When my oldest daughter was almost three, she was busy coloring a fairy’s hair when she announced, “Look, Mommy. I’m making her ugly.”
I looked at the dainty fairy and didn’t see anything ugly about her. “What do you mean?”
“I’m coloring her hair grey. Grey hair is ugly.” Sure enough, the sprite’s hair was the color of a gray storm cloud.
“Why do you think grey hair is ugly?” I asked, my mind spinning. Where did she come up with that? I’d been vigilant about her media diet, and both of the grandmas in her life were not ones to complain about wrinkles, grey hair, or any other harbinger of old age.
She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. It just is.” As in, is ugly.
I never quite figured out where she got this idea, but should I really have been surprised? Long before our children even learn to read, they’re surrounded by images that exalt youth, beauty, and thinness.
More recently, I was plopping food down at the grocery checkout when I noticed one of my daughters staring at a decadent chocolate cake chunk on some popular women’s magazine. Immediately next to the ooey-gooey deliciousness — dubbed a “slice of heaven” — was a popular movie star sporting a skimpy bikini.
“Doesn’t that look good, Mommy?” my daughter said, thankfully pointing to the piece of cake and not the super-slim movie star.
It did, but I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of message even the magazine rack at the grocery store is sending our children and everybody else. “Find your slice of heaven in a piece of cake! Then, exercise obsessively to burn all that fat off so you can look like this!”
“Diet Secrets of the Stars.” “Lose Ten Pounds in a Week.” “Miracle Wrinkle Cream Erases Crow’s Feet.” The headlines rotate, but the theme remains the same: If you lose those last five, ten, fifteen, or twenty-plus pounds, embrace a starlet’s measurements and beauty routine, and stop aging in its tracks, you’ll be happier. The mantra “age before beauty” no longer makes any sense at all. Instead, it’s youth, beauty, and a svelte body before anything else — including God.
So what’s a girl to do?
Here’s what I did as a young woman: I caved into the societal pressure to be thin. I stopped eating. I started running every single day: six miles — no less, but sometimes more, rain or shine. I endured a stress fracture. I worshipped the gods of thinness. I bought into the media’s unrealistic ideal. I started looking at myself through a distorted mirror and completely disregarded the idea that I was made in the image of God, not the media. It was like being trapped in a carnival’s funny house; every mirror reflection twisted and distorted the way I saw myself. I was never thin or pretty enough. Even when what snowballed into a clinical eating disorder was reined in, the scale — instead of my God — was too often a barometer for my self-worth.
Maybe that’s why I’ve told my husband that I hope our three daughters grow up to be plain, or maybe even cute, but not beautiful. I’ve seen too many unhappy, beautiful girls to think it’s something women should want. The throngs of Hollywood glamour queens spring immediately to mind — the women who seem to have it all and end up in drug rehab programs or in an endless game of marriage roulette or with eating disorders. It’s too exhausting to maintain beauty. Once you have it (or society says you do), you cling to it, thinking it’s all you’ve got. Once you hit a size 0, you think that’s where you have to stay to be anything. Looking back, I find it ironic that the size 0 was the Holy Grail of clothing sizes for me: Fitting into “skinny” jeans made me feel like I was important, even though that number means an absence of everything.
I want my girls to be something other than a zero, to see that their self-worth is much deeper than a clothing size or a number on a scale. And I don’t want them idolizing beauty. I want them to pursue health, not flawless looks or a perfect body. If God blesses them with loveliness, I want them to be grateful but to remember that it’s what’s beyond that skin that’s really important — their passions, their brains, their sensitivity, and most importantly, their souls.
I certainly don’t want them gobbling up the delicious eye-candy in the media and thinking that looking like a model is what will make them happy or beautiful.
But there is one beautiful woman I’d love for them to imitate: Our Blessed Mother.
I’ve always had a special devotion to Mary. Even as a child I often slept with a rosary for comfort. I’ve always seen her as beautiful. But it’s not because Mary wears fashionable clothes, has lustrous hair and flawless skin, or the body of a siren. It’s because her soul — her entire being — proclaims the greatness of the Lord. She’s what every woman should strive to be: pious, humble, gentle but strong, and blessed.
My same child who gave the fairy “ugly” hair was once gazing up at a statue of Our Lady when she said, “Mommy, isn’t she pretty?”
“Yes,” I said. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.
So I stand corrected: I do want my girls to be beautiful. As beautiful and lovely and worthy of roses as Mary. Because it’s the kind of beauty Our Lady possesses that just might — as Dostoyevsky said beauty could do — save the world.