Ben Martin wants his kids to feel attractive, but wants them to value inner beauty more.
In the movies, one of the markers of being a good dad is telling the kids about who’s beautiful.
I have no data to back this claim.
Still, I feel like I’ve seen it a lot in popular culture, which surely can’t be wrong. On TV, the good dad always tells his daughter how beautiful she is and/or tells the kids how beautiful their mother is.
I’ve never really done this with any regularity, and it’s nothing to do with how beautiful my family is because they’re all drop dead gorgeous. But, for whatever reason, it occurred to me recently that I should maybe think about this. And when I say it occurred to me, “for whatever reason”, what I mean is “for the simple reason that I worry about all the things all the time, for no reason.”
Regardless, I started thinking about it. Here’s what I realized.
I didn’t grow up in a home where this was done. I don’t really remember my dad telling my sister or my stepmother that they looked beautiful. I don’t remember being told I looked handsome very often, which is really shocking because my wife says I’m quite a looker. I remember a couple of quick, “lookin’ sharp” type statements, but nothing that would’ve led me to swell with pride about my body.
This isn’t meant to be an indictment of my parents or my upbringing either. It’s not like I was pining like a parrot for the fjords to be called beautiful or imagining that I must have been spawned from a family of ogres, so ugly that physical appearance was best off not being mentioned. In fact, I’m sympathetic to their approach even today.
The always-implied, and perhaps even occasionally stated, rationale for the lack of beauty-based compliments in my childhood was that “it’s what’s inside that matters.” I like that approach. I’ve met kids who get all their self-esteem from feeling attractive and they’re 1) irritating and 2) often a little bit creepy.
Here’s the thing about that proverb though: I believe it to be true, and I know it to be false.
In my philosophy, people’s physical attractiveness is completely unrelated to their worth. In my experience, people’s physical attractiveness is completely unrelated to their goodness or intelligence or wisdom or any of the other characteristics that I find more important than physical beauty.
It’s also true that my experience has shown me that physical attractiveness is often related to self-worth. People often use it as an indicator of goodness and intelligence, albeit spuriously. The entertainment and advertising industries have made themselves mountains of cash slinging stories of beautiful, virtuous princesses and horribly disfigured villains and putting attractive people next to stupid products. Studies show that the attractive people get the job, the benefit of the doubt, and the pay raise. Whether it’s rational or not, appearance affects how people perceive others. And the way people perceive “others” tends to affect how those “others” think of themselves.
Oh, and that’s another thing! I’ve met plenty of beautiful people who don’t believe that they’re beautiful. Just being attractive isn’t enough to feel attractive. That’s because attractiveness is mostly a social construct (meaning that it’s a sort of subjective, collective judgment that isn’t really based on anything tangible or … real). You’ll hear people talk about body symmetry or hip/waist measurement ratios, sure. But, no matter what some assert, those things aren’t universally accepted and, even if they were, they don’t account for the vast majority of the things that we tend to judge one another’s appearances on.
No, to feel attractive, people need to feel that others find them attractive – regardless of how they look.
So, this leaves me at an impasse. I’m really happy that when my kids are proud of themselves it’s for their awesome personalities and achievements rather than for the way they look. But I worry that, if not now, then when they’re older they’re going to succumb to the pressure to measure themselves by what they look like — at least a little bit.
I want to walk a fine line. I want to continue to raise them to get their self-worth from their thoughts and feelings and the way they treat others. I also want them to take a pride in their bodies. Cartesian dualism (basically, the idea that the mind and the body are separate entities) is a myth. Our bodies are who we are and who we are is a part of our bodies. No one is attractive to everyone and everyone is attractive to someone. I want them to understand that so thoroughly that when someone tells them they’re ugly (because it happens to all of us at some point) they’ll have a strong enough sense of themselves that they’ll be able to let it go.
As a dad, I’m beginning to think that helping to give them that foundation may be as much a part of my job description as teaching them not to dismiss people for their appearance or that the pretty kid at school isn’t actually a more valuable person than they are.
So, here’s my plan. I’m going to start telling them more often how cute/pretty/handsome/etc. they are. I’m going to notice when they put a little extra effort into brushing their hair or picking out a school outfit that “matches” — even if matching means a red gingham shirt and red plaid pants.
I’m going to remark to them about other people’s beauty, too. But I’m going to do it in a way that helps them see that having a beautiful body means more than just being Hollywood ready by pointing out the ways that “ordinary” people are beautiful. Whether a person is a snappy dresser, carries herself with confidence, has a cool haircut, or whatever else, I want to show them that they don’t have to be bound by one version of attractiveness. That way, wherever they are in life, I hope they can find a version of physical beauty that they can apply to themselves.
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This article was originally published at www.afamilyinthecity.com
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