Friday, December 31, 2010

More Beautiful You

I've been avoiding this post. I've thought about starting it a dozen times, but always found something else to do instead. Then I saw on BlogHer that December was going to be Own Your Beauty month, and thought that would be perfect because I could write something about how looks are overrated, or how an individual's perception can be skewed by one hateful thing that's said by kids on the playground or an ex. Though true to me, I could write about them from a 3rd person perspective and keep my feelings in check.

But the first week of December, our 3-year-old said something to me that I couldn't ignore. It's been haunting me, because I am uncomfortable with it. It hits the raw feelings I successfully keep buried under my sarcasm. She told me I was pretty. She said she loved my hair and when she gets bigger she hopes hers is brown and long so she can wear it in a ponytail like I do.

I'm tearing up writing this.

I am not what you would call classically pretty. I don't say that because I'm looking for the reassuring, "Oh, sure you are!" response. I am not an idiot. I know what I look like. I know what the average American views as attractive. While not entirely mutually exclusive, the overlap of the Venn diagram on those two things is fairly small. I do have some nice attributes - great legs, for example. I had a stylist tell me once that I had Lady Godiva hair. Ironic since my hair was once the bane of my existence. Though I often wished I had lived 100 years ago when fair skin was in since it's literally impossible for me to get a tan, thank goodness I was a teen in the 80's when big hair was popular. Until the late '90s when Matrix developed the Sleek Look line, there was no product I hadn't tried and failed to tame that craziness. Living in a drier climate in Colorado was the only cure I'd found. And then the 9th Wonder of the World was invented - the CHI. (Cue "Hallelujah" chorus!) But I digress...

When I started kindergarten, I was confident and outgoing. The first day of school, my dad tells me, I walked up to a group of 6th graders and said, "Hi! I'm Jennifer. What's your name?" Everything went well the first couple of years when looks weren't as important as personality. But as we got older, things changed. I was very skinny (my sister used to call me Ethiopia child) and a tomboy. I always had really short hair, so I looked like a boy. I even remember being in 1st or 2nd grade and the kids saying they thought I was a boy, and I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I settled the argument at recess by dropping my pants to prove I wasn't. I was also a quick learner. So at school, I was the nerdy, athletic girl who boys asked to be on their kickball team or copy off tests. Not the girl they thought was pretty. It didn't bother me when I was young, but I struggled with the transition to middle school because suddenly, I was expected to be more feminine and care about my looks (and secretly, I did), but I had no idea how to go about it. I watched made-for-TV movies like "Dance til Dawn" where the nerdy girl (in this case, Tracey Gold from "Growing Pains") takes off her glasses, lets down her hair and puts on makeup and is transformed into the hottest girl in school. I told myself that was me. I was afraid to do any of those things, though, because what if I after the transformation, I still wasn't beautiful?

High school started. Most of my friends were dating. Not me. I just knew I was going to become an old maid and die a virgin. I was 17 before I had my first kiss. I was head-over-heels for my boyfriend. He was handsome, and he made me feel beautiful. We dated for a year, and I really thought we would get married. I know that sounds naive, but dating for a year in high school is the equivalent to 5 years in the adult world. I really was in love with him, but I think part of it was fear that no one else would want me. I was desperate for us to stay together. It was an unhealthy relationship.

After we broke up, and I finally moved on, I dated other guys, of course. College was such a great growing experience for me. I developed more confidence. I had varying degrees of satisfaction with my looks at different times. I wanted to be comfortable in my own skin, but I rarely was. Once I started working, I gained and lost weight, which just contributed to my insecurities. As most women, I look in the mirror and mostly see the flaws. An ex once used a euphemism to tell me he wanted to date someone prettier by saying I was a hamburger, and he wanted a cheeseburger. I used to avoid looking in the mirror because I would just spend that time critiquing my features.

That's not to say I haven't had moments of feeling beautiful. External verification has always impacted my perception, of course, but though I'm not exactly pretty, I don't think I'm horrifically ugly either. I've come a long way from the awkward preteen in the photo above. I'd say I'm a 7. My confidence is not entirely dependent on my physical appearance. I have a lot of great qualities, and so I try to focus on them instead of bemoan my less than perfect features. Oddly enough, I'm really photogenic. I have tons of pictures that look average, but there are a few that make me stop and say "Wow. Not bad. Not bad at all! I look like an 8.5!" When I'm feeling good about my looks, that's the image I see in the mirror. It's just not often that that happens.

So I spent my 20's enjoying my single life. I've been blessed with incredible friends and family, so though I was sometimes lonely and wished for the day I'd find Mr. Right, I was happy.

And then I did find Mr. Right. We got married.

An example of a photogenic shot from our engagement session. God bless the CHI!
And then we had children.

Not only do you not have time to dwell on your physical imperfections as a mother, you rationalize some of them away. I'm overweight because I've birthed two babies. I don't have time to do anything more than throw my hair in a ponytail, and my make up goes unused for so long it's expired before I need it again. My clothes are frumpy because I refuse to buy new ones before I lose some weight. I'm so tired that when I look in the mirror in the morning as I brush my teeth, my eyes are only half-open so they aren't taking in all the flaws. I don't even think about my looks much anymore. Only when I'm getting ready to go somewhere nice like on a rare date, and I lament that I don't fit into my dress slacks anymore. And while I take the time to straighten my hair with that miraculous CHI, I see myself in the mirror in fragments - my broken nose, the chin hairs that have sprouted postpartum, the dark circles under my eyes. But I put on my makeup and do the best I can to look pretty, and try not to think about it. I'm happy with my life, and that's what's important. Or so I tell myself as I push the old feelings down deeper.

It works for the most part. Until our DD made that comment a few weeks ago.

Our daughter S is beautiful. I know all parents think their children are the most amazing beings on the planet, but truly, from an objective view, she really is pretty. She has gorgeous strawberry blonde hair, big blue eyes and a bright smile. She is also full of love and kindness, internal beauty as well as external.

Picture of S from November. Original photo courtesy of R. Peters Photography. Cropped by me.

So feeling inadequate in my skin, hearing my gorgeous little girl say she wished she looked like me broke my heart. "You are so beautiful! Why on earth would you want to look like me?" I wanted to scream. I tell her she's beautiful every day. But my parents told me that, too. And it only worked for so long before I stopped believing them. You reach a point where you realize that even though you're parents aren't lying, they don't have the same perspective as the outside world. I don't want her self-esteem to suffer like mine. I know that I can't shield her from the cruel words she's sure to encounter in the world. But I also know, that I must make sure to exude a positive attitude about my appearance or she will start to question her own.

And that, my friends, is why I must choose to OWN MY BEAUTY. I can no longer afford the luxury of self-pity or dissatisfaction. I need to make myself look in the mirror and focus on the good elements. The unique color of my eyes, blue but with a yellow ring around the pupil so they sometimes appear green. My smile of perfectly aligned teeth thanks to an amazing pediatric orthodontist. I want to see myself the way our daughter sees me, so she will see herself the way I see her.

There's a song that I hear often and try to internalize. And I want to be sure to share it with my girls because the message is so important. It's "More Beautiful You" by Johnny Diaz. Here is the first verse and chorus:

Little girl fourteen flipping through a magazine
Says she wants to look that way
But her hair isn’t straight her body isn’t fake
And she’s always felt overweight

Well little girl fourteen I wish that you could see
That beauty is within your heart
And you were made with such care your skin your body and your hair
Are perfect just the way they are

There could never be a more beautiful you
Don’t buy the lies disguises and hoops they make you jump through
You were made to fill a purpose that only you could do
So there could never be a more beautiful you


Lori @ In Pursuit of Martha Points said...

Such a powerful post.

As a girl, I couldn't find a single thing about me that I liked. Not one.

And now, there are flaws that are always the first thing I notice in the mirror or in a photograph.

But other parts of me I learned to celebrate. Be proud of.

I remember once looking at a very thin woman. Boyish, practically. And realizing - for the first time ever at just over 30 - that I did not want that figure. I am way curvy, always have been. And while I'm prone to pudginess, when I'm eating well and exercising my shape is something that stops traffic. And I remember how liberating that feeling was - realizing that I did not WANT to be so thin that I didn't have my curves. That I would happily sacrifice wearing the things that looked bad on my shape for the sake of having the shape in the first place.

My beauty reclaimed in that moment.

And yes - owning your beauty is an incredible gift to our daughters.

Susan DiMickele said...

What a powerful story. Some things only come through experience. Love your blog!

Rita Arens said...

I love this post. I'm linking to it from the BlogHer Own Your Beauty facebook wall.

Not Just Another Jennifer said...

Thank you all for the positive feedback. I was really nervous about posting something that has been so difficult for me to face.

Lori - What a beautiful, inspirational note. Thank you.

Susan - I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

Rita - I would be honored!

Miss. Candy said...

This is an amazing post and hit home in so many ways!! I was that same girl...the one the boys played with and couldn't figure out how to fit in. Once in high school I decided to be "girly", put on a form fitting dress, makeup, etc. It was a horrible experience...the kids teased me, accused me of stuffing my self (the dress had a built in bra that made things appear larger). I still struggle with my looks. I have the same type of hair as you, thick, unruly and THANK GOD for products and good flat iron! I went on DR. Phil about two year ago for a makeover to get out of my pj and ponytail look. It inspired me, but after time I went back to being me! I feel like there are two MEs now. The one who can dress up and "wow" and the one who likes sweats, a ponytail and no makeup.

I am just glad my husband loves the REAL me!

Thank you for sharing this. I thought something was wrong with me for my feelings...good to see I am not alone.

Unpolished Parenting said...

What a beautiful and honest post. The man I love tells me he that I'm hot and sexy and beauitful and I always laugh him off. I don't think I'll ever measure up to society's definition of beautiful, but I have a husband who thinks the world of me and a daughter who will hopefully see what your daughter sees in you. & if that doesn't sound good enough at the end of the day, then I don't deserve it. Truly a great post.

Not Just Another Jennifer said...

Thanks, D!

Not Just Another Jennifer said...

Miss Candy, That's so encouraging to hear! I love that you still like sweats, a ponytail and no makeup. Me, too! And we are so blessed to have found husbands who love us like that.

KLZ said...

I don't know a single woman who hasn't felt all of this.

Those who claim not to? Are liars.

I'm sure of it.

I love you for who you are. And I'm genuinely jealous of your twitter avatar every day. I kid you not.

Not Just Another Jennifer said...

You are too sweet. Yes, that was a photogenic moment! :0)

~SHANNON~ said...

What a beautifully written post. I can definitely identify with what your saying. And I sometimes go a whole day before I realize I never looked in a mirror or thought about my appearance since becoming a mom. And while that is welcome relief from years of obsessing- I agree that its so important for moms to embrace their own beauty- so we can pass that on to our daughters. Great blog post:)

Annie said...

What a beautiful and precious post! I, too, have always struggled with my looks. Having 3 girls and only 1 boy -- I constantly worry about the girls developing unhealthy self-images. Ugh!

Not Just Another Jennifer said...

Thank you so much! Yes, I'm sure boys aren't easier to raise than girls, per se, but I feel like if I'd had boys I wouldn't worry about some of the same things with them.

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