Last summer when I found my 13-year old daughter crying her eyes out because she hated the way she looked in her swimsuit, my heart fluttered between sadness, indignation and, quite honestly, bewilderment. I’d never seen Alex emanate a shred of self-consciousness about her figure before. A muscular-build (not fat, not stick-thin and still adorable in a tankini), something apparently made her feel like avoiding the public pool. And she was willing to give up a day of fun in the sun because she felt ashamed of her figure.
So it began. The inevitable lack of confidence every female feels at sometime in her life. That moment when we realize that we can never be "pretty enough."
Even though I convinced her that day to put on the suit and have fun splashing around with her buddies, we haven't squelched the insecurities. It frustrates me beyond belief because I can’t believe this girl won’t see herself as anything but beautiful. She simply responds with a - "But you're my mom. Of course you think that."
As a little girl, I looked forward to watching every pageant that was televised. And God bless my mother, but I remember her emphasizing the importance of posture, dieting and exercise if “you ever wanted to look like any of those women”. (Don’t get me wrong,she was even more encouraging of my academic studies so I could make something of myself.) My mother was (and is) a very pretty lady. And as I think back, there wasn’t ever a time when I didn’t believe that being beautiful wasn’t important.
Baby fat was a concern early on. And by the time I reached high school, I had given up school lunches. An apple, a granola bar and a diet coke became my meal plan. It kept my weight at a dainty 95 pounds. Once I zoomed off to college and quickly found the “freshman fifteen,” it was swiftly noted. Easily swayed by any overt opinion, I restarted my starvation techniques and took up jogging. In no time at all, I was dipping below 95 pounds. Pretty skeletal for a 5’5” frame.
Eventually, I found my way back to a healthy weight and a healthy attitude. But now, as I raise my girl, I wonder how I got myself into that predicament - and how she can avoid the same unhealthy attitude.
Of course I don't blame my parents. They are loving, kind people who only ever wanted the best for me. They were most likely unaware of my eating disorder. And I can only assume that they unintentionally bought into the wrong kind of message - a message that has spanned the ages: Women need to look beautiful. Always.
And what do beauty pageants teach girls? Some may argue beauty pageants are changing - it’s not about the bikini or the evening gown competition anymore. It’s more about charisma and intelligence. Really? Then let’s just have some fire and brimstone debates. Maybe we could throw in a few speeches with topics like the 19th Century Women’s Movement! I’d love to see a pageant like that. Oh, and the dress code? Who cares. I’d vote for t-shirts and jeans. Loose-fitting, of course.
I want my daughter to understand that she is beautiful -exactly the way she is. Of course, she needs to respect her body - treat it well. Exercise and eat right, but don’t make it something it’s not. Most importantly, I want my daughter to dream real dreams. No silly beauty pageants. Real life stuff. Using her acumen and her own agenda, I want Alex to know that she can make a difference in the world without having to wear more mascara.