You look beautiful.” That’s what I said to my 17-year-old daughter, Maddie, recently as she left for a dance at her school. After she left, I thought that what I should have said to her was, “You are beautiful.”
I should have told her that because what makes her beautiful is so much more than the new dress she was wearing, or the way she had so carefully fixed her hair. Yes, all those things were beautiful, but they were only a small part of what made her look so radiant that night.
I thought of her self-confidence, her abilities, her intelligence, her drive. I thought of all those things and then about how many times I have missed the opportunity to compliment her on the person she is becoming.
The topic of beauty and body image is a sensitive one—especially at Maddie’s age, though that age of self-awareness seems to be creeping younger and younger. How many times have I heard someone make reference to what a beautiful young woman Maddie is becoming, as opposed to asking her about her part-time job or college plans? What about when people praise my 10-year-old daughter, Riley, for having a dancer’s body, as opposed to just complimenting the way she performs? Let’s face it. We are an image-obsessed society.
Sure, we say we understand that appearance is not the only part of who we are. But let’s be honest. How we look gets the lion’s share of our attention—daily—and we continue to berate and judge ourselves when we cannot meet standards set by others.
As a society, we focus too much on the outside appearance of people, and forget to notice what truly makes them who they are. Don’t believe me? Turn on the TV and watch the red carpet report of an awards show, or the next time you’re in the checkout line at the store, check out what’s highlighted on magazine covers.
Having said all this, the day after Maddie’s dance, I found myself looking in the mirror, bemoaning my less-than-perfect figure. I work out, and consider myself to be very fit. I have completed two half marathons. But mostly what I see in my reflection is a middle-aged woman who gets asked at least once a month if she’s pregnant—I’m not. No, I certainly don’t resemble the stereotypical well-toned images that seem to be everywhere I look. It’s just not my reality and never will be.
I’ve given birth to four kids. That much stretching and re-stretching does not bode well for developing six-pack abs. And, while I would not trade my four pregnancies for anything, I still find myself looking sideways in the mirror far more often than I should. Why? Because I have been conditioned to.
My kids see me doing that, and I think: What type of message am I sending them? As the mom of three girls, who acknowledges society’s overemphasis on how we look as opposed to who we are, you would think I would know better. I obviously don’t.
So the next time I look in the mirror, I’m going to try to see the mother, wife, writer, half-marathon finisher, and all the other things that make me, well, me. And then I’m going to remind myself to do the same thing for my kids—my son and my daughters. They deserve nothing less.