“Pretty’s not a pie that there’s only so much of…”
That’s how I began a book I wrote for my daughter when she was 5. She was beginning to experience the subtle peer messaging that is aimed at how we look and as she was my 4th child and 3rd daughter, this wasn’t my first go ‘round with this.
The book was inspired by a preschool field trip I chaperoned to a local art museum. In front of beautiful, ageless works of art, I saw the wonder in her eyes cloud over. Her face fell as she spoke with a classmate. After the tour, she asked me for a hair brush because a little girl, with a perfect blonde bob, had remarked that she, herself, was pretty because she had brushed her hair.
There, among the rich array of artwork hung side by side, not for comparison, but for admiration, my priceless little creation felt worth less. From infancy, our emotional health does not depend upon beauty that is in the eye of a beholder but in the answer of our cries to be held. I knew that a quick hug and an attempt to minimize the message would lift her mood but I knew from handling it (incorrectly, for the most part) with her older siblings that I had the opportunity to build her immune system. Unfortunately, It doesn’t take long for the constancy of unconditional love to falter in the face of the constant social media definition of “acceptable” once she is exposed. I wanted to her know that she got to define, for herself, what beauty was and how she would present that to the world.
“You get a piece of pretty every time that you give love”
Words that I hoped a 5 year old could make sense of. That was 6 years ago and the story I documented for her then is still valid, but, just like there is always room for pie, there is always room for improvement… this time, though, it was for me.
At 56, in the midst of launching a website and business strategy that includes “being seen”, I have been working on building my confidence and formulating my message which is based in acceptance and unconditional love. After spending years deconstructing the layers of messages, I realized that the introspective manner in which I processed them with was the problem. How can beauty exist in the eye of the beholder when I am the one being held hostage by standards that had been defined by me?
To answer that, I asked someone I love dearly and trust completely to help me redefine my “presentation” of self because I was struggling. I knew he would be patient with me. I knew he would listen and look past the inevitable tears that would come as I worked through this vulnerable moment when the resistance to change was so great. As an accomplished photographer, he is a master at crafting a visual story and his ideas for how to tell mine tapped into something that was both liberating and debilitating.
It felt frivolous to ask him to invest time on this and petty to still be focusing on how I look “at my age”. But, I am human and not immune to the not-so-subtle peer messaging that we subject ourselves to, voluntarily, every day on social media. I am no longer young and as I work on shedding the constructs of my past, my external style choices and appearance had to go through the same process. Cleaning out the closets forced me to dispose of the wardrobe items that didn’t, literally, fit but when I hadn’t yet defined who I wanted to be, how could I decide what fit “me”?
I mean, I have purses that are older than my oldest daughter. For those of you trying to do the math in your head, I’ll save you the trouble — she’s 28. For the record, the purses are Coach… a timeless style and quality that holds up, still today. My closets were full, not just with purses and shoes, but with memories and hopes for who I would be when I used them and who I was had always been defined in relation to another. I was a middle child dressed to match my siblings and I chose to dress like a gypsy when allowed to choose. I was a mother who was complimented once, for looking “age appropriate” in relation to my teenage daughters. I was woman who was aware that what she wore to fundraisers or parties or family gatherings would be judged for whether she was overdressed or over made up. I am now a woman who wants to dress to please herself and no longer feel that my acceptance, anywhere, is in question.
The anxiety that came from seeking approval used send me in search of personal transformation via the magic of Zappos. After all, the messaging from childhood tales was that just the right shoes would give me confidence to walk in “that” room. That room, in any building, any where, that still makes me feel as if I am standing at the corner of the high school cafeteria, hoping that someone will ask me to sit with them before choosing, instead, to sit alone.
“I’m glad about your weirdness, it makes you just like me. I know that’s kind of crazy if different is all you see”.
I stopped looking for shoes when I began repaving the path I was on and that journey was now stalled due to the disconnect between what I was telling my daughter and what I was telling myself. I wrote her a book that celebrated her beauty because of the way she related to others, not in relation to others. Its aim was to foster compassion, not comparison. I knew better than to compare myself to the models next to me on Instagram. What I could not know was that I was really still comparing myself to me. The me I used to be. I don’t long to recapture the years I spent learning all of these lessons but I do find myself wishing those lesson plans hadn’t written themselves, so evidently, across my brow.
I am old enough to be my youngest daughter’s grandmother and the parents of her peers could be my children. I am traveling and trying new things and meeting new people and while it’s not something I try to hide, I know I am usually the oldest one there. Energetically, I don’t feel any different from the inside out. I am strong and fit and feel great. So, it shouldn’t matter. But, it does… and in accepting that it mattered, I had to sort my thought process with the same filter that I sorted my closet, discarding not only what doesn’t fit, but what will not support the life I want to lead. The vintage coach purses get to stay. The baggage has to go.
Every self help book I have read along with every life coach, teacher or therapist that I have spoken with, either on a personal or professional basis, uses the same words. Self Acceptance. Self Forgiveness. Self Care. Unconditional love. I have willingly placed my faults and mistakes under a magnifying glass so that I could break the patterns of bullying and abuse and bad choices and it has been a worthwhile, empowering process. But doing that same thing to my appearance in anticipation of building “my brand” was as horrifying as looking into a lighted, magnifying mirror for the first time. The display of enlarged pores and crows feet is something I long to unsee.
“So, if pretty was a pie, everyone would have a slice. To write our lives with happy words really would be nice”
Just as I went to experts to help rebuild my self esteem and my business, I went to an expert to reframe my self image. His creative process was exhilarating. On the fly, he took the props I brought with me and wove them into the setups in his studio. The significance of the individual pieces became a puzzle that became a picture of who I am still becoming. As we progressed through the shoot, he used everyday items lying around his studio to purposefully carve light and shadow around me. I marveled at the process and his personal focus. And I stopped worrying about what the results would be. In the acceptance of what this experience was, I began to appreciate who I was. The beauty of this moment was that it was just a slice of my life that was possible because of the whole of it.
I realize, today, that it’s the story I told myself that was at odds with the picture I had of my future. In building up my daughter, I did not use words like “acceptance” and “unconditional” because the words, themselves, imply that confidence comes in spite of curly hair instead of because of it. It was in that same spirit that I let a stripe of gray grow into my reddish brown hair — a design choice that made that silver streak even brighter, in relation. It wasn’t my appearance that needed to change… it was my description of it.
Just like my daughter’s hair-brush-defying, humidity-fueled curls represented her boundless spirit, my silver streak is representative of my white-hot flashes of inspiration that have become experience that defies expectation. I don’t HAVE to set new goals. I GET to.
As she readies herself for middle school next year, she will see me model an appreciation for not only the breathtaking diversity of beauty we see in the people around us, but also the breadth and depth of beauty and strength within us. Not only to accept the inevitable changes that are inherent in the process, but to appreciate them.
“Hold beauty, joy and kindness most important, above all. How you are can change the world… Dream big while starting small”
She is still growing. I guess I am, too.