Tuesday, November 1, 2016

MAGIC WORDS: How to Be Pretty

Dear Olive,

Lately, Ella has been asking if we think that she is beautiful.  This image-consciousness rose up unexpectedly for me, but shouldn't be such a surprise.  I vividly remember playing a game with my childhood friend called, "I'm her."

At what must have only been six years old, we would spend afternoons in a sun-drenched Victorian pouring through catalogs with images of women in suits and evening gowns.  The object of the game was to locate the most beautiful women among the photos and put your finger on her photo as a placeholder of ownership to her loveliness.  By quickly reserving the photograph of the most striking model, you somehow absorbed the status of that image.  And even at such a young age, it was evident that beauty was power.  These shiny magazines were visually priming us for the secret society to which we would someday gain membership.  But they were also programming us to the dangerous competition of image ranking.

Like most, I mentally outlined a matrix of the narrow box into which the criteria of beauty fit.  From this seed, the fruits of perfectionism, scarcity, and materialism flow.  Finding my way to discover beauty in imperfection and joy in the common was not an easy road.  I fear that the avatars of social media and visual stimulation of society's, "shoulds" will make this resolution nearly impossible for Ella.  When she looks in the mirror I want her to see her value and strength instead of inventorying her imperfections.

Her query as to my impression of her beauty took the wind out of me.  I looked into her deep brown eyes and knew that a disclaimer of beauty being unimportant would be contrary to what she had deduced of the world...just as a blanket decree of her being the fairest would eventually leave her mistrustful of my judgement.  Instead, I responded that I knew kind girls to be the most beautiful.

"Think about it Ella", I said.  "Isn't Grandma beautiful?"  "Isn't your teacher?"  They are beautiful because we love them.  Because we are joyful around them, all of the light that fills those happy moments casts a softness of beauty.

Ella has been practicing kindness as the secret to loveliness.  She thinks of it with 1:1 correspondence and asks me if her hair is glowing after helping someone with a task or errand.  When I catch her feeling confident or proud after being especially helpful, I tell her, "Ella, you look absolutely beautiful.  Were you especially kind today?"  She smiles and spins for us.

I can't dissuade her from buying into the allure of striving to feel pretty, but I hope to outline the dimensionality of true beauty and to look to herself, rather than to culture for that definition.        


"If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that's all that you really are.  Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind: Your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage.  These are the things I cherish so in you."

-- Marmee, Little Women

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