Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Start somewhere, even today

For Paul, because I'm still learning (with so much thanks).

This morning as I bent my head down to kiss Ava's forehead to wake her, I whispered "Hello, my beautiful girl. How did Mama get such a beautiful girl to call her own?" Ava's eyes fluttered awake and as I came into focus, she smiled and said "It's because you're beautiful, Mama. Where did you think the genes came from?"

"Oh, sweet girl," I said, "Mama is..." and stopped, hearing in my mind what I was going to say next.

What was I going to say next?

I was going to say something to deflect the compliment. I was going to say anything that would deflect what she had just said. "Mama is...old? smarter than she is pretty? not beautiful?"

Instead, I smiled at her and said "Mama is so thankful for that compliment, bug. I love hearing that you think I am beautiful, it means so much to me that you tell me things that you appreciate about me." Because here is this fantastic, powerful, beautiful, creative, light-filled 10 year old who doesn't get that it's not ok to think that you are beautiful, that acknowledging physical beauty is fraught and full of connotations. And, at the very end of the day, she hears time and again that we look so much alike. Who is lying, then, if I deny her compliment, her or me?

I struggle with this question of beauty, the inclination for my girl to watch herself dancing in the mirror, the tossing of the mane of hair, the emphasis on her looks. She's confident across the board: smart brain, kind personality, giving heart, beautiful face. But there is this narrow line of humility that needs to run the border between confidence and arrogance that I feel as a parent I need to enforce, lest this get out of hand. Or is there? Perhaps it's just all my own conditioning now brought to roost in my shaping of this bright soul's opinion about herself. What am I supposed to do?

Years ago, a friend told me about an experience she had with two trusted and lovely friends. My friend is a smart, beautiful, clever, funny, hardworking and talented woman. At this stage in her life, she was already professionally successful in her mid-twenties, working hard and being recognized for the great things she brought to the table. If memory serves me, her friends were running a workshop about messages that women receive about themselves and wanted to work through an exercise where they each made a list of loving truths they believed about my friend. They then sat on either side of her and whispered these loving truths in each ear, one at a time. I think she told me that she made it through maybe 5 rounds before she could no longer stand the urge to reach up and shield her ears, finally asking them to stop, tears streaming down her face.

Maybe it was because we were in our mid-20s, but I sat nodding at her reaction, my skin prickling at the discomfort.

The truth is that I think women want nothing more to than to be truly seen by the people we love and who love us. We want to that inner light to rush to our eyes because we are able to be vulnerable. We want to feel that warm comfort of trust. We want to be beautiful, not only in the manifestation of someone digging our physical form (in whatever form that may be), but beautiful in the most all-encompassing way: heart, mind, soul and personality. Stop a woman on the street and pay her a compliment and watch the smile radiate from her face. These safe, single-serve intersections put a lift in anyone's stride that lasts hours. But go deep with a friend about how much you love and appreciate her, how you love how she walks in the world, how you think she's physically beautiful and watch her squirm or, typically, deny.

It seems the only way around this is exposure therapy: the relentless and targeted exposure of authentically admiring the beauty in the women we love. It's a text to your friend highlighting something that you admire. It's a phone call where you say, with your words, that you find something about her beautiful ("cute" has no space in this exercise...puppies and kittens are cute). It's the letter you write to tell her why you think her being on this earth matters to you, why her relationship with you matters or is important. And then there is the conversation over drinks, looking into her eyes (friend to friend, lover to lover, mother to daughter, etc), where you get to say these things and react to one another in a physical way.

Exposure to her own goodness, in varying degrees of intimacy, from someone she loves.

I had this sort of experience with a friend years ago, at a time in my life where I felt lost, alone, and less of myself than I had been in years. This friend made it his job to show me to myself, to bring me back to an understanding of what I could mean to people, to boost me back up on the path. This is his gift, a source of encouragement for many people I know. I also know he saved my life in many ways by this simple gift of sharing with me the bright light he saw in me.

So who is that 10 year old inside of you that all too quickly learned to stop trusting her belief in her own beauty? And how can you love and encourage that confident 10 year old in others? Because we all love the love, even if it's at different levels and with different layers of security keeping us safe. But it's good to start somewhere, even today.