Right around this time three years ago, I gave an inspirational speech. The die-hard seniors might remember it. It was an open letter to my then-six-year-old daughter, Adeline, about beauty. Her ninth birthday just passed, and every day that she grows into her own beauty, I know that the likelihood of her receiving messages from the world that make her question her own beauty increases exponentially. To honor her ninth birthday, I wanted to revisit my speech from a few years ago. I’ve made some updates as the years have passed, and I also want to acknowledge that although my language focuses primarily on women and girls—mainly because I am writing through the lens of being a cisgender woman and because Adeline is a cisgender girl—it is absolutely true and important to acknowledge that all genders are impacted by the harmful messages that our society sends about beauty and body standards.
Parents in the audience, take note; when I read this speech three years ago, one of the most common and heartbreaking things I heard from students afterwards was, “I wish my mother could have heard this.” I did not plan that I would be reading this on a day when parents would be joining morning reports, but I somehow wonder if it was meant to be.
An open letter to my daughter, my dear Adeline, to be delivered five years from now on her 14th birthday—or on the first day she is duped into believing that she isn’t beautiful. Unfortunately, the cards are already stacked in such a way that I already know which one of those two days will come first.
About nine years ago, I made a personal commitment to only speak words of positivity about my body and appearance. Around the same time about nine years ago, you were born. That is not a coincidence. It was a very intentional choice that I made so that I could lay the foundation to give you the gift of an opportunity that most women are unfortunately robbed of. That gift is the power to define beauty for yourself.
I did not have access to this gift as I grew up. My mother, your Grandma Anne, amazing and strong as she was before cancer took her, still did not have the skills and strength to fight against the toxic societal message that she was not beautiful. There are many things about my mother’s parenting choices that I try to emulate for you; but that is not one of them. This is why you have never heard me berate or degrade my appearance.
You have never heard me say that I’m “too____” or “not _____ enough.” You have never heard me talk about the concept of being on a diet, or needing to lose weight, count calories, or decrease carbs. When other people talk about these topics in front of you, I always follow up by reminding you that there are as many ways to be beautiful as there are stars in the sky. What you have heard me say is how beautiful, strong, creative, brave, and smart I am.
Despite my efforts to raise you with these ideals of self-love, the odds are still against you. The time is drawing near when you will receive many convincing messages that tell you that you are not beautiful, and I am petrified of that day. My miniscule efforts to give you this gift of empowerment feel futile compared to the giant tidal wave of a capitalist patriarchal society steeped in the beauty standards of whiteness that thrives and profits when we believe that we are not beautiful enough or not beautiful at all. And when society sends the message that beauty equals power, there is a significant amount of control, manipulation, and oppression taking place. As long as we allow someone else to define beauty for us, we will believe we are powerless. And as your mother, I know that my confirmation of your beauty will only be received for so long and go so far before you brush it aside as “you have to say that because you’re my mom.”
So my efforts will be focused less on telling you how beautiful you are (although, you are, and I say it all the time) and more on helping you develop the strength to grab onto your own definition of beauty and claim it as your truth.
Adeline, my promise to you is that I am doing what I can to make change, and I have started with myself. This is why I have completely eliminated speaking negatively about my own appearance. I literally have not said a negative thing about my appearance in over nine years. I place emphasis on the beauty of being playful, energetic, creative, joyful, kind, strong, and brave. That kind of beauty can’t be bought and sold or used as a bargaining chip for power. You already have that beauty, and so do the 350 amazing students I work with at Emma Willard.
Which leads me to my next step for change—empowering them to see how beautiful they are. It is April of 2021, and I am reading this letter to them to implore them to help me create a cultural shift through the powerful tool of language. I am asking them to join me in the fight to reclaim and redefine what beauty means. I am asking them to think about parts of their own appearance about which they have received negative messages of unworthiness. Is it their body shape or size? Is it their height, or bone structure, or skin clarity, skin texture, or skin color? Is it hair, teeth, hands, feet, or facial features? What parts of our bodies haven’t been attacked and picked apart? The list of perceived imperfections goes on and on.
Every woman I know can fill in the blanks of, “my _____ is not _____ enough.” This is the depth of the pervasiveness of this problem. Even the most intelligent, strong, more-than-resilient women I know can still easily fill in those toxic blanks. So I’m going revolutionary, and language can be a powerful tool in a revolution. So I’m getting the Emma students on board, and we are going to start with language. Listen carefully, students, because I need you to hear this loud and clear, in order to be a part of the beauty-reclaiming revolution.
Eliminate all negative words about one’s own appearance. If that seems too big a stretch for some, then at the very least, eliminate this kind of talk around children and especially little girls, like my daughter, Adeline, who have not yet succumbed to the messages of a society that profits off of your self-doubt.
In regards to body size, I believe that we need to stop using the word “fat” as an adjective. Fat, as it pertains to the human body, is a noun. It is something you have on your body. Like freckles. Or scars. Or armpit hair. But why on earth would I say “I am fat” when I certainly don’t say “I am freckles” or “I am armpit hair”? By using that language, we are enabling a usurping of identity. And we are all so much more than that.
Stop referring to a diet as something you are “on.” A diet is literally just the way you eat. You could be on a diet of Skittles and cotton candy. To say that you are “on” a diet implies that you can be “off” a diet. And to imply that you can be “off” a diet creates a binary of success and failure—yet another way that oppressive systems create the illusion of powerlessness particularly for women and marginalized genders. We hear it all the time—I “cheated” on my diet, or “I was so bad today.” Let’s use language that perpetuates the healthy choices we make. “I’m doing my best to make healthy choices, and I love how it makes me feel. Sometimes I don’t make healthy choices, and that’s ok too. I’m still beautiful, human, and whole.”
Eliminate the comparison game. We need to foster the mindset that beauty is not something any one person can have more of or less of than yourself. As humans, we are all born with the same amount of beauty—tons of it, in fact—and we choose to let it glow in different ways. Whether or not you fit into someone else’s definition of beauty is their struggle with seeing beauty, not your struggle with being beautiful. Let me say that again, because it’s important. Whether or not you fit into someone else’s definition of beauty is their struggle with seeing beauty, not your struggle with being beautiful.
Stop quantifying everything about body size and shape. Size, weight, inches, calories, grams, BMI. We become obsessed with reducing and losing and diminishing numbers. Instead, the focus should be wholeness and humanity. Oppressive systems like patriarchy, heteronormativity, and racism thrive on the obsession to quantify and stay within lines, binaries, and boundaries. We need to stop giving it what it wants. Stop quantifying and start focusing on what we nourish ourselves with—mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
Refrain from using microaggressive language that perpetuates the notion that it’s an extraordinary accomplishment to “achieve” beauty while simultaneously holding a societally marginalized identity or inherent perceived physical “flaw.” This is a direct manifestation of systemic oppression at the intersection of sexism, racism, xenophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, heteronormativity, fatphobia and all other systems that dehumanize and indignify people based on identity. It is someone or something other than our beautiful diverse selves claiming the power to dictate what is and isn’t beautiful. What is and isn’t the “standard.” You hear these statements all the time, and maybe you even have said them. “She’s so pretty for a plus-size girl.” “She is beautiful despite the fact that she has birthmarks all over her body.” And so many more harmful phrases that perpetuate the notion that you must at least achieve the lowest bar of “normal” before even thinking about being considered beautiful. These phrases perpetuate the notion that someone had to overcome some perceived inherent flaw in their identity or physical appearance in order to still be considered beautiful. These are comments that reflect oppressive systems. Beauty is not conditional. You are beautiful, period.
Unfortunately, Adeline, I think that many of the students I’m speaking to today won’t believe me when I tell them how beautiful they are. The best I can do is empower them to rebelliously reclaim their own definitions of beauty.
The fact that you are reading this letter, Adeline, means one of two things. Either today is the day when I first heard you express that you believe you are not beautiful, in which case it is one of the most heartbreaking days of my life—to know that I’ve lost the battle against the societal message that you are not, and never will be, enough. And on that day I will be by your side, not telling you that you are beautiful, but telling you that you have the strength and intelligence to rebelliously reclaim your own definition of beauty.
Or, you are reading this on your 14th birthday, and you have not bought into the lies of society’s messages—as I unfortunately did as a teenager and young adult—that beauty needs to be achieved and attained. You are actively creating your own wonderful definition of beauty and you’re proudly radiating that beauty to everyone you meet. And if that is the case, my beautiful little one, I will consider that my greatest success as a mother.
Your Smart, Strong, Brave, Creative, Joyful, and Beautiful Mama