I can’t recall my mother ever telling me I was pretty when I was a kid.
I know she thought so, but I don’t remember her saying full out, “Helena, you are beautiful.” She wasn’t like Viola Davis’ character in “The Help.” Instead of paying lip service to those characteristics she wanted written on my heart, my mother showed me she meant them with a living mantra.
She let me make decisions. To this day, I remember the pride I felt at five being allowed to pick exactly what went into our basket every single time we went to the grocery store. It made me feel appreciated and as though my opinion actually mattered.
My mother clapped hardest at every dance recital and agreed loudly when other people praised me, but she rarely handed out her own gold stars. When someone else said I’d be a heart breaker when I grew up, she’d joke about me not being allowed to date ever, but she never initiated that sort of praise.
It was an outward thing that I just took as a given but never internalized as important to my self-confidence, which by definition comes from self. I don’t know if she was trying that weird reverse psychology that says if you tell a kid they’re smart too often they won’t work as hard, but it worked.
So when I read the gorgeous letter writer Emma Johnson wrote to her daughter — who also happens to be named Helena — I was pleasantly surprised by how straightforward it was. In it, Johnson tells her little girl straight up that she is beautiful — not because of her physical characteristics, but because of something intangible, which is something I’m positive little girls need to hear. But what I found most interesting about Johnson’s letter was the advice she gave her Helena about men:
“And when some man lets you know that, no, sorry, you’re really great and all, but you are not beautiful, you need to know that has nothing at all to do with you. Not one thing. It has something to do with that man because he cannot see. And because you are beautiful you will be kind to him — because in all your beauty you will have that kindness and love to share.
And then you will go.”
Johnson recounts the tale of a man she once dated who didn’t find her beautiful and how she in turn began internalizing his lack of praise and felt ugly. She then lets her child know that a man who ever does this to her isn’t worth keeping and, obviously, I totally agree.
Still, it got me to thinking about the intersections of young women, self-confidence, outward praise and stable relationships.
Before any man told me I was beautiful, I thought I was. I know this isn’t the case for most girls or even grown ass women. I actually can’t remember the first time a boy said I was pretty. In high school, a senior told me I looked like the star of Spike Lee’s “Girl 6,” a movie about a phone sex operator.
In college, someone once referred to me as “the pretty one.” A few years ago, I went on a date with this one guy who kept saying, “You’re so fucking beautiful,” in the most aggressive all-the-better-to-wear-your-skin-like-a-bathing-suit type way. But aside from random strangers on street corners, not many men had told me to my face that I was pretty.
I took this picture for a local DC paper and Ike was cheering me on from the sidelines the whole time.
That is until I met Ike, the ink to my pen, who breathes out compliments like carbon dioxide. His nickname for me is “fancy” or “pretty” and when he says those words, I know he’s taking to me and only me.
Thing is, I never thought that was important before I was getting it on the regs. I mean I’ve been in relationships with men who I know for a fact thought my lip gloss was popping but when a man (or woman) sincerely thinks you’re “beautiful because of that thing –- that perfect thing inside of you” as Johnson perfectly puts it, it does feel very different. And terrifying.
Because if I’ve built my own Lego castle of self-esteem complete with a moat for all the dum dums who didn’t realize how bomb I was and then some compliment conquistador comes ’round to plant the flag, is the place still mine? Of course it is, but damn if it ain’t a little scary to let someone in.
Do you remember the first time someone you actually gave a crap about called you beautiful and really meant it? How’d it make you feel? Good butterflies or bad butterflies?