For My Daughters: Leaving A Legacy of Empowerment

The word “pretty” is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine  will be contained in five letters. You will be pretty intelligent, pretty  creative, pretty amazing, but you will never be merely “pretty.” —Katie  Makkai

As a child, I ran, jumped, climbed trees and rolled down hills. I can still remember the sun on my skin and the breeze in my hair, chasing butterflies across a hillside dotted with dandelions. I remember wearing my favorite dress as soon as it was warm enough, just so I could sit in my backyard swing and go as high as my seven year old legs could take me, loving the flutter of the full skirt as I swung up and down. I remember feeling powerful and strong and lovely. Sometime between 8 and 10, that feeling of rightness within my body started to fade. The pride I took in my strong legs and sturdy arms, the joy to be had in being in my body and loving what it could do for me, started to diminish. Rising up to overshadow my own sense of worth, or even my own lack of awareness of my body as an “entity” apart from me, was a growing litany of things that were wrong.

My hair didn’t fall in smooth waves or sheets down my back; it curled or frizzed with a mind of its own. My nose was too big, my eyes were too small. My face was too round. My body was far too sturdy and muscular to ever have the delicate look that seemed to be considered beautiful. My cheeks were always so red and rosy, not porcelain and evenly colored like the pretty girls that looked like perfect china dolls.

As I grew older, the list of grievances against my body only grew longer: I was too short all over. Short legs, short waist and short stubby fingers. Of course, too short didn’t mean too small. My legs and arms were too big; my stomach wasn’t flat enough and my hips flared out ridiculously. The only thing that wasn’t big enough (other than my midget height) were my breasts: They reached a B Cup and refused to grow. My rosy cheeks continued to plague me. There were stray moments when I looked in the mirror and I thought I was pretty. When the light would catch my oddly colored golden-green eyes and the reddish gold of my curls and I would pause for a moment, surprised. There were times as an older teen I would be anxiously appraising my nude body in the mirror and realize that there was beauty in the flare of my hips from my small waist and the curve in the small of my back. My breasts weren’t large, but they were high and proud. The feeling of pride lasted as long as it took to open up a magazine, watch a movie or listen to the chatter of conversation among the women I knew.

“Did you see how big her butt was in those jeans? No wonder she always wears dresses!” “Somebody throw her a doggie biscuit!” “I’d never wear shorts if my legs looked like that.” “I can’t eat that! I don’t want to turn into a fattie!” “I’ve lost all respect for my husband for loving me while I’m this fat.” Instantly, any beauty I found in my external self was squelched by self-doubt. Girls were never just people; they were objects to be appraised and assessed, either approved or found wanting.

I spent most of my teenage years, even well into my twenties, obsessed with my appearance. My relationship with my body began to take on a duality: On the one hand, I was deeply unhappy with what I perceived as my flaws. On the other, I was receiving a lot of positive attention from the opposite sex. I was called “beautiful” and “sexy”. Boys fell over themselves asking me out (primarily boys that were not approved by my parents, but then again, that was 99.8 % of all boys). It was a balm for my ego. Unfortunately, when you don’t believe you’re beautiful, having dozens of people a week insist you are won’t actually make you believe it. My body image confidence was like a leaky tire: Being desired pumped me up for a little while, but the “leak” was never actually repaired. I would jokingly make references to “not being my own type” and try to downplay my insecurities, but I felt deeply insufficient as a human being for not being taller, thinner, more delicate, more…beautiful.

Pregnancy helped me see my body with a different lens, at least for awhile. For the first time in my life, my body felt like it was beautiful in a way beyond being decorative; I was growing life inside me. Watching the changes in my body filled me with awe and I loved showing off the shape of my round belly. Sadly, after my babies were born, it didn’t take long for me to slip back into my negative views of myself.

A few years later, my marriage began to erode and I found myself thrust into the dating world, for what was really the first time. I discovered that there were plenty of men who found my imperfect body very attractive. There were also men who wouldn’t dream of looking at me twice. How I viewed myself made a world of difference and I vowed to never voice another criticism of my weight or imperfections to a partner again. It was a small step toward gaining a bit of perspective.

However, as I began to read more books about raising girls, I started really looking around me. I saw that it was no longer enough to be “thin”; now you had to be thin and defined and curvy all at the same time. Eating disorders were starting earlier and I heard very, very young girls lament about being “fat”. “Plus size” models, only now even beginning to be used by the fashion industry, wear a size 8, while the average American woman is a size 12. I saw clothing for eight year old girls that my mother wouldn’t have allowed me to wear at fifteen. Was this what I wanted for my daughters? To be obsessed with their bodies? To feel they had to attract desire at all times, because without it they felt unworthy? Did I really want my beautiful, vibrant girls to feel like without being “pretty” they were inadequate or less-than?

I’ve spent most of my life feeling inadequate. Every relationship that has ended, my first thought has been to wonder if it was because I wasn’t attractive enough. Even now, it is a struggle for me to feel whole and confident if I leave my home in a t-shirt and jeans, with my hair in a ponytail. Why? Because my own sense of worth has been so connected to my appearance for so long , it’s hard to separate it after years of conditioning. It saddens me and it shames me to be trapped in this cycle, yet I know it is a problem I will probably struggle with the rest of my life. Yet I finally over the years have found the strongest reason in the world to continue to fight everyday to overcome the idea that I AM my physical appearance: I have two little girls who are looking to me for cues on what to think and how to feel.

I want more for my daughters than a sense of worth heavily influenced by a number on the scale, a waist size, a bra size or how white their smile is. I want them to love the feel of the sun on their arms and legs, without the instant thought that follows being, “I wonder if people think I look fat in this?” I want them to run for the sake of running, not just to burn calories, not just to fit a cliche. I want them to dance with abandon, without wondering who is looking on in approval. I want the sum of who they are to be measured by the kindness in their hearts, the clever thoughts that dance through their quick minds, the reverence with which they live their lives and the people they love and who love then in return. I absolutely want them to take pride in their appearance and enjoy the physical beauty they’ve been granted, but I want it to be the icing on the cake of a beautiful mind, heart and soul. I want them to know on a heart and gut level, not just from a place of logic, that as women their value is not measured by the number of men who desire them or women who envy them.

The word “fat” never enters my vocabulary in conversation these days; I try to not assess or critique my body in front of them at all. When they see me execising or trying to eat a little less, I tell them it is because I want to be healthier, stronger and have more energy to be able to run and play with them. At first, it was a struggle and I felt I was paying lip service to something I didn’t really believe. The longer I’ve made the effort, the more it has started to sink in and become a part of me. My body image issues aren’t gone; there are still days I feel so insecure I’d like to curl into a ball and disappear. I’m getting better at reminding myself that I am not my appearance. I am strong and kind and compassionate. I have hands that can bake cookies, bandage boo-boos, spot a fever quickly and soothe pains of the heart or the body. My legs can dance and run, or wrap around a lover in ecstacy. My hips, these rounded goddess hips that I have spent years treating with such unkindness, have been used to hold my babies or tempt my lovers. My breasts have nourished two children and provided a place for their sleepy heads. My stomach, despised for so long, was a beautiful home for the life that grew inside it. My body will never be perfect. At 38, when my body is further from the ideal standards of beauty than ever, I am less bothered by this than I’ve ever been. My body is a part of who I am, but not the sum of it by a long shot. These days, when I look in the mirror and my flaws seem to be the only thing I see, it doesn’t ruin my day. I don’t hide from the camera when my children want to take my picture; to them I am beautiful and they will one day treasure the memories in those photos. It won’t be the messy hair, the lack of makeup or the body flaws they see when they look at that photo. I hope they see a mother who was unafraid to live her life just because she didn’t meet someone else’s standard, smiling at the lens with joy and love.

I don’t delude myself that looks don’t matter; People are drawn to beauty and taking pride in your appearance is important. Yet if I can manage to raise my daughters to believe they are amazing for many reasons, desirable and worthy for more than just their looks, I will have succeeded in one of my loftiest goals. I want to leave a legacy for my children of feeling they are powerful. I may not be able to change the entire culture, but I can make a vow to try to not be part of the problem.

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3 Responses to “For My Daughters: Leaving A Legacy of Empowerment”

  1. WOW!!!!!! I wonder what percentage of American women don’t connect with this? I don’t think I know any of them. Really fantastic!!!
    Keep up the good work.

  2. I absolutely LOVE what you wrote and the inclusion of Katie’s video! Incredible! I do an empowerment program for tween/teen girls and their moms and would love to connect with you.

    • Sheira, I’d love to connect. Being a woman and having daughters, I feel very strongly about the empowerment of young women. It’s so crucial that we start to change our culture around the subjects of beauty, self-worth and sexuality. I realize changes starts with one individual, but if we can expand our circle of influence so that more people are aware of the issues, that’s even better! Feel free to email me at singlesoccermom@gmail.com; I’d love to be a part of your program. Kudos to you for trying to make a difference in the lives of young women. 🙂

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