Last night, as always, I went in to give Grace a kiss goodnight before flopping into bed myself. It’s one of my favorite (and only!) rituals. Typically, she’s asleep, and I witness every parent’s favorite moment: the sheer angelic serenity and peace that seemingly only a sleeping child can exude. I usually softly sweep her hair into a loose braid, to free her face and neck from its twirly embrace for a short while. I kiss her forehead, whisper sentiments that fit whatever type of day she’s had, and head off to find my own serenity and peace. Ok, 42 doesn’t usually invite the most serene and peaceful rest, but I’ll take whatever rest that comes my way gratefully and without question.
Last night, however, brought a twist. Grace’s eyes fluttered open as I started my goodnight ritual. I asked if she was ok. She was not. She flipped her head, and burrowed her furrowed brow into the pillow. I laid down beside her and rubbed her back, asking her to share what was wrong. She refused as her burrowed, furrowed brow unfurled into tears. And the tears quickly built into body-racking sobs. “Oh, sweetie,” I said as I gently rubbed her back. “You can tell me when you’re ready.”
Minutes ticked by. And ticked by. And ticked by. I stayed there, silently comforting her by making small gentle circles on her back with the palm of my hand.
She finally blurted out three words I suspect every daughter’s mom never hopes to hear but likely will at some point, “I’m not pretty!”
I was a bit shocked and gulped and fumbled through some tired (but true!) platitude along the lines of that’s not true and it’s what’s on the inside that counts. As I heard those words coming out of my mouth, I quickly snapped back to reality, knowing I needed to do more here.
“I’m not pretty.” A familiar thought, sure, but shocking coming from Grace. I mean, we’ve all been there. We’ve all had that inner dialogue. I don’t remember having awareness of my face or hair or other physical attributes at 9, but I certainly had that awareness in high school and various points beyond. 9 seems young to me. A bit too young.
“Being pretty” isn’t something I really ever talk about – not just in front of Grace, but really ever. Those of you that see me on the reg know that “casual comfort” is more my thing to put it nicely. 🤗 I do like to look presentable, but that’s usually the extent of it. “Neat and presentable” are about the extent of our rules when leaving the house at this point. So, needless to say, I wasn’t sure why Grace had determined that “pretty” was an adjective that didn’t fit her.
I gently asked her if someone said that to her.
I asked her why she might feel that way. She shook her head. She cried some more. She sighed. And she shared a few experiences she’d been involved in related to rating people’s “cuteness level” and “fashion”. 😱 At 9 and 10 years old. When tee shirts and twirly skirts and hoodies and stretch pants and shorts and characters and puppies and unicorns and toys and sports and music and dance and art and fun and games and playing whatever you want with whomever you want in whatever you want to wear should be life and embraced with reckless abandon while you are still under the watchful eyes and hearts of parents and other responsible adults who will protect you from anything too crazy or devious.
But here we were. Facing some of the social pressures of impending tween and teen and adult life – and IRL, not behind the cloak of social media. Facing tricky topics. Feeling discomfort and vulnerability and confusion and self-doubt because of new experiences that shouldn’t really be experiences anyone faces. But such is life.
I expanded upon my platitude to give her more context. I told her that “pretty” means different things to different people. And that’s why we always tell her things like be kind, try hard, help someone out, etc. because everyone understands those things the same way. I told her beauty changes over time and kindness doesn’t, as an example. That, yes, at first, people will notice what people look like on the outside and that makes sense because it means their eyes are working. It only becomes a problem when how people look matters most / above all else because doing that can prevent you from getting to know someone and you could miss the chance to make a new friend. Also, it can make other people feel bad. “Like I do?”, she asked. Yep, like you do, but like you shouldn’t because you have all these amazing qualities that people love.
I told her a funny thing happens when you know someone for an increasing length of time: what they look like fades into the background. It becomes a blur. Your focus shifts – often without you realizing – to how being around a person makes you feel. And whether they are “pretty” or “cute” doesn’t matter as much because being around them makes you feel happy and alive and good and like the best version of yourself. And that’s pretty. Beautiful even.
So, today, on International Women’s Day, why not have a discussion about kindness and inclusion and empowering / supporting / embracing the best in others? No one is ever too young (or too old!) for that. And you could very well help someone change their inner dialogue for the better.