Beauty is a funny thing, and as a woman and the mother of a girl who will grow into a woman, there are three things I know about beauty that I want Emma to know as well.
First, we all know looks aren’t everything. There may be a universal formula for beauty (it has to do with symmetry and the size of the eyes and their proximity to the nose, among other things), but at the same time it’s pretty subjective and very socially/culturally/historically contextual. Since we tend to idealise youth, beauty is also fleeting and there comes a time in life when you are expected to actually have something of value to offer the world rather than just your looks. Like any parent, I want Emma to grow up knowing that her looks don’t matter – that what matters is her brain, her spirit, her heart. I want her to be a good person, a smart person. Toby and I are both so vain it will probably be a relief to me if she takes after other family members in that regard, since I assume life is easier if you don’t care about what your eyebrows are doing or if your socks match the rest of your outfit.
Second, anyone who’s spent any time thinking about it knows that even though looks don’t matter, they do. This is a truth we should all resist and advocate against, every day. We know that everyone – but especially women, let’s not pretend otherwise – is judged on how they physically present to the world. We know that women who wear makeup to work are considered more professional. We know the invisibility that comes with age, or disability, or disfigurement. We know that if we turn up to work with a new haircut or new suit, someone (a woman, probably) will notice and comment. We have all been in conversations where women took turns to see who could denigrate their own appearance the most. We know there are male public figures who would not be public figures if they were women, because they are kind of funny looking, or just plain old, and we don’t really deal with that well when it comes to women. Looks matter and if they didn’t there would be no market for the diet industry, plastic surgery, gossip magazines, cosmetics, personal stylists, every single service offered by my day spa, and so on. None of this makes it okay. I want Emma, when she realises this, to realise that it’s wrong. I want her to value people – and herself – based on what they are really like, rather than what they look like.
Third, I want Emma to know that in our eyes, she is the most beautiful girl in the world. I want her to know she is perfect, from the top of her impressively large head, to her just-crinkly ears, her short torso and long, gorgeously squashy legs, to the tops of her delicious squishy feet. It’s the package that holds her brain and her soul, and it’s perfect. I would feel this way, even if in the eyes of others, it wasn’t.
Every day I tell Emma she’s clever, and funny, and strong, and lucky. I also tell her she’s beautiful, and I will keep telling her this every day she’s in this house. And probably when she’s gone from our house and living out there in the world I will send her random texts/virtual thought bubbles to
annoy remind her. And the reason I will do this – the reason I want her to know she’s the most beautiful girl in the world – is because thanks to the world we live in, she will get enough messages from enough people that she isn’t beautiful at all. The TV, magazines, billboards, her peers, will all give her this message – directly or indirectly. It can be a devastating message (see point 2 above), and that’s why I don’t ever want her to get that message from us. There will be other people in her life to back us up of course, but I know we need to set a solid foundation. She might be one of those lucky people who truly doesn’t think looks matter at all, and never gives any thought to her physical appearance or whether it’s pleasing to herself or others. I know those people exist but I suspect they are incredibly rare. So assuming she’s a normal person who has moments or days where she feels completely unbeautiful, hopefully there will still be that part of her deep down that knows she is and that there are people in the world who think she’s the best thing they’ve ever seen, ever.
And finally, I think part of making sure that message really sinks in, so it becomes part of her self-belief, is for us, but especially me, to lead by example. This piece nearly had me in tears the other day and had me appreciating yet again my own parents. I think mum and dad were very aware that they were raising three girls in a particular world – we were raised in a house where no one dieted, no one was ugly or too fat or too skinny. We were told we were beautiful, among all the other important things. Dad told mum she was beautiful, and he told us we had a beautiful mum, and we learnt that this was how the world was when you loved each other. And so we will love Emma, fiercely, and I will try to make sure to love myself, even on a fat day or a bad hair day or a blah day, and really when it comes to beauty and my girl I think that’s all we can do for now.