I have only recently worked out that I am, at best, a mildly pleasant-looking woman. For most of my 41 years of life, I truly believed I was gorgeous. (Of course, I’m being a little tongue in cheek.)
We can ‘blame’ my father for this. He always told me I was a beautiful person. He always built me up. I drew the so-called ‘genetic short straw’ amongst my three sisters – I’m the shortest, the allergy-prone one, and the least academic. And I knew it. My dad, acknowledging that feeling inferior can damage a person’s soul, was determined to have my back.
In fact, in our last ever conversation, he turned to one of my sisters who was laughing at my incorrect maths calculation, and said, “Not only is Nama the smartest out of all of you, she’s the most beautiful.”
God I miss that totally biased, completely delusional, loving liar.
Listen to Mia, Monz and Jessie discuss whether you should call your friends ‘beautiful’. (Post continues after audio.)
His presence is obviously wearing off, because I recently showed someone a school photo of myself, and I was stunned by how average I actually looked in my brown and blue uniform. I thought I had looked like Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I did not.
Now before you dismiss me as arrogant, let me make this clear: you can like yourself, and not think you’re better than other people. I don’t believe, and have never believed, that I am better than anyone else. But Dad knew that you can’t be a strong and powerful person if you don’t like yourself first. So he fed my soul.
Despite what my sisters will tell you, my father’s words haven’t created a monster. I’m not a narcissist who thinks she’s the only person in the room (even though I often literally am, because I’m single – but I digress).
Dad calling me beautiful also hasn’t meant that I only value myself on how I look. Because, as I explain below, I knew he wasn’t just (or even) talking about my looks.
But the words have meant that I’ve never hated myself. I can honestly tell you that I’ve never compared my appearance to another woman’s and felt inferior – because I don’t compare myself, full stop.
I’ve never thought about a crush, “Oh, I’m not good enough for him.” Even now, at middle-aged 41. I suspect my current crush is most likely not interested in me for other reasons (I can’t think what they could possibly be), but it’s never crossed my mind that it’s because he’s ‘out of my league’.
Because, you see, when my beautiful dad was telling me I’m beautiful, he was cultivating my faith in myself by feeding my soul. I was beautiful to him because he believed I was kind and funny and good.
And even though at the time I thought he was also talking about my appearance, I knew that he meant all those other things, too. I knew he was building me up, that he was nurturing my self-confidence – because the words didn’t overfeed my ego – I felt them in my heart. My father’s words always made me feel loved, supported, but more than anything else – that I was good enough, and just as good as everyone else.
There’s a very valid argument for not telling your kids they’re pretty or handsome – words that are about aesthetics. Especially for little girls, because we’ve come so far in feminism, we don’t want to encourage stereotypes about girls only being valued for their looks. But I do think that’s also in the context of not telling them anything else. If that’s the only commentary about them – their hair, or the clothes they chose – then certainly, that’s dangerous.
But if, like my dad, you tell your kids they have a beautiful smile when they tell a joke – they need to hear that.
I have a friend who still wears the scars of never being told anything positive by her parents. She is a veritable super-model, and she looks a billion bucks, but she will still quietly pull me aside at a party and say, “Nams, are you sure I look OK?”
And I stand there, half her height and twice her size, and looking twice her age (you know, the things society uses to define beauty), gobsmacked. And I know that if she had been told that she was valued in her childhood for being the beautiful person she is, she wouldn’t be asking my opinion.
So call your kids – the boys as well as the girls – beautiful and let them know what you really mean. Nourishing their souls doesn’t mean you will define them by appearance, or overfeed their egos.
Let yourself be a beautiful parent to your beautiful kids, just like my beautiful dad was to me.
Nama Winston is a writer and a recovering solicitor, who just wants us all to be nicer to each other”. You can follow her on Facebook, here.