our world. In turn I worry about the impact it may have on my daughter’s life.

Rue it though we may we cannot ignore or deny the fact that beauty is a form of currency, and I think one of the challenges we face as parents is to teach our children – and especially our daughters – how to negotiate the sometimes treacherous way it functions. Of course, worshipping at the altar of physical beauty is as old as Helen of Troy so our current obsession with the Jolie-Pitts of the world is nothing new. But it’s the often proffered side-dish of vacuousness and narcissism which I fear. How do I teach my daughter to wear her beauty with a patina of humility and goodness?

I was an average looking child – a little on the small side but occasionally attractive. However, my best friend in high school possessed a precocious beauty which literally turned heads. Walking beside her long, stunning self often made me feel invisible. I admit with embarrassment that I became obsessed with appearances – a preoccupation that still occasionally pops in to say hello. I loved my friend for much more than her beauty, although the fact that she later became famous for her looks (amongst other talents) went some way towards justifying what I knew to be true – she was indeed a genetic freak.

My own daughter – despite her debut as an unattractive newborn – has blossomed into a particular version of westernised beauty with her tawny blonde hair, big blue eyes fringed by long dark lashes and naturally olive skin. Our initial response upon realising that the flat head, blotchy skin, gappy teeth and crazy hair of her babyhood were temporary was to constantly tell her that she was beautiful. Now I wonder why it mattered so much to us. But as a new mum I believed that praising her this way would safeguard her against future self-image problems such as those I had experienced. The flipside of this praise was that I was verbally rewarding her for what she is – as if it was as significant as what she does. I wised up and pulled back a little on the ‘beautiful girl’ comments replacing them with, “what a caring girl you are,” or, “you made a great effort at gymnastics today”.

I guess we’ve been lucky so far because Indy has always had a shy and self-effacing nature but in recent months we have noticed her increasing awareness of her appearance. She is not at all obsessive but the other day she said to me, “Mummy, I’ve got skin like a model.” Considering the fact that I have never had cause to use the word ‘model’ when chatting with the kids, I was a little shocked. This had obviously come from elsewhere. I asked her, “Why is that important?” to which she replied, “Models get to have their photo taken and be in magazines.”

“Well that doesn’t mean much,” I countered, “you don’t have to be smart or nice to have your photo taken.” She pondered it for a minute and didn’t seem particularly perturbed by what I had said. It was then that I became aware of the fine line between giving her an over-inflated sense of the importance of beauty and of damaging her developing sense of self. I also know that I can’t completely prevent her from discovering that she has a measure of this particular form of currency (although we may find that it, too, passes – just as her newborn cone-head did) but I will continue to remind her that courtesy, respect and education are three things (at the very least) which rank above beauty in my books.

My high school friend was often defined by her physical appearance, but I also remember her as incredibly smart, quirky, hardworking, loyal and kind. Without these qualities she would not have been so beautiful. I wish the same for my daughter.

Am I being too harsh on my daughter? How do you teach your kids about appearances over substance?

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “skin deep

  1. That’s what I worry about, giving my children ‘an over-inflated sense of the importance of beauty’.
    I had a friend at teacher’s college who had been told her whole life by both of her parents how beautiful she was and whilst she actually just looked pretty much like the rest of us, she seemed to have an added aura of self assurance and confidence. I found it difficult to be around at times, because I guess I like a little humility as well as confidence.
    But the fine line is so treacherous.
    I think what you have said to your daughter is just right. Question why anything matters. Discuss everything. And just hope and pray we end up doing and saying the right thing in the end.
    I loved this post!

  2. Thinking! Very thought provoking.
    We do really need to balance how we feed our children’s self esteem. Being told I was plain and unattractive makes me want to do the reverse with my children. I think it’s important that they feel comfortable in the skin they were born with, so I think it is important to tell them how lovely they are. It is also just as important to look at their heart and encourge them to know who they are on the inside.

    I think I’ve got my take on it now… It’s more important to work on who you are and accept and be comfortable with what you look like. – That’s what I’ll teach my kids.

    Thanks for allowing me to journal my thoughts on your blog! lol

  3. It’s really hard to find that line and not step over it. I tell my children they’re beautiful and I have to hope that neither of them take that as their appearance. Neither of my children are ugly at the ages they are now, nor are they awkward looking etc but I don’t expect either of them to be drop dead gorgeous. (in the case of my daughter she has gorgeous auburn curls so there’s a headstart on her brother’s straight, somewhat mousey coloured hair with it’s cowlicks). I’d far rather they were considered beautiful for their generosity of spirit, their consideration of others and their empathy. I suppose I want to raise two beautiful souls, I hope I’m managing that 🙂

  4. Chris

    As always a very poignant piece

    I think everyone is plagued by their own appearance issues. Even those “perfect” people have insecurities. Didn’t Anna Kornikova demand Mark Phillipousous call her frequently to tell her how pretty she was or something??

    I seem to have been brought up in a different world, mum wasn’t what could be considered “pretty” in her everyday life. She continually struggled with her wieght.

    Perhaps it was a requirement as a nurse, the only makeup she ever wore was lipstick. Mum wasn’t vain, she always stressed that it was the person that you are that is of most important, not your appearanc. In fact I vary rarley see my sisters with any makeup on. They don’t see the need.

    Mum is long gone and we are in Newcastle, my wife and mother in law were brought up differently, they won’t go outside the house without makeup.

    What worries me is my eldest is picking up on signs about being “pretty” at 7, the media is everywhere about being fat, attractive, and then there’s those video clips which paint unrealistic images of how girls are to appear and behave.

    She is already concerned about food she eats (she doesn’t weight herself thankfully). I have never said anything about her appearance, she knows i love her, but i am concerned about her as she is very lean as she is.

    I want so desperately to understand that prettiness it is the person inside that is what is nice or bad. There are so many “pretty” people who have the worst attitudes to others, believe me i have come across my fair share.

    But I am dad and struggle to get my message accross as her friends start to have more and more influence over her thinking. i just fear for her self esteem in these superficial times.

  5. I remember being very, *very* concerned about my looks at your daughter’s age. Luckily, my Mum told me I was pretty and beautiful, but still managed to make it clear that looks are not everything. It’s what we do with our lives that really matters.

    I just hope I can achieve the same with my daughter. It’s such a balancing act.

    But, on reflection, I think a big part of it is setting a strong example. My Mum is a very intelligent woman, both academically and in a practical, ‘common sense’ way, and she always expected that of us as well.

  6. Deb

    I’m in a similar situation – my husband and I are fairly average but we have somehow had two beautiful daughters, so much that strangers comment. This means they are hearing it a lot, even if we don’t say anything.
    My way of dealing with it has been to talk about feelings, I try to live by “if you feel good, you look good.” So when the big girl asks how she looks, I ask her how she feels. And we also talk about helping people and being nice making you feel good. So hopefully they’ll make the connection that way.
    In the last few days I’ve been hit with a makeup dilemma. I don’t wear it but have some in the bathroom and both girls like to play with it. I’ve always considered it the same as dressing up. But then big girl asked if she could wear makeup to pre-school. I had to say no, but realised that if she’d asked to wear her fairy outfit I would instantly have said yes. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about this.

  7. I don’t pretend to know what all the answers are – it’s so hard with the media saying beauty ‘is this’, but keep telling your little girl she’s beautiful. Just make sure she knows beauty in the sense of the physical is luck, ephemeral, and can be lost in an instant, whereas real beauty, the one that shines out, is the one you make yourself.

    As a former little girl, i know how wounded i was when my mother stopped telling me i was beautiful – i didn’t completely believe her when she said it, but it was reassuring. Her stopping meant i came to think i was ugly. Not what you’re aiming for. 🙂

  8. As others have said, it is such a fine line to walk in helping our children, both girls and boys, to develop a healthy image of their bodies while keeping it all in perspective.

    I sometimes think it isn’t so much the words we say, but the attitudes we show ourselves that help our children to learn what to value. Our children observe us and notice what we place value on and where we spend our time and this influences the priorities they make for their own lives. If I spend an hour fussing with my hair and make-up before leaving the house (which I don’t), it would undermine any comments I make to my daughter about who she is inside being more important than how she looks.

    I mention to my children if I think they look particularly handsome/beautiful, but I more frequently mention to them how proud I am when they demonstrate strength of character by showing compassion, friendship, honesty and kindness. Now that I think about it, I sometimes describe their actions as beautiful as well as their appearance.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Jayne.

  9. It’s funny – just towards the end of last year, someone complimented me on my 11 yo daughter. They said she had really blossomed and there was a glow about her. They went on to say that it wasn’t just a looks thing, but an increase in self-confidence and poise. I was blown away and very proud. She had a very good year at school last year – academically and socially, and I really think the affirmation she was receiving from her teachers and peers was showing in her face and body language.

    So I guess I plan to try to play up the confidence aspect about being who she is. Like you, I would rather she be loved for who she is than how she looks and in turn she will love others for the same. Fortunately so far she seems to be heading in the right direction, but those teen years are just around the corner, and I admit, I worry.

  10. I remember this piece from the first time (and the comment that got deleted ;))… it’s just as good on second reading. It’s also something I’m really dealing with lately, and good to reflect on… at 7, my daughter is so focussed on looking beautiful and being pretty that it scares me. I was never the sort of girl’s girl she is, and I’m not quite sure how to deal with it. She is divine to look at (though of course I think that), but I’ve always resisted telling her for fear she’d take the message that that was part of her worth to me, when of course it isn’t. Then last year she had a really bad term at school where another girl repeatedly bullied her and told her she was fat (tho she is tiny- same mantis build as her mother, and does 4 hours of sport every week on top of that) and my hsuband and I found we really needed to then build up her physical confidence after that and be more forthcoming with our praise. It’s such a line to walk, and that was only grade 1. Sigh.

    • My daughter has often been bullied about her size. She’s not fat but she has a muscular build and so is often bigger than many of her classmates. She’s sporty & athletic does at least 6 hours of sport a week and she eats (mostly) healthily. What I’ve done whenever she’s been bullied because of this (and for any other reason) is turn it back onto the person bullying. My usual comment is along the lines of “it’s sad that person is worried they might be overweight and thinks that making you feel bad will help them not feel so bad. It doesn’t work does it?” It reminds my daughter that what’s said by a bully is rarely about the bullied person but about the bully. It helps her to remember to think of the reason behind the bullying instead of getting upset by it and it gives me the chance to remind her that she’s not as the bully implied, fat, ugly or whatever. So far it’s working well, daughter is in yr 7 now and still tells me what other kids are saying and is still resisting falling in line like a sheep. She has a healthy self esteem and doesn’t denigrate others for their differences. (That’s actually one of the thing that make her beautiful, in my opinion).

  11. again – many comments I didn’t read – but a blog I so relate to-
    I grew up in a household very picked on for how i looked, both mum and grandma obsessed with their looks , mum has an eating disorder – now, at least partially because of her, so do I.
    So with my kids I try so hard to say the ‘right thing’ – They know I am unwell and don’t eat the right amount, they have seldom heard me criticise my body shape (at least I hope not) and they get a lot of “you look very pretty” but only when they do, which they do, quite a bit, lucky things, and MUCH (thanks to Wii fit and having stick thin children no matter how much i feed them ) Wow honey – you need to PUT ON weight – you look good now but you need to grow…
    And I am hoping somehow by the time my little girl reaches an age where fat and thin REALLY matters to have my own stuff sorted out enough to at least eat with them most of the time.
    Its so hard. They know Mum is too thin, they know why, but I know what it was like growing up with an ultra thin Mum – granted she never said she was too thin but treated it as ideal – she longed to be as thin as possible. i hate it and they know it and they know it is wrong to make yourself this way – I speak of that (am hoping the ‘underweight’ exhausted droopy Mii on wii fit will help get this accross too) unless you ARE overweight – like Dad – who needs to lose weight- not too much- but some (we have a good balance) I just hope I haven’t done irreprable damage already.
    Oh and the model comment – love how you treated it 🙂 Sorry for long comment…

  12. Even as young as my kids are (3 and 1) I’ve already noticed a bit of a distinction in the way they comment on them. About the boy it’s generally how tall and/or articulate he is for his age, if looks are referred to it’s how he looks like me; the girl is usually “look at her hair” or “isn’t she pretty”. I hope I don’t end up overcompensating by making my daughter downplay her looks or by pretending I don’t care about looks because I do (to a certain extent at least), it’s just not as important as other attributes to me.
    There’s nothing wrong with ‘looking like a model’ or even being a model (necessarily, although I came close once but was *luckily* told I needed to lose weight, to which I said ‘get stuffed’) but obviously being in a looks-obsessed industry, with your self-esteem being tied to your self-worth more, there’s more danger of losing who you really are. Maybe your daughter’s too young to explore these ideas with, but it’s worth considering as an option for future discussion. Yes, you look like a ‘model’. But more than that, you look like you. The reason you’re beautiful is because of every part of you, and as time goes by your beauty will change and develop, and whether that still looks like what’s popular at the moment, is of no consequence to me. That’s what I want my children to know.

    • “The reason you’re beautiful is because of every part of you, and as time goes by your beauty will change and develop, and whether that still looks like what’s popular at the moment, is of no consequence to me.”

      I just love that!! That’s what I want to tell my children.

  13. Clearly I need more sleep. I meant ‘self-esteem tied to your looks’ but you probably got the gist.

  14. Really interesting … it is hard to balance, and unfortunately mum’s aren’t always able to influence the outcomes with regard to this. My daughter is nearly 19, and is head turningly beautiful – but she is incredibly humble and empathic and warm and lovely.

    Her sense of self was predominatly damaged by other girls being quite nasty to her during her primary and high school years.

    I tried to be the best role model that I could – by demonstrating how to treat others, how to stand up for what I believed in and how to make my way in the world.

    I always told her that she was clever and that she was beautiful on the inside, which she was (is). It’s just unfortunate that often peers opinions and words hold much more credence than that of a well intentioned parent – but we do our best.

    Miss18 is just now finding her feet with feeling good about her personal achievements, making wise decisions & being a strong individual – I am hoping soon that she will belive that the inside is just as good as the outside.

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