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Beauty and the Child: Building Self-Esteem

For better or worse, due to my Mom’s work in the entertainment industry, I spent most of my formative years surrounded by some of the World’s Most Beautiful People. At least, they were beautiful from an aesthetic point of view. Some, like my Mom, just happened to be beautiful on the inside, too, but that certainly wasn’t the case for everyone. Couple my surroundings with my passion for ballet and the level of fitness that ballet requires, along with normal peer pressure to look good, and I developed kind of a skewed perception of myself as compared with others. Sure, I had enough confidence to get by, but it was tricky territory. It most certainly came out in some ways that weren’t entirely healthy.

With that as the backdrop, I’ve been very intentional with my daughter about the subject of beauty. I’ve very consciously worked to make physical beauty a non-topic in our house. When it does come up, as topics always do somehow, I choose my words carefully, not only about her, but also about myself. After all, although I’m not a model for magazines, I most certainly am her role model. I’m her Mommy. When she sees me look at my face or body in the mirror, I want her to see a woman who accepts every bit of her physical self (or, at least, a woman who is gentle with herself). My only option, as I see it, is to demonstrate what self-esteem looks like and hope she’ll follow suit.

Awhile back, I wrote about my daughter’s and my first “official” discussion about beauty. Ever since that day, we’ve openly and often talked about healthy bodies, exercise, and nutrition. We read wonderful books about liking ourselves (afflink), and as far as I can tell, she’s growing in self-love and confidence, just as I’d hoped. Most of all, we’ve discussed inner beauty. Focusing on the qualities that contribute to who we are and what we believe is so much more important than how we look. That’s what matters, right? All the external stuff is fleeting.

Like it or not, though, exterior beauty comes up in society, even when we minimize its importance at home. My child has seen me put on makeup and has asked me why I do it. I work to keep my answer as low key as possible. I’ve never mentioned wanting too look or feel prettier. I usually say something along the lines of “I just like to wear it,” or “I’ve worn it since I was young, so it’s habit.” Up until today, she acted as if she bought it.

I should’ve known better. Somehow, kids always seem to know when there’s more to the story, even if we don’t overtly say so.

As I waited for her to finish her breakfast today, I pulled out my makeup bag at the table and started applying concealer.

“Why are you doing that, Mommy?”

I replied with one of my trusty fallback lines.

“Mommy, I don’t think you need it to be more beautiful. I think you’re pretty just as you are. You don’t need makeup to be pretty. What matters is that you’re kind, and you’re kind with or without makeup.”

My heart melted at her sweet statement. Shortly thereafter, my inner voice replied, “But yes, I still need makeup.” Outwardly, I just looked at her and smiled. I thanked her.

I know I’ve never told her that I wear it to make myself prettier. Honestly, I don’t know where she would’ve heard that. Whether I like it or not, though, she knows what it’s for. Or rather, what society told me it’s for.

Holding my lipstick in limbo halfway between my makeup bag and my face, I thought about what she was really saying. I realized that she was watching closely to see whether I agreed or disagreed with her. Despite what I tell her, what makes me feel good about my appearance? Is it something internal or external? This right here would be one of those “teachable moments.”

At the risk of sounding completely vain, I struggled briefly with what to do. I quickly mentally catalogued who we’d see today, and to what extent I wanted to look “a certain way.” Now, my “certain way” is fine, but I stress–I’m quite human and currently quite sun deprived. I don’t invest a lot of effort in my morning routine, but it’s there, nonetheless. And makeup is usually part of it.

So, I did what any self-respecting woman would do. I said, “You’re right. I don’t need makeup to be pretty.”

And we went about our day, both of us makeup-less and genuinely happy about it–her, because she’s five, and me, because I’m her role model. I get to do this right for her. If I’m going to tell her that what matters most is inner beauty, then I need to live it, especially when she’s watching. And asking. This was a test.

It didn’t matter who we’d see today. It was about whether I’m comfortable in my own skin, and whether I actually mean what I’ve been teaching her about beauty. We both know I’ll wear makeup again, and that’s fine, too. Sometimes I’ll even put on fancy jewelry or break out my “good jeans” (hey, I’m a Mom of a small child–“good jeans” have replaced fancier clothes that once existed in my wardrobe).

I felt more free today than I have for awhile–not because I lacked makeup, but because my child gave me an opportunity to challenge and overthrow my old way of thinking. There’s nothing I “need” to do just because I’ve always done it. She helped me escape my own hypocrisy, telling her one thing but holding myself to a different standard. I’m thankful that my daughter continues to be my best teacher about what’s really important. I’m glad she’s holding me to what I attempt to teach her. She has every right to do that.

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