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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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