Wednesday, September 24, 2008

And They Lived Miserably Ever After...

Cathy's insightful post on the Cinderella Syndrome really hit home with me. When I started high school, I had braces and a round face. I had no curves and when I smiled, my eyes disappeared into my chubby cheeks. I was not fat, but I certainly didn't have a face or a body that would draw attention. I was also one of the "smart" girls. I took all the AP and honors courses and participated in activities like mock trial (that's actually where I met the boy who would become my husband!), Beta Club, and the Thespian Society. But you know what? I was happy.

Then over one summer I blossomed. I went from a chubby, awkward, brace-faced girl to a curvy, young woman whose smile now revealed pearly whites. I went to school that year and some of my peers did not recognize me. The same boys who had never looked twice at me started asking me out on dates.

My parents allowed me to date when I was 16 and I couldn't wait. I thought it would be magical. It wasn't.

I remember my first "boyfriend." He was a nice enough guy and the first guy I went on a few consecutive dates with and the boy who walked me to class even though I felt really cheesy when he did it. I remember how he reeked of cologne and always wanted to hold my hand and put his arm around me and how uncomfortable I felt, but I acted like I liked it. All my friends thought he was cute, after all. Plus, I was a people-pleaser. A lot of girls are. We do what we think others want.

Speaking of friends, a lot of them were asking how I did it. By did it, they meant how did I transform myself? How I did "it" was simply physically mature and let nature take its course. It just happened overnight for me. It was like my fairy godmother paid me a visit and worked her magic on me. What really happened was I got my braces off, grew a few inches, started my period (finally!), grew some breasts, and thinned down (without dieting, just naturally).

I remember that school year well. Everyone was always complimenting me. I got invited to more social events and was asked to sit at a "cool" table in the cafeteria (even though I was still a geek). But here's the kicker: With this newfound popularity and attention came a lot of pressure - pressure to be perfect, pressure to be beautiful, pressure to be smart but not too smart. Even though I was the same girl on the inside - a goofy, drama queen who loved horses, singing, and reading - how I looked on the outside had somehow made me more important (at least in the ridiculous hierarchy of teenagers).

But was I happier? No. On the contrary, I was the swan who was constantly worried that I was going to change back into my old, ugly duckling self. I never meant for it to happen, but I was suddenly thrust into a competition to be one of the pretty girls, the fairest of the fair.

Truth is, one of the reasons I started dieting and resorting to eating disordered behavior was because of my fear. I had it in my mind that the thinner I got, the better person I'd be. However, if I gained weight, I'd lose myself in all the fat and lose my friends at the same time.

For me the message was clear: I was easier to like being pretty.

Thinking back on those tough teenage years, I've said to my husband that I hope our girls are plain or even cute but not beautiful. I've seen too many unhappy, beautiful girls to think it's something we should want (just think of so many of the Hollywood starlets who seem to have it all and end up in drug rehab programs or in an endless game of marriage roulette or with eating disorders). It's too exhausting to maintain beauty. Once you have it (or society says you do), you cling to it, thinking it's all you've got. Once you hit a size 0, you think that's what you have to stay to be anything (ironic isn't it that a size 0 used to be my favorite size because it made me feel like I was important when that number means an absence of anything).

I'm not saying pretty girls have a right to feel miserable. I'm not condoning vanity either. I've had beautiful friends complain about their looks, and it's frustrated me. "Can't you see how pretty you are? Can't you see how lucky you are?"

Funny, I think my mom and dad, my brothers, and husband have all asked similar questions of me more times than I'd like to count.

Recently, my daughter whipped this up in her toy kitchen:

She called it Cinderella stew. I thought it was hilarious. There was also something comforting in thinking about boiling Cinderella and all she stands for - beautiful perfection - along with some carrots and potatoes.

I'm not sure they have to go as far as poaching Cinderella, but I don't want my daughters idolizing beauty. I want them to pursue health, not flawless looks or a perfect body. If God blesses them with loveliness, I want them to be grateful but to remember that it's what's beyond that skin that's really important - their passions, their brains, their sensitivity, and most importantly, their souls. I want them to not be like the person their mom can sometimes be.

What's really sad to me about all of us who are relentlessly striving to be the fairest of the fair is that physical beauty, especially as it is defined by society, isn't something you can hold onto for forever. It eventually fades. Botox won't save you. Neither will face lifts. Smooth skin becomes wrinkled with time and splattered with age spots. Even the firmest of bums eventually head south. Hair of all shades will all end up gray or silver. In time, our faces and bodies won't seem like our own, but what's on the inside will remain constant.

My mom is someone who has grown old gracefully. Now, I will say she is blessed with looking younger than her age and being petite, but she's never let her looks be her focus.

Just recently, she did admit that aging has been tougher than she thought it would be. I had no idea she felt this way. But the reason aging has been challenging, she said, isn't because she wants to look a certain way. It's just that she'll see a picture of herself and think, "I don't feel that old." How she feels doesn't always match with how her body looks, she says. She still feels like a 30-year-old sometimes, but her body's saying she's in her mid-fifties. I think that's the same way it is for pretty girls. They look beautiful on the outside, and we think that that's how they should feel. Yet, so many of them have some ugly demons - from crippling perfectionism to an obsession with looking a certain way - to contend with on the inside.

My mom also told me she's decided to concentrate more on how she feels than how she looks. Who cares if her body is telling her something differently? If she feels like a young grandma, then that's what she is. We don't have to listen to that mirror, mirror on the wall (or that scale on the bathroom floor). It's up to us on whether we want to exude beauty or not at any age or at any weight.

For today do something that makes you feel beautiful. For me this often means getting dressed up for my husband. He thinks I'm attractive when my hair is streaked with diaper ointment, so you can imagine how we both feel if I slip into a black dress and some heels.

After you're feeling beautiful, why not cook up some Cinderella stew and then just make the decision to live happily ever after...


Soul Pockets said...

This is such a great post and so true. My husband once made the comment that he hopes our girls don't become too pretty. I thought that was a weirdd thing to say, because of course I think my girls are beautiful. I think what he meant is the exact thing you are talking about in this post. I think my husband meant he hopes our girls don't focus all their attention on their looks,it seems the soul in more at peace when we don't.

Kate Wicker said...

"It seems the soul is more at peace when we don't [focus all their attention on our looks]." Beautifully said, Soul Pockets, and definitely something to always, always keep in mind.

God bless you!