Call Her Beautiful. This is Why.

I grew up with eczema all over my body – everywhere there was skin. I learned to live with my different skin but found it harder to live with what fought to get under it.

There was a selection of them – different grades, boys and girls, but mostly girls – who would point out with exhausting regularity that I looked ‘different’. They weren’t sweet about it either. Or creative. ‘Red legs.’ ‘Sore skin.’ ‘Boring bag.’ (I know – I didn’t get that one, still don’t, but apparently it doesn’t take creative genius to be a jackass). 

The words were hollow enough but the messages weren’t. They were ripe and full-bodied and launched to lessen. You don’t say cruel things with a smile if it’s meant to be any other way. I came to learn that there were two types of smiles – those that warm and those that wound. I also came to learn there were two types of people. Those who lift you and those who would tear you down by the first bell if they were given the chance.

I’ve never felt like a victim and I’ve never felt broken, and that’s because of the people in my life who taught me about being beautiful. They taught me that there were many different versions – all real – and that I was one of them.

They did it by calling me ‘beautiful’ and they did it often. They called me other things too – clever, kind, funny, strong – and that was important for other reasons but those words weren’t the words that helped me believe that I too was beautiful, and that those who would have me believe otherwise were wrong. I knew I was clever, kind, funny and strong – because they told me so. What could ever be wrong about them telling me I’m beautiful too.

My grandparents told me often. Whether I was dressed in my Sunday best, sweaty from backyard cricket or soaked and grassy from running through the sprinkler, I was always beautiful to them. I know that because they told me. One of my grandmothers would say in her Maltese accent, ‘Oh, you look beautiful!’. The words ‘oh’ and ‘beautiful’ would be loud and emphasised. My other grandmother had her standard greeting too. ‘Pretty One.’ She said it like it was my name. I felt their words in every part of my being through to my core where my truths and secrets and precious things are kept. 

I can’t remember anything specifically related to my physical appearance that came from my parents but I never questioned that they thought I was beautiful. I wonder about the messages that would have been able to break through and diminish me, had they not armed me with capacity to claim ‘beautiful’ for myself. 

From my own experience, being told I was beautiful pushed against the venom that pushed against me. 

The Push Against ‘Beautiful’ – Why It Has To Stop

There is talk, particularly on social media, against calling girls ‘beautiful’ or any other word that refers to physical appearance. The argument is that to do otherwise gives beauty a position of importance and influence it doesn’t deserve.

As I sit here and type, I can almost feel the whoosh from hands being thrown into the air of the women who have being trying to make beauty not count for us women. I get that. We are so much more than how we look. Absolutely. We are strong, brave, intelligent, powerful, kind, funny and so many other things, but these aren’t the things that society is making us question minute by minute of every damn day – in magazines, on television, social media, billboards, advertising. It’s exhausting. And I’m tired. 

I’m tired of hearing women being judged on how they look. I’m tired of young girls being broken by it. I’m tired of being so deliberate in not judging myself. I’m tired of having to pretend it doesn’t matter. I’m tired of it. Because it does matter. It always has. It’s just that somewhere along the way, ‘beautiful’ became reduced to an astoundingly inadequate definition. ‘Beautiful isn’t the problem. The definition is. 

Popular culture has strained the idea of what it means to be a woman to the point that it is now heavily infused with an unrealistic and largely unattainable definition of beauty. It’s a definition worthy of rejection but what if, rather than rejecting the word, we rewrite its meaning. Because as well as being our own versions of beautiful, we are powerful, strong, brave, and smart, and we can do that. We don’t have to ignore the beauty that is us, or pretend it doesn’t matter, and why should we. We can be all of those things, and we can be beautiful too. Not ‘beautiful’ they way they tell us, but ‘beautiful’ the way we tell us.

Dismissing beauty as irrelevant or unimportant undermines the capacity of women to embrace themselves as a whole. The physical self is just as important as the spiritual self, the emotional self and the mental self. Those who actively or passively discourage physical beauty from being unashamedly embraced by young girls, teens and women are doing damage. They’re doing damage to the solidarity of our womanhood as judgement seeps in, and to the self-concept of those they influence as their wholeness finds cracks. 

They are also compromising one of the most essential and joyful parts of being human – the seeking out of beauty. Humans are wired to seek out beauty. We seek it out in nature, music, art, architecture, photography, food – everything. Most importantly, we seek it in ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we always find what we’re looking for. Why? Because somewhere along the way the definition of beauty in relation to women has become woefully lacking.

We engage with beauty through every sense – we hear it, touch it, taste it, smell it, see it. We can also recognise that it’s imperfect – an abandoned building, a fallen tree, a bustling street, a stormy sea – not known for their perfect form, but they can be breathtaking in their beauty. 

In relation to women however, the definition of ‘beautiful’ is strikingly deficient. It’s become all about perfection – smooth lines, flawless skin, perfect forms, measurements and proportions.

We are the ones who are most affected but we are far from victims. Nobody has more power than we do to reconstruct what it means to be ‘beautiful’, but this won’t happen if we pretend beauty doesn’t matter. It does matter. It matters a lot. Just not in the way it has come to be defined.

To ignore it completely leaves the way open for a relentless assault on the truth about what beauty is. Beauty is diverse and imperfect. If we don’t acknowledge our own ideal of beauty when we see it, popular culture will proceed unchallenged to saturate our daily life with its own unrealistic photographic definition. It’s a definition that isn’t working for the overwhelming majority of us.

Beauty. It’s a problem of definition, not concept.

The problem isn’t beauty, but the portrayal of beauty as something unattainable, exclusive and inauthentic.

Physical beauty is fed by a number of sources. One is our DNA but how the world sees us on the outside is also influenced by what’s happening on the inside.

As explained by researcher, Susie Orbach from the London School of Economics,

‘… Women regard being beautiful as the result of qualities and circumstance: being loved, being engaged in activities that one wants to do, having a close relationship, being happy, being kind, having confidence, exuding dignity and humor. Women, who are like this, look beautiful. They are beautiful.’

The more we celebrate beauty in its purest, most authentic and diverse forms, the quicker a new marker of ‘beautiful’ can be established. Women want this. We want to see women of different shapes, sizes and ages. We’re hungry for it. We deserve it. And it’s overdue.

Call Her Beautiful. Then Say It To Her Again.

What we are told effects what we believe. What we believe affects who we become. Given the importance of beauty to self-concept and what we project to the world, it’s critical that we start telling ourselves and each other when we see it.

The more we can hear it from outside ourselves, the more the message will be internalised and made our own.

That doesn’t make us needy or dependent on what we hear – nothing could be further from the truth. There is strength and wisdom in the woman who can open up to the environment, take the parts that nourish her and leave the parts that don’t. We are capable of that. The challenge for us is to make a new empowering, acceptable, ample definition of ‘beautiful’ available in the environment for each of us to draw on. We are also capable of that.

The definition of beauty needs to expand so all of us can flourish under the banner. The seeking of beauty will never go away and rather than being something that limits or divides us, redefining beauty will clear the way to celebrate and relish it in all of its imperfect, diverse forms.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Let the beholder be us.

Popular culture would have us believe that beauty is shallow, manufactured and reserved for the genetically blessed. It’s not. It’s as varied as we are – but we need to claim it.

For this to happen, we need to fiercely redefine what beauty is. The definitions will be diverse, because beauty is diverse. They will celebrate the happiness, confidence and self-respect that comes with the full embrace of aged skin and faded pink scars or dimpled thighs and a curvy form. It will be a beauty that billows from an engagement with life, relationships and above all else, the self.

Let’s start by seeing it and acknowledging it in others, claiming it in ourselves, and celebrating those who want to do the same. Call her beautiful. Then say it to her again. Let the messages become part of the warrior inside her, the one that fights against anything else that might lessen her – the one that fights for her. Because though we’ll never know exactly what she’s up against, we can make sure she’s at her strongest when she faces it.

9 Comments

debi

You read my thoughts! I. Love. This. So. Much!
I have a 16 year old daughter, and we discuss this concept all the time. I call her my warrior princess, and she loves it! She gets so frustrated that people have denigrated the term beautiful and princess. After we went to see the new Beauty and The Beast, she and I had a lengthy discussion about the fact that in most of the stories/movies, really the princesses are much more powerful than anyone gives them credit. She said she chooses to believe that if not for the princesses in the stories the kingdoms, nor the princes would be saved. The true “power” lies within the warrior inside each of them.
I also work with a group of Sophomore girls in our church, and we have worked with them to create their own Kintsugi bowl which is the art of creating something more beautiful from something that is broken/scarred by putting it back together with gold, and learning that something that is broken does not need to be thrown away, but becomes even more valuable in it’s brokenness. The girls shared with our other leader and I that there is a new tattoo art called “tiger stripes” that women are getting to turn stretch marks into works of art. It was beautiful to hear these young women feel empowered about something that probably 90% of women feel shamed by! Why? Because beauty is taking on a new definition, and I love that! Women are allowing themselves to be defined as beautiful in its “purest, most authentic and diverse forms”!
Thank you for leading the charge!

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TU

Lovely post; beauty can be such a reflection of the soul, it would be tragic if we stopped calling our children (girls or boys) beautiful due to a misplaced definition, rather than bringing them up to believe themselves beautiful in a complete sense.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you. I absolutely agree that it would be tragic if we stopped using the word ‘beautiful’ to refer to our children. Thank you for your sharing your thoughts.

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Michele

Oh how I love your blog! Empowering, enriching, inspirational! Insightful, meat and potatoes content with very little fluff!
I don’t remember the first article that lead me to your blog, but I am grateful it did! At first I thought it was for my husband and I to learn and be better equipped with useful tools to understand and help our 12 yr old daughter cope with extreme anxiety…however, I oftentimes find myself in tears because of feelings and memories I thought were long gone and buried deep somewhere else are now exposed. This has been extremely healing for me and in fact, I believe for me to truly help my daughter, I needed to begin my own healing process first.
I don’t have the words to describe the “beauty” your article about beauty and being beautiful means to me.
Thank You!

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you so much Michele. Your comment means a lot. Don’t push down your tears or be afraid of your strong feelings and memories that are coming from somewhere deep. This an important part of your healing and they are coming up because you are strong enough and ready. The wisdom and growth is in the mess. Your healing is happening, your heart is open and strong and brave, and your daughter is in wonderful hands.

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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #parentingtips
We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting

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