Thinking Aloud: Beauty in the Eye

When I was 16 years old, I told my parents I wanted a nose job. I *hated* my nose. For a long time, I blamed my nose’s appearance on the spill I took down the stairs that broke my front tooth. I figured I should get it “fixed” because it had to have been broken. Why else did I have that stupid lump in it?

(Spoiler alert: I have my dad’s nose. I didn’t break it when I broke my tooth.)

My parents didn’t dismiss me out of hand (i.e. “Don’t be silly! You look fine.”), nor did they take me to the nearest plastic surgeon. They encouraged me to look into rhinoplasty, and said that when I was done growing, we could revisit the issue.

Do you know what they do to your nose when you have rhinoplasty? (Or at least how they did it *hurmph* years ago?) They break it. It takes up to six weeks to heal, and in the meantime, you’re walking around with black eyes and a broken nose.

After doing the research, I decided my nose was just fine. Or if I felt differently when I was an adult, well, then I could proceed accordingly.

As an aside in this conversation: I never, ever, not once asked for or (seriously) considered a boob job. Not as a teen, not now as a grown up. And if I was going to look into any plastic surgery, I would’ve thought this would’ve been the go to. I am ridiculously under-endowed in the chest area. Thank goodness for (lightly) padded bras is all I’m saying.

In the news this week is the story of a 14-year-old girl who was being bullied at school, reportedly because of her looks, and so her mom appealed to the Little Baby Face Foundation, which offers corrective — CORRECTIVE, not cosmetic — surgery to children with facial deformities. The girl got $40,000 in free cosmetic surgery. Because she was being TEASED.

I learned of this story through an opinion piece at The Nation, and I whole heartedly agree with a lot of this article. Especially this part: “There may be a bit of head-shaking over young girls going to drastic measures to feel beautiful, but we never seem to question the idea that feeling beautiful is a worthy goal in the first place. We should tell girls the truth: ‘Beautiful’ is bullshit, a standard created to make women into good consumers, too busy wallowing in self-loathing to notice that we’re second class citizens.”

Like my happiness post a few weeks ago, here’s another area where we (in general, as a society) are being misdirected. The point isn’t to be beautiful in order to have self-esteem. The point is to have self-esteem, to be confident, period, full-stop. Yes, we should seek to be well groomed, well dressed, hygienic. That’s just polite.

Beauty — superficial, how-you-look beauty — shouldn’t be the goal. Will I encourage my children to be beautiful people? Yes, especially on the inside, where it counts. Will I tell my kids out of hand that they are beautiful, or for that matter, smart? Probably, in small doses, yes. I think it’s more important to tell my children that with hard work they can do whatever they want in life. I think it’s more important for them to grow into confident people, and they can do that only through their own effort. I can’t give them confidence by telling them how beautiful and smart they are — would that it were that easy! I can and will, of course, tell them that I love them without reservation (because I do).

I still have the nose I had when I was 16. But I don’t have the self-consciousness I had then. I’m sure the mom in the above story was well-meaning, but what about telling her teenager to wait? (Which is basically what my parents told me.) What about looking into other resources to help her teen cope with the bullying? “Solving” the problem through plastic surgery isn’t the answer. Slapping a new coat of paint on something that is weak on the inside doesn’t strengthen the inside. (I don’t mean to call the girl weak — of course she’s vulnerable and self-conscious — she’s 14!) She needed a better outlook, not better looks.

What do you think? Does the emphasis on beauty do girls a disservice? What should be be telling our children?

16 thoughts on “Thinking Aloud: Beauty in the Eye

  1. When I was seven, I fell down my aunt’s stairs and into a glass table. It sliced my left cheek completely open. I had a large noticeable scar across my face for the remainder of my elementary school years. To everyone else, it is now barely visible, but I see it clear as day each time I look in the mirror. It is one of the many reasons I find it hard to think I am pretty. It does not matter how much people say they cannot see it, or how many times someone else says I am beautiful. The problem is something deep inside me.

    We can tell young girls they are pretty all we want, but if the problem is deep inside of them, that is merely lip service. And this is certainly not something limited to adolescents.

    I think we would do more of a service to these girls if, instead of just telling them they are pretty, we also tell them they are smart.

    • The author of the opinion piece to which I linked talks about how not being beautiful as a young person helped her develop in other areas: she depended on her smarts and her humor to bolster (if not create) her self-esteem. Beauty is very passive, and — let’s face it — fleeting. And, yes, you’re right. Telling girls they are pretty does two things: 1. If they don’t believe you, their esteem can suffer. 2. If they DO believe you, when they aren’t “pretty” anymore, what are they?

      Thanks for the comment!

      • I’ve read the things about not telling girls they are pretty. Still, I call my daughter pretty all the time. (Because it overwhelms me how much she is. I can’t help it!) I praise her for other things too, but at 18 months demonstrations of “smart” are different than later in life. But I do worry about calling her pretty because of the reasons you mention.

        I also worry about being a role model. I wear make-up. Not tons of it, but I do. What do I do when she asks me why? I don’t have a good answer for that.

        Do I want my daughter to worry about whether she is pretty? Most certainly not. But do I hope she is pretty as she grows up? Yes, because I know it will make her life easier. it’s not right, but it’s true.

  2. I have mixed feelings about this. I have mixed feelings about looks in general. I clearly remember my dad telling me (in the same sentence) that I was pretty AND smart. I really needed to hear that because for most of elementary school I felt like an ugly duckling. Gawky, uncoordinated, bad teeth/orthodontics, glasses, unfortunate hair, terrible clothes. Looking back at pictures, there was proof that I was going to outgrow it and become pretty. I see what my dad saw now, but I didn’t see it then. Being told I was pretty made me almost believe it, and I think that was good for me. But! it wasn’t the only compliment I got. I was smart, I was hard working, I was polite, etc.

    And on top of that, I have a mixed relationship with looks now, as an adult. I fear, desperately, not being taken seriously because I am a girl, and a fairly attractive one at that. I want to be respected by my colleagues and mentors for my work and results and grades, NOT because I’m nice to look at while I’m presenting. It’s such a ridiculous worry, I know. “Am I too pretty?” Oh wah. And yet, here I am.

    I don’t know what I’ll tell my hypothetical daughters. I hope I do it right, and help them develop their own self confidence in who they are as a whole person, not just on the outside.

    • I don’t ever remember my parents telling me I was pretty! 🙂 I was a pretty child, but puberty was a MESS: I was tall and bony, uncoordinated, had glasses and braces, and so on and so forth. So, like the author of the article, I made other things my strengths: my writing, my brains, my humor, my loyalty. To this day I wouldn’t ever call myself beautiful, but I certainly feel like I am an attractive person, especially if I’m wearing a nice outfit or having a good hair day. As it was never my goal — to be beautiful — I was able to cultivate other talents. Our looks (me and my siblings) were not commented on much in my household, not because we were bad looking, just that my parents valued other things. For that matter, I think the culture in which my parents parented valued different things. It’s different now, for you and for our daughters (if you have daughters 😉 ). Plus, aren’t you in a scientific field? So you’re dealing with all the stereotypes that go along with that. “A pretty girl who likes science? Who’d have thought??”

      • Yes, and the next line in that stereotype is “must be here because they need more girls.” I feel like I have to justify my own existence, prove that I’m not just an affirmative action admission. Hell, I was picked to be on the department advertising material because I’m a girl, and they specifically want to advertise the fact that we’re not just asian boys.

    • Kim,

      1. I was just thinking about Miss Representation, and trying to figure out if I could get it into a theater here in Pittsburgh. Do you have any information I could use toward that cause?

      2. As to our daughters and telling them they are pretty: I think encouraging our children — all of our children — to value their appearance is fine. I remember something I used to say in college: when I look good, I feel good. (This seemed especially to apply when I had a raging hangover, but still chose to put on a decent outfit for class rather than going in my pajamas.) If we can emphasize good grooming, good hygiene, good style to boost the way one feels about oneself, I’m fine with that. So for the makeup comment: makeup doesn’t make you pretty on its own; it makes you feel pretty. Know what I mean?

      What I think we need to do (as a society, as mothers, in general) is not emphasize beauty over anything else. Beauty is fleeting, ephemeral. We need to communicate that what other people SEE isn’t how our daughters or our sons should define themselves. Emphasize health over “being skinny”. Emphasize being a lovely and good person over having the latest fashions. Emphasize education and drive over looks.

      • There is a form you can use to sign up to host a screening. The fee is not published, I suspect because it likely varies by the size of your screening. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you host the screening yourself, but if you contact a theater or other venue you might be able to get them interested.

        Your best bet might be to try to get a screening at a school (that fee seems to be $295). Perhaps John Lane or Steve Fatla might be able to get involved. Perhaps you know other educators as well.

        Good luck. This is such an important topic and the film does a really good job of explaining it. Everyone should see it.

  3. I have several thoughts about this. First of all, I don’t agree that beauty is bullshit. For those who have it, it can be an asset. But it’s not good to have kids grow up thinking it’s the only asset that matters.

    As with any other asset, it matters what you do with it. For instance, a person might be born with musical talent, but won’t get far if s/he doesn’t pick an instrument and practice. Brains can be put to good or bad use. So can beauty.

    I don’t think it’s wrong to tell kids they look pretty. I’m thinking of a couple I know who have a pre-teen daughter. “She’s gorgeous,” the mom confided to me one day. “We haven’t told her. We don’t want her to get the idea that looks are a big deal.” I picture this girl growing up, finding out she’s gorgeous, and wondering why her mom and especially her dad didn’t seem to think so.

    Many of the comments here are good. I offer these additional ideas for parents:
    – If you can, help kids understand that there are many kinds of beauty, inner and outer, and what’s in vogue at the moment isn’t the whole story. Skinny and blonde could be out next year; dark hair and curves could be in.
    – If you have a really beautiful kid (not just everyday nice-looking), watch out! Studies have been done; there are teachers and other people who treat pretty kids differently, and it’s easy to acquire the notion that beauty will always get them anything they want. As a parent, it’s your job to teach kids that they still have to develop other strengths and treat other people right.

    • This is a fantastic comment, and I agree with all points. Especially the point that attractiveness as an asset isn’t the only thing that matters. that’s what I think I am (and the author of the article I reference is) getting at.

  4. I’m experiencing the trials and tribulations of girlhood through my nieces who range in age from HS freshman to 21. I never had sisters, so this is a trip, especially watching them grow up. Daddy problems and divorce has screwed them up. The oldest had weight problems but is getting it under control, but she is quite the party girl. The middle one is shy and looked 21 when she was 16. I see middle aged men leering at her and can’t imagine how a teen deals with that daily. The youngest is awkward and way over-endowed. She’s only 15 and is really at an awkward stage and at a new high school with no friends. As an over-protective uncle, I am a bit overwhelmed and my heart breaks for them. As a boy, I just wanted to be taller and nobody leered in my direction.

    • Yes, the double standard of attractiveness for girls and boys is so different in our society. I could probably do a whole post on it. I think there’s balance that needs to be struck: girls and women should be able to embrace their beauty and sexuality without depending on it — see texas lupine’s comment above. But women need also to be able to embrace their looks and other assets without the oppressive gaze of “the other”, i.e. leering men. The boys need to be taught that girls and women are not the sum of their body parts.

  5. The Buddhists say, “Every strength is a weakness and every weakness is a strength.” Ask any woman who is, by everyday standards, very beautiful and has every had to question whether she is being taking seriously or not, whether she is just a “piece of eye candy” to those around her. Beauty is NOT “bullshit;” but it is, or at least can be, merely one characteristic among many. And its value to a given person probably reflects their upbringing. Why not give a lot more input like “You’re so special” and “You’re so important to our family” (a la Fred rogers) than “pretty” or even “smart” (do we love less intelligent children less?)

  6. p.s. Baby, your beautiful nose is still my favorite thing about your face. Well, that and your beautiful eyes.
    Y’know… your lips are rather attractive, too!
    Sorry… can’t help myself.

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