I have a problem. My problem is that I cannot stop calling my daughters “beautiful”.
I know I am not supposed to. I know that there is too high a value placed on beauty, especially for women. I know that the pursuit of beauty wrecks havoc on our self-esteems, identities, relationships and…worse. I know that vanity used to be considered a sin and that now we seem to live in a world where happiness and success is regularly measured by the hotness of the latest selfie. I see it, I know it, I feel it, it all makes me want to curl up into a ball and wish the world away. But… my daughters.
My daughters really are something. As I am sure all daughters and sons are. Yours in particular. When I think or say “beautiful!” to them I don’t mean it in a singular way. I don’t just mean “pretty”. I mean – dazzlingly joyful, full to the brim, radiant, hilarious, courageous, compassionate, sparkling, wonderful and awesome. If I had to replace “beautiful” with only one word I guess I’d choose vibrant? But, let’s be honest, “vibrant” isn’t an adjective that just leaps out, the way “beautiful” does.
Recently my elegant, truly stylish, well-read, super-smart, delightfully cynical, unfortunately-living-in-another-country (boo!), really beautiful friend and I were emailing back and forth about an upcoming trip where we will finally get to see one another. She was wishing to lose weight before then; five kilos specifically.
I jokingly suggested, via email: “Shall we agree to pretend we are superbly stunning and eat our way to an extra five kilos over a single weekend?” (I added a fist bump and a couple of lightning strikes emoji for effect)
She wrote back: “You don’t have to pretend!”
My reply: “Oh yes I do!! That’s the trick isn’t it? Bet Audrey Tautou is looking in the mirror going..’Merde.’ “
My friend: “You are perfect as you are”
Me: “Ditto! x x x”
My friend: “I’ll do my best to remember that.”
Me: “It would make life pretty awesome. We should just decide to.”
Her: “I wish it was that easy.”
The point here is that my friend, my really beautiful friend, is wounded. I am wounded. Most of us are wounded… by this beauty thing. What is the solution? To just not mention it? To raise our girls omitting the adjectives pertaining to it?
Of course I do not have a definitive answer. How wonderful it would be if I did. How liberating. For us all. Just assuming that not mentioning it is one viable solution; the problem I have is that the word “beautiful” simply keeps slipping from my lips. I cannot help it! It’s not me, it’s them! I look at my daughters’ loveliness, their scruffiness, their shining eyes and pink cheeks, their wildness, their curiosity and vividness and “beautiful” just, well, makes its way out.
For now my daughters agree with me that they are indeed beautiful. Not because they are vain, arrogant little toads, but because they are preschoolers. Preschoolers know they are beautiful in the same way they know they are a brilliant painter, superb dancer and one hell of a sight to behold on the monkey bars. And why the hell not? They are. But soon enough they will start to doubt all those things, their talents and their beauty. Maybe the real issue is not the word or tricky associated adjectives but the reductive way we perceive and promote the word and the concept. The idea that “beautiful” means one thing, that it’s synonymous with “pretty” and “perfect”, that there are very few kinds of pretty and that it is always external and aesthetic. That there is a single standard and a single measure. You know, that garbage.
But maybe, if my girls could appreciate the multitude of meanings I am assigning when I use the word “beautiful” to describe them, perhaps they wouldn’t inherit the same wounds. Perhaps they could truly appreciate the vastness of their beauty, the timelessness, the integration (but not isolation) of their physical appearance in the adjective. Perhaps. Or, as my email-back-and-forth with my friend hinted, maybe the real starting point is with me, their mother. Maybe if I review the way I see, describe and perceive myself in terms of beauty, that is where the real learning will evolve. From me to me, from me to them. It’s not such a new idea but one that feels, as my friend so simply put “not so easy”.
But if… the magic if… it could be done, maybe you, me, our girls and our sons, could still use that controversial adjective. Maybe we could say: “Of all the (many) kinds of beautiful… I am one of them.” And mean it. Without the wound.