You lay on my lap nursing in your sleep. Long and chubby, with an impossible amount of thick curly dark hair. Behind those whispy lashes are big blue eyes, and you have a prominent little nose even in infancy. A nose that will likely grow into the distinct European schnoz that my mum used to liken to a witch’s nose. Mine points slightly to the right, yours slightly to the left. I can see the shape of my jawline already forming underneath your chubby little cheeks. Your arms and legs are already ridiculously long, and you have little monkey toes on your feet. You do not dislike your body yet. No one has pointed out anything about you that is not “perfect”. You are not too fat, too thin, too tall, too short. You are seven weeks old, all of those “imperfections” come later as you grow and the world around you slowly tries to make you believe a lie about your body.
The lie is this: That your perfection or lack thereof comes from the superficial things that you see on the surface. How you look, how skinny you are, where you have curves, the size of your breasts, the daintiness of your feet, and how perfect you can look when you paint yourself with makeup.
The truth about your body is this: Beauty comes from functionality, from strength, from knowledge, from joy. Beauty is not a checklist that others tick off while appraising you for surface flaws. Beauty comes from understanding the purpose of your body, from feeling your muscles flex under your skin and knowing that you are strong, healthy, and competent. Beauty comes from confidence, confidence comes from competence, competence comes from seizing your failures or shortcomings as opportunities to learn rather than as excuses or as permanent character flaws.
Don’t “lose ten pounds” or “gain ten pounds”. Or buy a bikini that is three sizes too small. Eat to satiate your hunger. Seek healthy foods that feed your soul and your body as you eat them. Feel the strength of your jaw as you chew them, and acknowledge the energy that they give you as it moves through your body. Move, stretch your limits, do the things that are “too hard” to see if they get any easier. Walk everywhere. Feel your muscles move under your skin. Feel the strength of your bones and delight at the solid weight of your body as your feet hit the ground. Own the world. Do not ask for help for the things that you can do, but learn to do them yourself. When you say “I want to try” and someone tries to discourage you, simply smile and insist. The world is yours for the taking and you are the only one that decides if you can or cannot do something. Anyone else who tries to make this choice for you either is not your friend or has learned to distrust themselves. You do not need to take their distrust of themselves as your own.
When others profess their ugliness, or say that they need to lose ten pounds before they will wear a bathing suit, or mourn at the paleness of their skin.. When others point at spider veins in their legs, or at their bellies, their thighs, their butts. When others say “I cannot because I do not like myself”, don’t seek the same “flaws” in your body and feel that they are things you need to hide. The ugliness that others talk about is not ugliness. Ugliness is what was done to them to make them feel that they need to hide, to change, to erase bits of themselves before they can partake in the joys of life and before they can love the body that gives them so much joy and that others want them to see as a source of pain and shame.
I’ve spent most of my life hating the body that I have. Too long, too thin, too different. Too big a nose, too crooked a nose, too bushy eyebrows, too-big eyes, a prominent birthmark on my leg, too frizzy hair.
When I was told that I was having a daughter, I realized that my dislike for my body had to end. Many of the things that I have disliked about my body are going to be yours through inheritance. If you grow up hearing me shoot myself down with the words of others, you will grow up disliking yourself as much as I grew up disliking myself. I do not wish that upon anyone. At first I was resolved to just lie to you and avoid telling you the truth about how I see my body. “Fake it til you make it”. That was when I was seventeen weeks pregnant with you and had 23 weeks left until you were to be born.
During those twenty three weeks I found myself looking at myself in the mirror, looking at all my flaws. Every time I looked, I told myself all the things that I had overheard, all the things that I had heard other women say about themselves, all the things that I had heard my mother and my grandmother say about their bodies while I grew up. During those twenty three weeks I thought of you thinking those things one day, and I started saying to myself exactly the same thing that I will say to you one day: “Who told you that?” Then I looked a little bit closer. “You do know that’s a lie, don’t you?” I looked at the reasons for each of my flaws, I thought about how I would feel if I saw them on you, and I asked myself what impact those “flaws” have upon the purpose of my body.
None. None at all.
The truth about my body is this: I am strong, I am healthy, I try hard, I do many things. I am beautiful in the way that my genes have formed me to be. I can be no more, I can be no less. I can love myself for who I am, as I hope that you will love yourself for who you are, or I can live life miserable and full of self disdain. Your existence means that I no longer have a choice. In loving you, I must love myself. What’s more is that I know that you will not be an exact replica of me. I cannot look at other women through the words that society chooses to apply. I do not know if you will be larger or smaller, shorter or taller. I do not know what shape you will take. Through loving you, I look at all of the women and all of their daughters and I see nothing ugly, nothing out of shape, nothing wrong. I see many beautiful strong women who are being lied to by others about the beauty that they have, just as I was.
When you echo the words that others have chosen, I will smile and will point out the beauty of what our culture has chosen to label as “ugly”. The skinny, the fat, the large-breasted, the small-breasted, the made-up, the disheveled, the birthmarked, the pale, the suntanned, the blonde, the redheaded, the dark-skinned, the frizzy-headed. The same truth about your body also applies to them. They are beautiful because they are alive, they have life, they live, they love, they breathe, they dream. They are a miracle of living. Just as we are.
Ugly is found in the harsh judgement of the beauty of others.
Thank you for this, daughter.