Monday, May 4, 2009

Beautiful Like Me

Tricia at Shout asked me if I would like to participate in the Beautiful Like Me Project. Having had the opportunity to discuss this and other life questions with her, I was honored and more than a little intimidated to say yes. The explanation of it's beginning can be found here. Participants are asked to blog about a series of questions every two weeks. I am joining in on question #3 - What features/qualities would we like today’s children to see as beautiful? I am sure I will not do justice to the vastness of this consideration. This is my feeble, and very incomplete attempt. I am still mulling it over and continue to discover layers of feelings and thoughts on the issue.

How to answer this question has been with me for days now. I think about it in the shower, in the car, making dinner, having conversations with my sons and when looking through a magazine or watching television as I confront the perfect images being sold to us everywhere. Undoubtedly, my perspective is shaped by my own experience. A girl, one of three sisters, who grew up in a very dysfunctional family. We each had to find our own way amongst the culture of perfect while our parents struggled with their own demons. They say that a girl’s relationship with her father is incredibly influential in her acquisition of self-worth, of value, her definition of what it means to be beautiful and I believe it to be true. Sadly, our father perpetrated unspeakable acts against my innocence and while I rarely discuss this because I claim that it does not define me, in a lot of ways it has. To introduce sexuality at a young age, to equate a loving relationship with a person who should be your protector, with fear, shame and confusion denies a child the ability to understand, to evolve into, her own value.

I was always a skinny kid. Scrawny is probably more accurate. It was not the blessing I would perceive it to be now that I am 20 pounds heavier than my “ideal” body weight. I vaguely remember feeling inadequate, not at all beautiful when comparing myself to the images I believed to be perfection, in high school. But it was not something I obsessed over. I had friends, a boyfriend, activities. And I finally filled out, a little, by college so there were a few years of actually feeling good about my appearance. It was not until my late 20s, when my body began to fail me. It’s not as dramatic as it sounds. Until then, I had always eaten whatever I wanted without obvious consequence. I was active, though not necessarily actively exercising but I rarely gained a pound. Suddenly, or so it seemed, I started to gain a few pounds. And they quickly began to add up. By 30, I was 25-30 pounds heavier than I had been at 18. I hated this new body, worked hard to fight against it but habits had been formed and I was definitely an emotional eater. I began exercising in earnest and though my weight remained a larger number than made me comfortable, I started to feel healthy and generally better about my appearance. After a long struggle with infertility, I became pregnant at 32 – with triplets! The goal weight gain for a triplet pregnancy is somewhere between 60 and 70 pounds…YIKES! I spent the first 15 weeks with severe “morning” sickness and actually lost 13 pounds. I spent the next 17 weeks on bed rest, eating every few hours to try and make up for lost time. When I delivered at 31 weeks, I had gained only 33 pounds. I assumed, with a weight gain that was typical of a single pregnancy that it would fall off after my boys were born. Or at least start steadily melting away over that first year. Not so. I will spare you the details of the next 5 years by summarizing this – I have still not lost the “baby weight”. And I now struggle daily with feelings of inadequacy, ugliness, disgust at my appearance.

Despite the confessional about my weight issues, I have never, ever mentioned weight as a factor in beauty or even health to my children. After their birth, I became diligent about our health as a family. Nutrition and exercise focused, we often talk about how amazing our bodies are – all the things they can do – especially if we take care of them. We discuss how the food choices we make can either help or hinder our body’s strength. We plan and prepare our meals together using local and organic food as much as possible. We have a garden, we shop at farmer’s markets, we belong to a CSA. We do not watch TV during the school week, opting instead for physical activity – outside as much as weather allows. I cannot remember a time with them when physical appearance has been perceived as an indicator of beauty – until now.

The boys do not like kisses from me when I have lipstick (or even chapstick) on. This has initiated some funny comments and conversation but I was taken aback at this question that was posed as I kissed them one morning before school – “Why do girls wear lipstick?”. I paused before answering, uncertain if my response would set off more questioning from the peanut gallery (it usually does). I did not want to say that makeup makes a girl pretty or imply it necessary for a man to find her attractive so I answered with “sometimes it makes a girl feel pretty to wear a little lipstick”. This of course was met with “why” and I repeated my original answer before quickly changing the subject. Not my typical MO. I have answered many a question that would make my husband, and a lot of other adults, squirm. I have always been truthful with them about hard topics – “am I going to die, are you going to die, why do people die, what happens when we die, why don’t girls have a penis, what’s a vagina, how are babies born, how do they get in there” and on and on. Why then am I so uncomfortable defining or at least answering honestly a simple question about makeup?

As the mother of boys and a feminist at heart, it is incredibly important to me that I raise men who recognize the equal value of the opposite sex. Men who are respectful of differences without feelings of superiority (or inferiority), men who are self sufficient, who know how to take care of themselves and do not expect someone (a woman) to do it for them. Men who value intellect, humanity, kindness, authenticity at least as much as or more than appearance when looking for a partner in life. Men who value their own bodies as marvels, miracles capable of so much if respected and cared for. Compassionate and strong, confident while humble, secure in all they do, respectful of all humanity understanding the value of every life, be it their own or that of someone in Iraq or a person on a street corner downtown. Yes, it is idealistic and likely unrealistic, but these are the things I hope they value. These are the things I hope they see their parents modeling. Struggle as we may to do so.

So, to answer the question what features/qualities would we like today’s children to see as beautiful?, I hope today’s children can find the beauty in humanity. I wish for them to recognize the beauty in the human experience. To recognize their strengths and even their struggles as beautiful. To reject the idea of perfection and to embrace the everyday, to recognize the miracles that abound, to find real joy in the moment and to seek the beauty in everything. To hold on to their childish innocence and wonder at all that is. These are the things I wish for us all.


Tricia said...

I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes and just want to hug you. What a beautiful, honest post. Thank you for this and thank you for being the amazing, compassionate, thinking mother that you are. I know for sure, without a doubt, that your experiences, intellect and compassion will no doubt have a huge and positive impact on your boys and their current and future selves. If anyone wanted a definition of beauty, all that you described here would fit the bill exactly...the struggles, the resolutions. I applaud your honesty and your bravery. I'm quite sure this wasn't an easy post to write. Thank you for being YOU!

Kim Sanders said...


Thank you for your courage in exposing this malignant family behavior... you have a beautiful family.

Amy said...

Thank you for joining the Beautiful Like me Project! I ditto Tricia' comments. I really appreciate your honesty and sharing in your post. It is not easy to share about ourselves but it makes such a difference to so many ... thank you! You made me cry, you made me laugh, you made me think! How perfect (although a little difficult on a Monday morning!)

Cate said...

I'm one of 6 girls and now have 2 boys and a stepdaughter (who lives with us full time). I'm also careful to reserve the "I'm so fat" comments, especially around my SD. She hears enough of it at school, and she and I talk about not responding when girls make disparaging remarks about their bodies.
It's one thing to recognize that I should lose weight and get healthier. It's entirely another to push my own issues on a child.

That said, I applaud you for keeping your body image positive around them and eating (and shopping!) right. It's tough to raise boys, isn't it? As feminists, I think it's the best thing we can do to show them beauty in all its forms, especially in diversity.
Well done!

Lisa P said...

Danielle, I agree with Tricia's comments as well. it's great to have your perspective in this project. We are all having to get honest with ourselves and each other. For some, doing that is a greater risk. Thanks for taking that risk and sharing so much of yourself.

I giggled a bit at the lipstick reference. I wore lipstick religiously for years. When I became pregnant I was so sick for the entire 9 months, I couldn't wear it. I never noticed before that point that lipstick had a scent. That scent turned my stomach upside down while pregnant. In any event, by the time I got around to wearing lipstick again, it felt odd. What had at one time felt like something I needed to be me, turned into something that made me feel like I was being someone else. Interesting how that works. It's like I went through detox.

Wicked Step Mom said...

What a wonderful post! And welcome! You know, I think I would have been just as stumped as you when asked "Why girls wear make-up?" How can a simple question be so tough to answer! Thank you for your honesty. You are linked!

Danielle said...

Thank you all for your kind comments and for those of you who are also blogging for BLM. I have not left comments (but I am reading all the posts)or responded to those here as this was a difficult post for me to put out there and I am kind of avoiding it for the moment but I do appreciate the words of encouragement and the feedback. Looking forward to the next one. Thanks again.