One of the wonderful nuggets I borrowed from my mother-in-law before she died is the quirk of describing bad behavior as "ugly". As in, "do not throw your toast on the floor, that is ugly!" It has saved me from calling behavior (or the perp) "bad" or "stupid", both words I try not to use in my parenting.
But it has opened up another great conversation for me with my kids about looks vs. actions. My daughter, age 4, often asks me if what she is wearing is "beautiful". My standard response is "your behavior makes you beautiful, sweetheart, but that dress is pretty on you." This works for now, in these confidence-infused preschool years. She still believes me and doesn't really question the difference between "pretty" and "beautiful".
A young pal of mine has been struggling with this distinction recently. She is the offspring of a bi-racial marriage and, as so often biracial kids are, she is a gorgeous girl, with creamy tan skin and hair that can do just about anything, from cloud-like to curly to Breck-girl straight.
She's also a pre-teen, which means that she's surrounded by pre-teen girls who are, as a general rule, ugly. I do not mean this in a physical sense, but rather as my mother-in-law would use the term. They are mean, insensitive, hateful, vitriolic. And so my little friend, with her can't-be-boxed-in genetic makeup, has been the recent target of some nastiness.
It steams me. Seriously. I'm not even her mother and I wanted to find the little turds and clobber them. This is, of course, not helpful in the least, so I reminded her (through her mom) that she's made by a God who doesn't make mistakes. It won't help right now, but maybe when she's a grown up she'll remember that good folks had her back and she'll remember to be beautiful, not just pretty.
But hearing about her struggle reminded me of my own ugliness. These days, a few years beyond my own pre-teen angst, I turn my ugly behavior to the woman I put eyeliner on every morning, berating myself for the extra chips and queso I chowed down the previous night, scowling at the road map of stretch marks crawling across my abdomen, grousing about my sub-standard wardrobe and scarred knees.
I am my own mean girl.
I'm not alone in this. It's true of many women I know. I have friends that are kind, loving, supportive and helpful to one another and seriously hateful to themselves. We nitpick and judge. We compare our 30-something selves to our 20-something selves, never favorably.
I've internalized the voices that I heard as a middle schooler. I never thought it would happen. I'm a feminist, after all. I have a daughter, after all. I know better. I know about skin-deep and behavior and scars are a sign of a life well-lived and stretch marks are trophies and all that BS. But as I really start to age and my body starts to show the hard wear I've inflicted on it, running, babies, sun, etc, my mean girl comes out. It is as hard to admit as it is to live through.
The two practices that I find myself working toward in recent years are balance and gentleness. I achieve neither on a regular basis, but I get them each from time to time. And over and over, I find gentleness is much easier to practice on others. Much much harder to offer it to myself. So I'm going to work on pointing gentleness back in my own direction from time to time.
I do, after all, practice beauty. I am--often even-- beautiful, even when I'm not so pretty. In truth, much like what I tell my kids, I would rather be beautiful-- kind, just, gentle, strong, compassionate-- than pretty. Beauty lasts while, as I am learning, pretty doesn't. I want both. I can't always have them. But I can choose beauty, just like I'm teaching my kids to do, but I can direct it to myself.
Recently, the previously mentioned 4-year-old said to me-- while I was putting on makeup, no less-- "Mommy, you are beautiful." To be honest, I was only half listening in the mad rush of the morning get-er-done. "Thank you, sweetheart," I said, distractedly. "You're beautiful because you love me," she contiued, "And that's beautiful behavior." And right there in the bathroom, with a towel on my head, in my old holey bathrobe, she was right. The opportunity that I have to love that kid does make me more beautiful. Scars and all.
She gets it. For now. Now I'm the one that needs to remember the lesson, to store it up for the days that are surely coming when I've GOT to get over my own petty pretty complex in order to bear her up when some other little girl tells her that her legs are too short, her hair is too brown, her smile is too wide. I'll have to remind her that she is beautiful because she loves me, and that's beautiful behavior, even if she's having a hard time loving herself. It won't be enough to counteract the pre-teen turds around her, but it might teach her a lesson in gentleness and beauty that she can put to use a few years later.