It’s not that I hated how I looked, really. It’s just that after a while, it was hard to be judged, and not start co-signing the judgments. Maybe my skin was a little too dark. My hair a little too kinky. My affinity for books and dolls and sewing a little too nerdy. My butt and hips a little too big for a kid my age.
I wasn’t perfect.
Plenty of folks — mostly adults — stood at the ready to remind me of this. Picking on kids and their flaws was, like, a thing for the grown-ups in my life. Adult cousins thought nothing of saying I shouldn’t play in the sun because I was “dark enough as it is”; my mom’s grown friends often clucked that the chlorine from the pool would make my hair “even nappier.” One woman, the mother of my best friend, made a point of telling me every time she saw me that I was “getting fat.”
Even my parents criticized. My mother, God bless her, actually used to make me walk backward on my butt, claiming that it would help it get flatter. And she and my dad contributed to my social awkwardness by making sure that the time I spent hanging with friends and going to parties and interacting with other teenagers was slim to nil.
Though the cousins and friends and even my girls’ mom should have known better than to poke fun at a child’s expense, I can’t fault my ‘rents — won’t. Though it hurt like hell and made me feel extremely self-conscious about my body, at a gut level, I can honestly say that now that I’m a parent, I understand the method to my mom and dad’s madness; the more I felt uncomfortable with myself, the less chance some boy would come sniffing around their daughter, taking her head out of the books and leading her down a dangerous path of pathology they weren’t prepared to deal with: teen sex and pregnancy, drug abuse, poor education, etc. Being nerdy, awkward, and self-conscious would serve me well, keep me focused and out of trouble.
But the bruises from the constant blows to my self-esteem took years of undoing. Years. I still struggle with loving me completely — find it hard, some days, to look in the mirror and really appreciate who I’ve become. On those tough days, I remind myself through my writings. Or I head to the store to get something pretty, something to make me feel good.
Mostly, though, I focus on making sure that my girls never, ever look at themselves in the mirror and wish they were something other than what they are. I once gave some choice words and the month-long silent treatment to a close relative for telling my Mari her hair was “nappy.” And the moment people fix their mouths to make a big deal out of the differences in my daughters’ skin color and hair texture, I warn them not to go there. I give the side-eye to anyone who dares comment on how “bootylicious” Mari’s become, or how thin Lila is. Like, seriously? Stop looking at my 10-year-old’s ass. And my 7-year-old doesn’t need you asking how much she weighs. It’s none of your business.
Mostly, though, my husband and I build a fortress of self-esteem around our daughters, reinforced with assurances that they’re perfect just the way God made them. That their hair is healthy, their bodies are strong, their skin is as rich as a perfect chocolate kiss, that their noses and their eyes and their lips and their smiles light the Heavens.
That they are…beautiful.
Ask Mari and Lila? They’ll tell you the same.
This is not about creating conceited, mean girls who think they’re better than anyone else (the world has enough of those to go around, huh?). It’s about making sure that just as they appreciate how smart/strong/thoughtful/helpful/sweet they are on the inside, they like their physical selves, too.
Just they way they are.
This is something I didn’t learn until well into adulthood, well after I became a mom. I don’t want my daughters to wait that long to love every inch of themselves. If this essay is any indication, my little Lila is well on her way. Check out the essay she wrote as part of a school-wide PTA arts competition in which entrants were asked to give their artistic take on the theme, “Beauty is…” Here’s what my baby wrote (the picture is an illustration she whipped up for the essay). *Dabs at eyes, pats heart, leaps for joy!*
I love me because I am beautiful. I love everything on my body. I like my smile most of all. It is the prettiest thing in the whole world. I will not let anyone treat me the way I don’t want to be treated. Also I will not let anybody touch me in private places on my body. Also I would like to say I’m not just beautiful on the outside, I’m also beautiful on the inside. I’m smart, I’m good, I’m sweet, I’m helpful to others, and I’m strong.
And I’m happy to be me.