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Dear Girls: The Truth About Beauty

Dear Girls,

I really want these letters to be useful to you one day. There is so much I wish I could ask my mother now that I am a grown woman. There is so much we never got to talk about. I’m planning on being around for you well into your lives and adulthood, but even so, I think having these letters will be useful in some way. Who knows how things might change down the road, and at least you’ll have your 34 year old mother’s thoughts down on paper.

I can’t believe I’m going to be 35 next year. My mother was 37 when she met my father and that age has always held a certain mythical countenance for me. It was also an age that seemed so very far off in my future that I never actually thought of myself reaching it in reality. But here I am suddenly just a few years off from it.

Anyway, I meant this letter to be about beauty and my relationship to it. I feel this enormous responsibility, as a mother of two little girls, to lead you down a path that is relatively healthy when it comes to beauty and self image. In a lot of womens’ eyes I’ve probably already failed in that respect due to the amount of pink-princess-Barbie mess cluttering up Vera’s room right now. But I will say this about Barbie (and all the rest of that princess garbage): I played with that stuff for a solid decade when I was growing up and here I am now at a healthy weight with a healthy outlook about my body and image. I have a masters degree and have a successful career and a published book. If Barbie were really so damaging to my femininity and self-image I highly doubt I could list all of the latter as accomplishments.

But I get it too. It’s hard for women to maintain a healthy self-image. It’s hard not to obsess over our weight and to wish we could afford more stylish clothes. It’s hard not to covet someone else’s hair or hips or eyelashes, and to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to achieve looks that we were never suited for in the first place. I have girlfriends around whom I have to brace myself to see, because even though I love them, just being around them makes me self-conscious. I look at old pictures of my mother and wonder why I’ve never been able to be as skinny as she was.  And then I have friends who are thinner than their mothers ever were. We women go round and round in circles, holding hands and trying to be one another sometimes.

Men like to think we dress and style ourselves for them, but why would we when they hardly notice? I’ve never tried so hard to look good as when I know I’m about to meet up with a stylish girlfriend. It’s she who will notice my slimmed down waist or the thinnest, little bracelet on my arm. And I have no doubt that the two of you, Veronica and Juliette, will endlessly compare yourselves to each other. You will wonder why one of you got longer legs or shinier hair or bigger breasts or thicker eyelashes. I know this, not because I know sisters, but because I know women. The thing I’ll tell you, the thing to remember is this: not even the prettiest of us feel settled. The girl you think looks the most perfect in all the world is probably the girl who wants to change herself more than anyone else.

Even as I write this, I fear these thoughts will be controversial, but I suspect that really they’ll only push buttons because these are the things that no woman wants to admit. I’ve never felt so self-conscious as when another woman catches me making adjustments to myself in a mirror. That moment when you’ve leaned in closely in a public bathroom, say at an airport, and you’re scrutinizing some spot on the bridge of your nose, or applying lipstick just so, or moving a small strand of hair into a better place, and you glance up to catch another woman’s eyes as she enters the room. A flush will spread through me, all the way to my toes, because what she has just seen is the giant conundrum that we women face: we are supposed to look perfect effortlessly. To be caught working at it implies that we care. To imply that we care says that we think we are worth it. And that, my dear girls, is a deep, deep message that so many of us, not just women, carry around. Worthlessness.

Don’t take this on. Don’t let that message carry any weight within yourselves. You are not worthless. You are so full of love and life and light and you should let it shine through you every second of every day. If someone pushes you down for standing tall then just push yourself back up and stand even taller. And know that the reason they pushed you down in the first place is just because they’re scared. We’re all scared to be who we are sometimes, but I will tell you that I have never in my life felt more beautiful than when I have stood my tallest.

Well, this letter has gone in a direction I wasn’t quite expecting. I thought I was going to write more about makeup and clothes and how to feel good about yourself even when you don’t like what you look like, but I guess my thoughts about that idea run toward a deeper place. At least you know how I feel. I wish so much I could ask my own mother about beauty. She was a stunning woman and I want to know if she tried or if she cared (of course she did, right?). I want to know if she ever felt satisfied enough about her looks to enjoy walking into a room and turning heads. I want to know where her bravery in fashion came from and how I can pass that down to you girls, since it clearly skipped me. I want to what she wanted for me when she looked at me.

At least you know what I want for you.

Stand tall.

Love,

Mom

My mother and her sister get ready in a mirror on her sister’s wedding day.

11 Comments

  1. I love this! It’s so much fun to have a beautiful girl, until now, when she’s 13 and everybody is always telling her she is beautiful. I want to be sure she knows that she is pretty — she’s gorgeous — but that she’s more than that, too. That a lot of what makes her so striking is the confidence with which she carries herself, and the energy she exudes. I want her to treasure that as much (more really) as she treasures her long legs and tiny waist. As for the mysteries of your mother, it seems so easy to me to say that of course she knew she was beautiful — I can see that in the pictures, she’s very comfortable in her skin. And she thought fashion was fun — she enjoyed it, knew what worked for her and what didn’t. She was one of those who made it look effortless, but not in a way that intimidates the rest of us. That’s what I think.

    Comment by Lisa Lilienthal on October 9, 2012 at 10:06 am

  2. Brilliant!

    Comment by Rita Arens on October 9, 2012 at 10:26 am

  3. What a lovely post Claire! In my eyes this is one of the most important things I am trying to teach my girls. I grew up feeling ugly and awkward. It took me years to find value in myself, not just in my looks, but myself as a woman. Our girls are talented, creative, smart, athletic, and gorgeous. We emphasize and encourage the positive traits they have, while reminding them that they are indeed beautiful. That beauty though is not all of who they are, it is just their outward appearance. More than anything, much like you, I want my girls to have confidence, self esteem, and self worth.

    Comment by Wendy on October 9, 2012 at 11:22 am

  4. 37…..Third Baby!

    Comment by Bonnie on October 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm

  5. I don’t know a single woman, including a lovely young model in LA, who is fully satisfied with her hair, her face, or her figure. That model looks in a mirror and sees flaws no camera has ever illuminated. My friend with the lovely gray hair laments that it is thinning so fast. The willowy teenager who is just growing into her young colt body laments that her friends with curves all think she must be anorexic.

    Be who you are, Veronica and Juliette. Stand tall, and stand proud, and cherish your own so-beautiful mother for who she is inside as well as on the surface!

    Comment by Carroll on October 9, 2012 at 2:02 pm

  6. Beautiful. Such important words. Thank you for sharing, Claire! xoxo

    Comment by Annie on October 9, 2012 at 4:21 pm

  7. I would attempt to protect my daughter from any suffering due to feelings of beauty inadequacies if I knew I wasn’t thwarting her souls process….I too will be candid about my own struggles for years with hopes to shed light on inner strength. Having devoted decades to being addicted to the mirror as if it could make or break me, I am grateful to say I feel free of such scrutiny after having two kids. I don the proverbial mom haircut and practically live in yoga pants and flip flops. It would have been great to enjoy my youthful beauty, if I could gift my daughter with that I would….teach her to know her ego and when to tell it to shut the #%€£¥ up! Maybe more yoga, less ballet…I am rambling, but thanks Claire good stuff:)

    Comment by Jennifer Mack on October 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm

  8. Beauty—such a complex thing! I can only imagine how difficult it must be to have daughters and wonder how to convey to them that they are more than how they look. Beauty is about more than just looks. But of course, looks also come into it, and I think a lot of the commentary that’s trying to be helpful by shifting the focus away from looks ultimately is limited, because all of us feel at some point that self-consciousness about our looks that you’re talking about here. I guess it’s a tricky balance to strike.

    What you’ve written here… Well, I wish I’d read it as an awkward teen. They may not do it aloud, but I’m sure your girls will thank you for broaching this subject.

    Comment by Sophie on October 9, 2012 at 5:17 pm

  9. “Men like to think we dress and style ourselves for them, but why would we when they hardly notice?” Too right! I go clothes shopping once every three years and it only takes 15 mins. I buy a big stack of identical work shorts, work short-sleeved work shirts and a few packets of jocks. Ca-ching, and out the door.
    Picked up a couple of hitch-hikers a little while back and offered them a private cabin in the rainforest to stay at for a few days as it was not occupied. My wife came by and had passed them on the road at 50 mph. “Oh the guy with the dreadlocks?” she said. Dreadlocks??, he had dreadlocks? I had been talking to the guy for half an hour and my wife had noticed more just zooming past.
    My daughters had to grow up in this beauty/fashion vacuum. I often told them they were beautiful, looking just how they looked, being just who they were, and any boy who couldn’t see that was blind and stupid. I didn’t quite realize till you pointed it out Claire, that primping and the preening is a girl status thing.
    I am totally proud of my efforts and achievements in equipping my girls with feet of clay in the fashion/beauty arena, and I am sure they have picked up a bit of my amused detachment from this field of peer-pressure/commercial/psychological exploitation.

    Comment by Paul Tredgett on October 9, 2012 at 11:38 pm

  10. This is beautiful, Claire. I try to emphasize these issues in a Mass Media class I teach. We talk a lot about images of women in the media and how they do not reflect reality. Probably the saddest thing I see is young women simply not respecting themselves. You can see that in the media but I also see it in some students. I try not to get preachy in class but on this topic, I just can’t help it. I want these young women to be strong in the face of media pressure, but I realize it’s not easy.

    Comment by Rachael Hanel on October 10, 2012 at 5:12 am

  11. Such a treasured letter to your daughter’s. Being that I have three girls, I feel the same way. I still struggle to this day with some of this. I hate that about me and want my girls to have freedoms that I don’t have in this area. Yet, I’m guessing they will go on to struggle, compare, fight, be jealous, etc. But I sure hope that somehow, just somehow I can give them a piece of what beauty really is. <3

    Comment by Vanessa on October 10, 2012 at 2:11 pm

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