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!

Reply
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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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