Thursday, 19 March 2015
Mummy, am I beautiful?
Recently I watched my two girls play dress up together, which is not an uncommon sight in our house. I looked on with amusement and pleasure as my six year old teetered about the house in a long abandoned (pre-motherhood) pair of five inch heels, while my ten year old fashioned herself a dress out of a satin nightie. They had both helped themselves to a tube of Rimmel in “shocker” and the scarlet grease was smeared around both their mouths.
Playing at being grown-up, at being women. Comic and colourful caricatures of what they will one day become.
For my eldest at least, with puberty just around the corner, the metamorphosis from spindly limbed, unpolished and pink cheeked child into that most exotic of creatures; that of woman, is fast on its way. Her induction is likely to be a painful affair, involving shaving, waxing, plucking, filing, moisturising, exfoliating, squeezing, brushing, curling, straightening, soaking, steaming, sweating and starving. This is of course without even mentioning cramps, underwire and P.M.T; some of the more obvious discomforts of womanhood.
I describe a particular experience of course; and I should know, because it was my own and my mothers before me. I don't think my experience is an uncommon one. Indeed, visit any Boots store on any street corner in Britain and you'll see a dizzying array of potions, paints, implements, chemicals and creams, all purporting to do that one thing that is so terribly important if you're a woman: Achieving real and lasting beauty.
For women it is an ambition, nay, a social imperative to be beautiful. It is something to aspire to, to yearn for and to set huge store by, whilst growing up and learning the ways of womanhood. I wonder, how have I, as their mother, contributed to my daughters’ need to be beautiful?
It's because inside me there is a persistent and desperate need to be beautiful too. And its roots are strong and very, very deep.
I was born with a cleft lip, colloquially known as a 'Hare lip,' but I've always detested the pejorative feel to that term and so have never referred to it as that. Put simply, I was born with a split down one side of my mouth; my upper lip being most affected as well as my nose. I've had numerous procedures to correct this condition, all of them painful, the last one at age twenty-six, which was a particular joy. The surgeons have done an amazing job; I look what one might call "normal," which pleases me no end but was never actually my goal growing up.
I didn't want to look normal.
I wanted to be beautiful.
Surely this is a pointless and unattainable ambition, for how can one be truly beautiful with a scar down the middle of one's mouth? How can a woman be beautiful with such an imperfection, when we're trained to view beauty as the absence of imperfection and flaws?
If I am ever described as beautiful I always feel that "despite the scar" is being silently uttered, for I could never be considered beautiful because of it.
Ok, pity party over, because actually I think that at times my mother has suffered because of my defect (quirk of birth, condition...whatever) far more than me; after all, I have no memory of the trauma of the first corrective surgeries; nor of the isolation she must have felt when I was born and was less than perfect, and people avoided her out of embarrassment or worse still, disgust. She once
commented that a friend's birth to a baby with a hole in the heart elicited open sympathy, (as you'd expect) whereas my birth, which involved a facial deformity, engendered a less compassionate response. People were undoubtedly uncomfortable about it. Living on a terraced street at the time, within a close-knit community, she remembers watching people walk past with gifts for her friend's baby, whilst never once knocking on to say congratulations to her. She has memories of being out with me in the pram, and having people come over to look and gush over the "new baby" and seeing their faces freeze with horror when they saw me. She can talk of being in the doctors' surgery amongst a room full of whispering mothers and having the receptionist ask if she'd be "more comfortable in a side room."
I'd like to think we're more enlightened now; more understanding and compassionate. I'd really like to think that. My poor mother's experiences of having a child with a facial deformity in 1979 were anything but. This heavily influenced her attitude towards me, in particular her insistence while I was growing up that I was beautiful, for aren't all little girls beautiful? She has always rushed to reassure me that this is absolutely the case. With every new operation, each new procedure, it inched me a little bit closer to a “normal” face and a touch closer to achieving true beauty.
“Does it look better mummy?”
“Yes, you look beautiful!”
“Is my nose less crooked now?”
“Are my teeth straighter?”
“Yes, they look great!”
“Is my lip still wonky?”
“No. You are beautiful.”
My mother’s motto when I was growing up, whether she was dragging a brush through my waist
length hair, or pulling it into tight rollers to achieve a true late eighties poodlesque perm, and I was complaining and whining as only a ten year old can, was always, “You have to suffer to be beautiful.”
Looking back, I can honestly say that I have. We have both suffered for me to be beautiful.
My mum is a warrior of a mother; she would do all in her power for me to be happy, and isn't happiness for women and girls utterly bound together with the notion of being beautiful? We’re taught this from the cradle, through a frothy, frilly preponderance of pink and prettiness. Girls are beautiful. End of.
The consequences of not matching up to this standard are well known, and well documented. Anorexia and bulimia, appallingly low self-esteem, comfort eating, depression, crippling anxiety, general misery and unhappiness. I look at my girls and I know I would do anything to spare them from any of these things, of course I would. Any mother would.
Are my girls beautiful? Yes. They are my children; I gave birth to them forty-eight hours apiece in screaming agony, and have marvelled and delighted in every inch of their peachy soft, delicate little bodies ever since. They are wholly, unutterably beautiful to me, which does of course make me wonder then, would it matter to me at all if anyone else never thought the same thing. In other words, does their value come from how the world perceives their beauty, or from how they themselves perceive it?
I know some incredibly attractive people. I know some people who are unusual and unconventional looking, and I know some people who would be considered unattractive, and/or possibly ugly – I hate that word! Here's the interesting thing though: If I asked each of these people to rate their “beauty” or to tell me how happy they were with their physical appearance, the answers might surprise me. People who the world views as beautiful don't always agree with the world, and the more I hear of people who are dissatisfied with their appearance, the more I'm convinced that seeking beauty as a goal in life is totally pointless. Even if you did manage to eat the right diet, do the right exercise, wear the right clothes, have the right hair, wear the right make-up, be the right age, etc, etc, life and the passage of time have a way of trying to lay you low.
You're going to get older. You're going to get ill from time to time. You might have a baby. You might have a disfiguring accident. Life isn't full of many certainties but I know this for sure; nobody is beautiful forever.
Why then do we invest so much time and effort on pinning our happiness to something so fleeting? Something so hard to define anyway? Something which is actually far more subjective than we give it credit for?
No answers on a postcard please because this was, of course, a rhetorical question. I'm well aware of why women need to be beautiful (*cough* patriarchy) but that's a blog post all of its own.
I don't want to push the notion of beauty at my daughters. I want this to be the last word they use to describe themselves. They are smart. They are funny. They are kind and imaginative and spirited and adventurous and thoughtful and loyal and fierce and a thousand other things that they've not even learned to be yet. I will not limit their potential by pinning their future happiness on something as nebulous as beauty, for as soon as you set this as your goal what you're actually striving for is the approval and validation of others. Self worth has to depend on more than what we see in the mirror, but unfortunately it so seldom does.
In my efforts to be more God centred, it is to Him I look when seeking approval and affirmation. Why do I not look to myself? Well, I've proved time and time again that I am no judge of my own behaviour, or of my own esteem; I regularly find myself wanting or paradoxically, I rate my own efforts too highly. My opinion of me can't be trusted.
How then does God see me? How does He see my daughters?
Psalm 139, verse 14, tells us:
You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Or, in the NLT version:
When my daughter’s ask me that dreaded question: Do I look beautiful Mummy? I will think twice before enthusiastically answering with a resounding yes. Instead, I will answer with this:
Darling, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are too complex to be merely beautiful. You are unique and you are eternally precious. You are loved. And despite what this world will try to tell you, you are enough.
Are you beautiful?
You are so much more than that.