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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Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

You don’t need to fix anything and you don’t need to have all the answers. Even if the words land differently to the way you expected, you can clean it up once it’s out there. What’s important is opening the space for conversation, which opens the way to you. Try, ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing with everything. Would you like to talk?’ 

And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
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