What’s the first thing you say when you see a newborn baby? “She’s so cute.” “He’s so beautiful.” “She’s got her mommy’s nose.” “Who does he look like, I wonder?” Looks. Beauty. Is it all we ever think about? Do we even hear how ridiculous we sound?
I confess – when I was preggers, I was afraid my kid was going to be ugly. Of course, my greatest fear was that he would be born with a debilitating disease; I’m not a monster. But my second greatest fear was that he would have the map of Australia on his face, or a head shaped like Stewie’s on The Family Guy, or satellite dish ears. (Free cable would not be consolation.) Everybody wants a beautiful child. It’s only natural, especially given the skin-deep world in which we live.
We want our kids to be lovely – not just because we want to look at them and go awwwwww. We want them to be attractive to spare them the ridicule that comes with not being attractive. Freckle face. Fatso. Dork. Four-eyes. Beanpole. Short stuff. OUCH. We’ll do whatever we can to protect our kids from that pain. Trouble is, helping them conform to the ideals of beauty to dodge the rejection only perpetuates the problem.
Today’s society is obsessed with beauty. I pick up a magazine and flip through the pages of women looking impossibly perfect, and I come to two conclusions. 1 – Wow, those women are flawless. 2 – I’m so glad I have a boy. For some reason, guys can be pudgy, hairy, and imperfect. If they’re charming, funny or smart, they can nonetheless hook the cutest girl in the room. Throw in some musical ability and a trust fund and he’s a hot commodity. Seriously, count the mediocre if not motley rock stars who have married supermodels. Yeah, exactly. The chubby, hairy girl? Yikes. She can play the piano and the harp while doing stand-up comedy and juggling fire; hope she likes black and white because she may as well sign up for the convent now.
Seriously, these supreme beings represent an ideal that 99.9% of us can’t possibly achieve. They are genetically predisposed to thinness. The vast majority of us – no matter how much we exercise and diet and groom – will simply never look like this; it’s just not in our DNA. And yet this unattainable imagery is presented to us – including our impressionable little girls – every single day, on TV, in magazines, on larger than life billboards. We are so immersed in it, we don’t even realize the damage it’s doing. Seriously, even these models can’t achieve the perfection before our eyes! Virtually all of them are airbrushed into oblivion. I work in an artroom; I’ve witnessed the wonders of PhotoShop. Even Cindy Crawford once said, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” As if her supermodel self were not a lofty enough standard to strive for, they shave a little off her thighs and magically erase the blemishes from her skin. “There, that’s better. Now, little girls, here’s what beautiful looks like. Good luck with that.” And the little girl looks in the mirror and sees a dozen things she wants to change but can’t. Or can she?
I was an ugly child. Buck teeth, freckles, pasty white, rail thin, and red hair sculpted into a mullet. My personal slogan: business in the front, party in the back. It’s not a pretty picture, let me tell you. But thankfully, for most of my childhood, I didn’t know I was ugly; I was just… me. Playing with my Barbie, blissfully oblivious to her universal status as the classic blonde bombshell; the epitome of the perfect female. The women around me were not weight-obsessed. Grandmother chewed on the salt meat bone. Mom never wore a speck of makeup. I had no prissy older sister to idolize, just a brother who kicked my ass at Jeopardy and taught me how to catch. My dad wore mismatched clothes, sometimes on backwards (true story); he was as far away from vanity as humanly possible. Nobody ever told me I was beautiful, and nobody ever told me I was ugly. Maybe the mullet rendered people speechless. Or maybe I was valued for humor, intelligence, and honesty; that’s the long and the short of it.
But inevitably, adolescence happened and opened my eyes to the female ideal that I clearly did not represent. I suddenly became aware of my particular weight issue – I was too skinny! The actresses on television were thin, but they were shapely, womanly, sexy thin. Unlike Blair on The Facts of Life, I was a piece of two by four with fly-bites for boobs, wearing long-johns inside my jeans in a pathetic attempt to look more like an hourglass and less like a human erection. Mom and her friend poked fun at me, cautioning me not to run up the stairs too fast – “You might get two black eyes!” Laugh it up, ladies of large fun bags. To a 10-year-old girl, that stings. And clearly, it sticks to the memory, forever deeming me, at least a little, that insecure little girl.
I thank God my child is a boy. But I know he’s not entirely exempt from it all, so, just as I would a girl, I shall try my best to teach him what’s truly important – kindness, compassion, courage, integrity – and hope to God it takes, and stays with him when he’s no longer safely tucked under my wing. I can’t put him in a bubble, away from this materialistic world. But I can show him. That true beauty is in the trees, red and brown and gold in autumn’s cool breath. It’s in a perfectly still lake on a windless day. It’s in the symmetry of wooden slabs sloping to the sea, dotted with multi-coloured boats awaiting the next fine day. It’s in the silky smooth coat of a puppy with four paws in the air, relishing a morning belly rub. And it’s inside the people around him – of all shapes and colours and sizes, who are kind and funny and honest and unique, if only we take the time to look beneath the surface.