Once, when I was at the very apex of my teenage awkwardness, I asked my mother if I was ugly. The question seemed to annoy her.
“Why would you ask that?” she said. I shrugged my shoulders. How could I tell her that I spent at least 20 minutes a day trying to decide how to part my hair? How could I admit that Rachel Kiser laughed at me last week because I said “good morning” when it was really afternoon? How could I explain that every standard I knew for “handsome” or even “average” excluded pudgy Chinese kids with zero fashion sense and a haircut their father gave them to save money?
“Well,” she finally said, with a little puff of exasperation, “if you don’t know you look fine by now, there’s not much use in me telling you.”
At the time, I thought that was a complete cop-out. But now that I have kids of my own, I understand her frustration. And over the years, I’ve heard of many similar responses that other parents give in the same situation:
“You’re pretty enough.”
“Why does it matter?”
And of course: “Well, you’re beautiful to me.”
In a world where physical beauty matters way more than you think it should, how do you talk to your children about their appearance? How do you teach them that it’s not what really matters, but still give them enough confidence to walk up to Rachel Kiser in a middle school hallway and ask her to the next dance?
Full disclosure here: In my completely unbiased opinion, my two daughters are the most beautiful creatures who have ever walked on this, or any, planet. But I almost never comment on their appearance. I comment on their work ethic, and their kindness, and their problem-solving ability, and their sense of humor. But I’ve never been comfortable telling them how beautiful they are. And when someone else comments on it, I immediately change the subject.
The problem here is that, while their physical beauty is the last thing I want them to care about, it’s likely to have a sizable impact on their lives. Attractive people are favored in job interviews, in social situations, and as one study showed, even in a court of law. Physical beauty gets you a seat on the subway, a date to the prom, and entrance into that new dance club with the long line out front. It even raises average income.
Given those facts, why not maximize our kids’ beauty with every resource we have? Why not growth hormones for little boys and breast implants for little girls? Why not plastic surgery and tanning salons and fashion consultants starting at the age of 2? The answer is simple. Physical beauty has absolutely no correlation with the one thing that really matters: happiness. As a matter of fact, there’s anecdotal evidence that beauty and happiness don’t always mix.
Do you remember those pretty, popular kids back at your high school? How many of them peaked right then and kind of sputtered out as adults? And have you ever met one of those beautiful women who worries that no one will ever see past her façade, and wonders what will happen when her beauty fades? Beauty dazzles everyone, but it’s only a shell, and on some level no one is more aware of that than the person trapped inside of it. Pity the beautiful person who never feels deeply known, because there’s a good chance that they will never feel deeply loved.
So what do we do when our kids come to us with those questions? Am I handsome? Am I plain? Am I pretty? Am I hideous? As with so much of parenting, what really counts may not be what we say, but what we do. We can tell them with our words that they are a fine and handsome specimen of a human being. But with our actions, we can also show them that there are far more important things to worry about.
When you praise your kids, do you tell them how cute they look, or how brave and determined they are? Do you fuss over which clothes they wear, or over which books they choose at the library? And most important of all, when they watch their parents move through the world, do they see us as confident, vibrant human beings who are comfortable in our own skins? Or do they see us neurotically obsessing about the way we look?
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that may be so. But it’s also in the head of the behold-ee. And as parents, we are at least partly responsible for our children’s beautiful minds — and even more so for our own.
Jeff Lee is more or less pretty enough in Seattle.