At a 6-year-old birthday party I attended with my daughter, the magician called for a very pretty girl to assist him (see: All the Pretty Girls).  I stiffened.  Pretty is a word that often leaves me feeling conflicted.  I was happier as a girl before anyone ever called me pretty, before I knew that beauty held value and was often used to gain favor, attention and love.

One of my favorite pictures from childhood is of my sister and me when I was about 8 and she was 6.  We’re kneeling in the yard with face paint on our cheeks from an event I can’t recall.  There is nothing out of the ordinary about the picture except when I look at us I can tell we still had it—that steady confidence and stable sense of self-worth that had nothing to do with appearances.

But it didn’t take long for it to fade.  By middle school, I learned that fitting in was key to one’s survival and that being skinny and beautiful dramatically increased your odds of being liked.  My friends and I hovered over teen magazines featuring page after page of willowy, stylish, bony-kneed girls.  Disappointment in my shorter, sturdier build grew as I longed in vain for a taller, thinner embodiment—a longing that led to an eating disorder in my early teens.

When my brother observed me fussing over my appearance in high school, he commented, “Why worry?  There’s always going to be someone prettier, or thinner or whatever than you.”  I knew this to be true but it wasn’t reassuring because it meant I would always be striving to be more like all those girls who were prettier, thinner or whatever than me.

I’ve wasted a lot of time chasing pretty.  It took me years to drop out of the race—to realize I would never cross the finish line because it kept advancing as I lagged behind out of breath.  It took the deeper work of unconditional self-acceptance to stop comparing myself to an unrealistic ideal and stop measuring my worth by inches and pounds and smooth skin.

At first quitting pretty was scary—leaving the house without a touch of make-up, letting my roots grow out, refusing to diet or exercise obsessively, opting for comfortable shoes and clothes over fashionable.  But soon it just became a way of life.  I wouldn’t notice until someone reacted to my dressing up or wearing make-up.  “Wow.  You clean up well,” a friend or acquaintance would say staring at me as if they’d never seen me before.  As if it was the first time they noticed my pretty.

So I worry for my daughter—everything from will she be pretty enough to will she be strong enough not to care.  And despite all of my wrestling, I worry about being a part of the problem.  Our complicity with societal messages can be insidious.  It’s easy to adopt, internalize and pass along our culture’s ideals almost unknowingly.  When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother often commented on how my body looked in certain outfits.  Most often I heard, “Your butt looks big in those pants.”  They were trying to be helpful—to warn or protect me from others’ scrutiny.  But the resulting insecurity I felt about my body can still sneak up on me when I catch the reflection of my backside in a three way mirror.

So all these mixed up feelings whirled through me at the birthday party with my daughter when the magician asked for a very pretty girl to assist him.  I held my breath and then watched as every girl’s hand shot up.  Even those who had declined to help just minutes before eagerly waved their hands in the air.  Every single girl in the room believed she was beautiful without hesitation.

While there is danger in striving for a narrow, culturally defined version of beauty, I’m learning there is something wonderful about my daughter feeling pretty just as she is and was created to be.  And how important it is for her to believe in her unique loveliness even when outside voices begin to tell her otherwise.

Perhaps I didn’t need to quit pretty after all.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of broadening our definition to make room for all girls and women regardless of our features, skin color, shape and size.

I once heard a neonatal intensive care nurse speak about how not all babies come out looking cute, especially sickly ones.  While parents can often see what makes their child beautiful, she found those of seriously ill babies sometimes needed a little help.  She became skilled at identifying what made each infant in her care special and pointed it out.  “There is always something beautiful about every baby,” she said.  “Once you know that you can always see it.  It jumps right out at you.”

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