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She doesn't think she's beautiful

July 16, 2013 - Betsy Bethel
I don't want to write this post. I don't want to because it makes me cry to think about it. It makes me feel angry and helpless. No one likes feeling that way. Many people run away from those feelings. To write about them is like running into the middle of a tornado instead of hunkering down under shelter.

But I have to write this, because I know I am not the only one, and not only do I want others to know they are not alone, but I also need to hear from those of you who understand. This is a subject I've never heard my mommy friends address — probably because most of them have boys my daughter's age, not girls — but I'm sure others have experienced or will experience this type of conversation at some point in their little girls' lives. And maybe in their boys' lives, too.

So, deep breath, here we go.

We were lying, legs entangled, in her twin-size bed. It was bedtime, the midsummer evening's light still streaming in the window, and we had just finished our ritual of reading and praying. She held a small stuffed penguin she had singled out from her rag-tag battalion for special treatment that night. Nose to nose, I told her she was beautiful. Her brow furrowed and she looked away. Then she whispered in the penguin's ear. And the penguin spoke.

"But SHE doesn't think she's beautiful."

My heart plunged into my stomach. Not this, Lord, please. She's only 7.

"Oh, but I think she is," I addressed the penguin. "I've thought so since the day she was born."

Emma whispers in the penguin's ear again. "But you're her mother, you have to say that."

"I'm not the only one," I said. "Her daddy, her grandparents, her whole family thinks so. And her friends, too. God made her just the way she is, just the way He wanted her to look."

"But," the penguin started to speak but Emma remembered to whisper to him first. And then: "But when she looks in the mirror, she doesn't like what she sees."

Sigh. Stay calm, Mama. "Well, hmm, what doesn't she like?"

"Everything," said Emma, this time without the penguin. "Well, not everything. My cheeks, my nose, my chin, my lips. My eyes are OK."

"You do have beautiful eyes," I assured her. "And lips and cheeks and nose and chin."

"Emma doesn't think so," the penguin piped up.

"Well, I guess she's just going to have to take my word for it. And God's," I said. "She's beautiful, inside and out."

Emma closed her eyes and snuggled closer, her head under my chin, her shoulder under my arm. I kissed the top of her blond head and wondered, "Where did THAT come from?" We fell asleep that way and sometime in the middle of the night, I woke up, rolled out of bed, tucked her in and stumbled to my own bed. Still wondering.

Now several days later, I haven't come up with any concrete reasons why my precious daughter feels like she doesn't measure up in the beauty department at the tender age of 7. Being somewhat of a tomboy -- she's more comfortable getting muddy in the creek than dressing up in my high heels -- she never was overly interested in princesses, makeup and all that girly-girl stuff. I probably am guilty of pushing the princess package a little too much, for reasons that stem from my own anti-princess, anti-Barbie upbringing. (I talk about that in earlier blogs, Dolls Under Fire and The Grand Illusion.)

I admit I haven't been consistent in how I treat the subject of physical appearance with her. There have been times when I've decided that telling my daughter she's pretty all the time is really NOT a good way to boost her self-esteem. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know. But, if we're always complimenting her appearance, doesn't that send the message that appearances must be very important? When we make a big deal when a little girl gets all dolled up, oohing and ahhing over her pretty sparkly dress, her lipgloss, her curled hair, does that then translate to her feeling ugly whenever she's not dressed to the nines?

And then what happens if you tell your baby how beautiful she is over and over, and she believes you wholeheartedly, until some cruel person — child or adult — tells her she's not. Will she think you lied? I would hope she would think that the other person is the liar. But as the penguin said, mothers have to say their children are beautiful. Not just because they think they should, but because they deep down believe it to be true. And, it's true, not everyone will believe it.

But if I DON'T compliment her appearance — and I have sometimes tried to downplay appearances for the aforementioned reasons — she could be internalizing that I believe her appearance isn't worth complimenting.

And what about when I tell her she needs to brush her hair because it looks messy? I want her to brush her hair because I do think it's important that it doesn't look like a rat's nest when she goes out in public. Is that more because I fear what people will think about me, or about her? And does she hear my admonition as: "You're ugly if you don't brush your hair?"

I want Emma to be comfortable in her own skin and confident that she is worthy of love and affection, no matter what others think of her physical appearance.

I did pick up the conversation with her later and told her that God didn't make everyone the same kind of beautiful, and that we all have our own ideas of what constitutes beauty and what doesn't. Treading as if on broken glass, I added: "There will always be someone you think is more beautiful than you are, and there will always be someone you believe you are more beautiful than. But physical beauty is not as important as inner beauty -- being kind and showing others God's love."

A final thought, and this comes from a heartwrenching blog I read recently (When Your Mother Says She's Fat), is that mothers and fathers both must be vigilant about not putting themselves down in front of their children. If she hears me say, "Oh, I hate my hair" or "I am so fat" or her father call himself "ugly," she may believe that's how we are supposed to think of ourselves. I am currently on a health kick and that's how I am addressing it with her, not harping about losing weight but talking about working toward being healthier and stronger.

And I am making a vow right now to stop speaking negatively about appearances — anyone's — in front of her.

I have spent way too much of my life feeling bad about how I look. But I don't think I even started paying attention until I was in fifth or sixth grade. Emma will start second grade next month. I still feel a little helpless and angry and scared when I think about her misgivings, but hiding from this storm is not an option. We will face it head-on, and I can only pray she will be spared at least a little of the pain I experienced.

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