Do you tell your kids they’re beautiful? Is it reinforcing the age-old social conditioning that looks matter when other traits are so much more important? Hazel Davis takes a good hard look at the dilemma.
My five-year-old bloody loves a mirror. We have a mirrored clock next to the dining table and if you’re not careful her eyes will leave yours and head straight there so she can get back to admiring her reflection. I die practically every week in her violin lesson when I catch her not correcting her posture in the teacher’s mirror but rather checking how good her boots look.
I have a bit of a dilemma.
See, I spent a good chunk of my life believing I looked like the back of a bus, thanks to my mum’s own horrific lack of self-esteem. It peaked when we were standing in front of the mirror, me aged about 11, and she sighed, “We’re both ugly, aren’t we?”
It sounds SO shocking written down and if I think about it too much I wind myself up into tiny bitter knots, but I know she meant no harm by it. She couldn’t help it. But the damage was done and my lot in life was determined. I was ugly.
Phrases that my mum unwittingly drummed into me over the years include: “the family round shoulders”, “our thin lips”, “the family spare tyre”, like they were these punishments we’d inherited, rather than just, you know, our bodies. My mum, incapable of loving herself, my dad incapable of not making a quip. Neither of them able to say in any authentic way, “Hey you. You’re gorgeous.”
It took years, literally YEARS, for me to realise I wasn’t ugly. Or that there’s no such thing. Or that it’s subjective. In my (our) eyes, I was a particular type of girl and my destiny was clear. At best, I avoided mirrors. At worst, I’d stand and grimace in them exactly the same way my mum did (still does).
“‘You’re so pretty,’ I say, as my five-year-old flutters her eyelashes in the mirror. ‘You have SUCH beautiful lips,’ I say to her sister. ‘I know,’ they retort, smugly.”
In clothes shops (which I avoided until my late 20s anyway), I’d run in, buy the clothes, run out and try them on, mirrorless, at home, usually disappointed that it hadn’t worked out. When I met my partner at university he says he liked my style; dungarees and Docs, no makeup and weird hats. He didn’t know it was really because I was too scared to wear skirts and dresses because I thought I was ugly.
Since I realised I was hot (seriously, smokin’), thanks to a VERY patient partner and years of self-analysis, I’ve been very careful about my mirror behaviour. I stand there until I am happy with my look. Yes, I admire myself. Yes, I pout. Yes, I stick my arse out and congratulate myself on it. Yes, I sometimes wear a padded bra (bite me, I still also wear dungarees and Docs). And I wear makeup. A lot.
And so to my dilemma. I have two belting girls, aged four and five. They’re smart, funny and beautiful. And I tell them every day (the other stuff too). “You’re so pretty,” I say, as my five-year-old flutters her eyelashes in the mirror. “You have SUCH beautiful lips,” I say to her sister. “I know,” they retort, smugly.
Intellectually, this goes against everything I stand for. Looks don’t matter! I want to tell them I’d love them if they had three noses, that they’d still be the most beautiful creatures I’d ever set eyes on if they suddenly grew horns and hooves (actually that would be well cool). I really want them to not give two hoots about how they look. I want them to run around in the mud in shorts and T-shirts forever, never caring what eyeshadow is most flattering.
In fact, from the extreme lengths I go to in discouraging them from wearing princess items, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was militantly anti-BEING-PRETTY.
Who gives a fuck if my children are pretty? I know nobody does and I shouldn’t. And don’t.
But I do give a fuck whether they think they are.
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Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".