Today I'm thinking about a conversation the internet had about a year ago. It's about whether you should tell your daughter she's beautiful. I don't know if I have anything ground breaking to add, but I do feel like I have a perspective that I haven't seen in my reading on the topic. My daughter was born with a complete bilateral cleft lip and palate. Within a year she'd had surgeries to close both, but because the condition is complicated she is facing roughly five more surgeries between now and the age of nineteen.
The most obvious marker of her condition now, and likely as she gets older, is that she has scars on her upper lip where the cleft was sewn together. The surgeon did a great job, but with the skin being what it is there will always be a scar. It's noticeable and people ask about it. Sometimes they're nice, and sometimes they're not. Most of the questions are innocent interest. I don't know if I wish they would, or if I wish they wouldn't. What I do know is that she'll always have the scar.
So far, in her four years, it doesn't seem like it's had an effect on her ability to make friends. Maybe it has and I just don't know, but she's never mentioned any teasing.
I don't worry about her growing up and finding love. I am sure that she'll do just as well in that regard as any of us. I do worry about the time leading up to that. I worry about how she sees herself. I worry about how she'll handle the comments when they do come, which they will. I was called ugly a lot when I was kid. It really stuck with me. I worry that she'll face comments about her face, or about how she talks, her condition gives her a slight speech impediment. I worry about how her self image will be shaped by other people. So I tell her she's beautiful.
I tell her this almost every day. It's not the only thing I tell her. I also tell her that she's a hard worker, and that she can accomplish anything if she works at it. I don't tell her she's smart, because I do believe in the dangers of that and how it impacts how kids face challenges. But I praise her for her efforts and her improvements. I love her artistic side. I love her compassion and her imagination. I tell her all of this.
I also tell her she's beautiful, because if she doesn't hear it from me, and she doesn't hear it when she turns up at school for the first time, will she ever really believe it? I know she may not grow up to be a model, but she's got good looking parents so I know she's got a good shot to be beautiful to someone the way my wife is beautiful to me (and me to my wife). But I want my daughter to believe it. I want her to internalize how beautiful she is. I don't want her to feel like she has to put up with any crap just because she feels like she's not like other girls.
I also know that my ability to really control or influence any of this is minimal. There's a better than zero chance that she won't believe me. All the other voices will drown me out and she'll do what many teenagers do at some point, she'll think I'm an idiot and that my words aren't as important or as informed as the rest of the world. Or she'll think I'm biased, or "just saying that." I also know that self image is much more complicated than this one issue. And I know that if I raise her right in other ways the issue of looks won't loom as large for her as it does for me in my own head right now.
But I also think we do a disservice when we pretend looks don't matter. Sure, they don't matter in many ways, or shouldn't. As a society we tell people that looks don't matter and that if looks matter to you then you're shallow or cruel. Then we go out and do all the things that we do around beauty and celebrity and fashion. Looks matter. They matter to kids, and they matter to adults. I know this because I grew up always having the wrong clothes, or the wrong hair, and being called ugly. It affected me. It affected how I viewed myself, and how I interacted with the world. Maybe you think that makes me shallow, or weak. I don't think it does. I was raised to look past my exterior, and in some ways that came back to bite me. I don't want that for my little girl, who is so interested in being a beautiful princess despite my efforts to steer her towards baseball and super heroes.
I'm not worried about her growing up and being shallow or self centered or lazy because she thinks her beauty is her most important quality. With her scars, I'm worried about the opposite. I'm worried that she'll grow up seeing herself the way the meanest and shallowest of her classmates tell her they see her.
My daughter is beautiful. I know it. I want her to know it too.
UPDATE: Here is a video clip of my reading of Beauty at the Dad 2.0 Summit in February, 2016.