Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Desperately Seeking Pretty

When I met Michael, I was 22 years old and had never had a boyfriend. I had been on a respectable number of dates, but I had never been kissed. I didn't go to prom or any other high school dance, and no boy I liked had ever liked me back.

My mother, who is a lovely person inside and out, talked a lot about her weight and was constantly on a diet. So were most of the girls I knew. So were their sisters, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers.

My older sister, who always had a knack for doing hair and make-up and following fashion trends, knew that the best way to get under my skin was to remind me of my physical faults. She'd say, Your butt jiggles when you walk. Your ears are too big. Your nose is too big. Why did you wear that?

When Michael and I were dating, I told him, "I only want boys. I don't want any daughters. I would screw them up."

At the time, I felt screwed up.

I had no doubt that I was smart; not only had I been told over and over since I was a little girl how smart I was, I had a thousand examples in my memory store of life experiences that proved to me that I was smart. I didn't wonder if I was talented: I played the violin and was learning the guitar. I had a pleasant alto voice. I was a kick-butt writer. I sucked at sports, but that was no bother since I didn't like them anyway. And besides, I was this close to mastering the headstand in my yoga practice. I didn't doubt my inner beauty: I was kind to others. I was reliable. I was a hard-worker. I felt a lot of empathy for other people's suffering, and I tried to be a charitable person.

But if you had asked if I thought I was pretty? No, I did not. I had exactly zero examples in my memory store of life experiences that told me I was pretty. I was 22 years old and had never had a boyfriend. I had never been kissed. I didn't go to prom or any other high school dance, and no boy I liked had ever liked me back. Girls who were prettier - and thinner - than I was were on diets, and I had been told over and over since I was a little girl exactly what was wrong with my appearance.

All culminating in this: When Michael and I met, I had serious issues with food, I was on a downward spiral toward depression, and I had been seeing a therapist once a week.

Ever since this Dove ad came out, I have come across blog post after blog post saying, "No, no, no, Dove. You're getting it wrong. 'You're more beautiful than you think' is a nice message, but the real message should be, 'It doesn't matter if you're beautiful at all.' We shouldn't be teaching our daughters to even care about beauty because it's not important."

Well, you know what? Screw that.

Beauty may not be THE MOST IMPORTANT but it's laughable to say that it's not important at all.

I wish someone in my childhood had made it their mission to let me know how beautiful I was. I wish they had drilled it into my head. I wish that the grown women in my life had embraced their aging beauty and flaunted it confidently and had said, "I may not have the beauty of a 20-year-old anymore, but I do have the beauty of a 40-year-old." I wish that the girls and women around me had found confidence in their personal brand of beauty and that they'd expressed that confidence so loudly that I would have heard it over the cacophony of television ads and magazine ads full of fake women selling a beauty standard that I will never be able to reach. I hope that I am lucky enough to have a husband who tells me when I'm 82 that I'm beautiful just like he told me when I was 22.

If I had a daughter, I would say to her over and over again: You are pretty just the way you are. You are pretty just the way you are. Of course, I would praise her when she does well in school. I would cheer from the sidelines when she sings in the choir or plays in the band or scores a goal on the basketball team. I would teach her that she is strong and resilient and courageous, that beauty is subjective and youth is fleeting. But I would not hesitate to tell her that she is pretty -  not to fulfill some personal agenda but for the same reason I tell my sons that they are handsome: because I look at them and see beauty and the words come spilling out. And I would pray that when she is 15 years old with an awkward body and a pimply face, crushing on boys who don't appreciate and living in a culture that upholds an impossible standard of beauty, she would be able to look in the mirror with fists full of all the times I told her she was pretty and at the very least be able to say to herself, "You are more beautiful than you think."


I wrote this post in May, but I was too scared to publish it. I don't know why I'm publishing it now when the conversation on that particular subject has ended except that re-reading it five months later, I still feel THIS PASSIONATE about it. 

Before ending up with what's here, I wrote a dozen mental rough drafts, but it wasn't until I decided to make it personal that the post finally flowed the way I wanted it to. At the same time - my early twenties were not the happiest time of my life, and I'd rather not talk about it.

After reading the rough draft of the post, Michael asked, "Did your parents really never tell you that you were pretty?" The truth is that I'm sure they did and I didn't hear it, just like if I had a daughter, she wouldn't hear it either. Unfortunately, that's the nature of girls. But that doesn't mean we should stop saying it.

My sister is a wonderful person. I was as cruel to her as a child as she was to me, and I think we've both gotten past it.


  1. I'm teaching a class right now where the central issue is food, and students can choose whatever they want to do their bigger projects on. Two of the brightest girls are working on eating disorders related to depression (for one paper) and the media (for the other paper). I think there's a drive in scholarship to correct the things that still bother us. I admire this piece, and I'll be thinking about it a lot. Thanks for sharing, even though it was probably difficult.

  2. Great post. And you are beautiful :).

  3. Wow, story of my life. Mixed kid with an afro in a white town, with white friends and white parents and white siblings and white beauty standards and I knew for certain that no guy would ever think I was beautiful. I'm almost 40 and still working through it - and trying my hardest to help my daughter feel beautiful (and smart and fast) Doesn't hurt that she has a dad who thinks she's beautiful and tells her. That's important!

  4. Thanks for sharing! Nice to know I'm not the only one.

  5. Just for the record, Erin, I've always thought of you as a beautiful person. :) Both inside AND outside. Check out this website, which I love. She's done a project called 40 faces, and I was lucky enough to be able to participate (we were visiting my parents this summer). I agree with you, it is important to recognize the fallacies of 'beauty' that society perpetuates, and work to turn the tide. :)


    2. What a beautiful website! Thanks for sharing, Emily!

  6. Haven't all women felt just like this at some point? It's sad to admit this...but even now when my husband says how beautiful I am I can't really believe him. Honestly, I have always thought you were a beautiful, well-coifed, well-dressed person.

  7. I am so blessed to know you Erin. You as well as Emily, Jessica, and Amy are such beautiful women. Self - confident, beautiful inside and out, talented, great Mothers, etc. Physical beauty can be a great thing to have when you're young but I think it's better to grow (mature)into it. That way its not a defining part of you, it's just a part of you. I hope that makes sense.


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