In 1999, the entire downtown area of my hometown was demolished in a tornado. I was 17, and a junior in high school. It was an interesting time. For the first time in a long time, I had no boyfriend, mostly by choice. It was also the only time in my life where I could be described as “boyish.” I’d had a rough year emotionally and terrible bronchitis, which led to a significant weight loss. I also adored my friend Lisa’s short haircut and totally copied her. Like presidencies and eras, you are able to name them in retrospect, and so I have since dubbed this time “The Era of Unfortunate Hair.”
I’ve lived in a state of disillusion regarding my appearance for, like, ever. I’ll get to that later. A couple of people said I was adorable, and so I believed them. I remember someone (or two, I think) said I looked like Meg Ryan (at the height of her career, nonetheless!), and so I ran with that and hoped that my bronchitis would return so I could look as adorable as she did with her cold in You’ve Got Mail.
I loved being single in a way that only a high schooler could. I spent endless hours with friends, listening to Ani DiFranco, and “finding out who I was,” which crept into every bad poem I wrote around that time. During this time, I discovered that I loved long walks (no lie), driving around aimlessly for hours, overly sweetened coffee, Judy Garland, ripping off Columbia House, and live music. The first time I discovered the latter was at a benefit concert to raise money for our demolished town.
Blessid Union of Souls had just released their album, and they rocked that mess so hard. I went with a few friends, most memorably a guy named (shall we?) Jack. We danced like there was no tomorrow, feeling both like no one was watching and that we were the most memorable people at that show. I believe we may have incorporated a few moves from show choir, which is shocking to those who had show choir with me considering I didn’t even incorporate those moves in the actual show. I am the world’s worst dancer, but this was before I cared.
After the concert, we walked for what felt like forever to my little red Kia, hugged on a brick sidewalk, and for a moment it was that awkward, “Are we going to kiss?” conundrum but it passed very quickly, and who knows…we may have just high-fived instead. I drove home and barely gave it another thought. I wouldn’t remember it at all, 17 years later, if it weren’t for what happened next.
Monday morning, I received a letter. I will never forget it. I may even have it in my big box of high school memories that I’ll never really go through, even though I am forever married to my high school sweetheart. On a turquoise sheet of copier paper, in the finest penmanship I’d ever seen from a dude, read the following blowing crush:
“The other night, it felt like you wanted to kiss me. I want you to know that I am not interested. I love you, as my friend. And, I mean, you are pretty…but not THAT pretty.”
Half a lifetime ago, that still hurts. And, enter the thesis of this essay. Girls really need to know they’re pretty, and even THAT pretty.
We are smack dab in the middle of this movement to change everything that ever was, with changes so accelerated that who can even keep up anymore? It seems that everyone has a problem with everything, and you just can’t say a thing right anymore. I’m sure I could add fuel to a lot of mommy wars, but for now I just to implore one tiny thing, that could be a game-changer for girls: please tell them they’re beautiful.
Of COURSE you should tell them they are intelligent and strong. Of course you should foster creativity and exploration. But for the love of Bob, don’t try to change who they are innately.
I didn’t grow up with a lot. And, I certainly didn’t grow up reading magazines. I don’t remember seeing anything on tv beyond TGIF. I wasn’t very exposed to the supposed media that’s to blame for every body image issue young ladies have. I didn’t play with Barbies until I was maybe a little older than usual (I just really liked creating story lines and decorating an apartment with repurposed items and a tv stand). Yet, I can remember being in second grade, staring at myself in my parents’ dresser mirror and thinking, “Am I pretty?”
Every time, the reflection would say, “I think I am, but I don’t know if anyone else does.”
I would stare at my reflection doing dishes (a task I still find incredibly relaxing) and say “Am I pretty?”
And my reflection would say, “I think I am, but I don’t know if anyone else does,”
I would stare at my features. I studied them intensely. I would think, my nose is big, but not that big. My eyes are blue, but not big enough. And hair is a different subject.
No one ever told me to ask myself these questions, to evaluate my every feature. Yet, every little girl will eventually reach this point. We can’t pretend that’s not reality, and we can only blame biology.
I’m certainly not blaming my parents for any of this- they didn’t raise children in this world of constant blog posts/ essays/ lists of “Ways You’re Screwing Up Your Kids.” But, this is the world we are raising our daughters in now.
Now in 2016, I have the privilege of teaching girls in the height of building self-impressions. I teach seventh grade. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably finished seventh grade, and you know it’s the worst. Except a lot of my girls are not having the worst time. They are skating through unscathed. The clincher in all success in middle school, in feigning off vulnerability (strictly from my observations) is a certain confidence that’s been fostered for years, and you can just tell– they’ve never had to wonder much if they’re pretty. They walk can walk through the halls in either sweats or in Abercrombie’s finest and you can see they just don’t wonder.
And then there are the other ones. The ones that you can see their constant bargaining for approval, and I unfortunately fell into that category. As their teacher, I make sure to compliment them on even the tiniest nuance because I can just tell that no one else has. I don’t want them to wonder if they’re pretty, and seek to hear it from all the wrong people.
I look at my daughter, and I just think she’s more beautiful by the day. I’ve heard that’s what moms are supposed to think, but I believe it. Even in this sort of homely, mullet-and-snaggle-tooth phase, I sometimes stop in my tracks, and just say, “Novy-Girl, you are so pretty.”
But I wonder if that will stop- not my belief that she is beautiful, but my gumption to tell her that mostly every day. Of course, I wish this wasn’t important. It is my hope that she will be better-known for her kindness and brilliance. But, most of all, I want her light to shine. And I know that’s virtually impossible when she doesn’t feel good enough.
It is unfortunate that in this shift of all the things, that “they” say we shouldn’t tell little girls they are beautiful, but they will eventually emerge into a world of scrutiny in the form of “likes” and ratings via social media. And, speaking from experience, this will happen no matter how tight your reins are. On this issue, we must face reality over ideals. Please, try your darndest to arm them with the engrained belief that they are good enough long before they start searching for the approval of their peers on multiple platforms.
Some day, no matter how beautiful and confident your daughter is, someone will try and tell her otherwise. Don’t let it be the first time she hears an opinion on the subject. Let her know, “Yes. You are pretty, and yes, you are THAT pretty.”