I think my daughters are beautiful. Last week I watched my oldest, Lucy (almost 3), tip toe across the studio of her third ballet class. (The class she’s been begging to take for months.) If ever my heart was in danger of bursting, it was that moment.
She didn’t even smile or acknowledge us when we walked in for parent observation day, she was too focused on keeping her hands firmly on her hips as she marched across the floor. And from her carefully pulled-back hair to the tips of her ballet shoes, she was just stunning.
My husband, Daniel, whispered to me, “She’s the youngest in the class, but she’s CLEARLY the best.” I grinned because I thought so, too. But also because as a former ballet teacher, I knew how ridiculous we were. I had inwardly chuckled at the parents of my former students as they proudly compared their little dancers. “Can’t you see that teaching 3-year-olds to dance is like herding cats?! No competition for Baryshnikov, yet,” I wanted to say. But I get it now. I get it. Because out of 12 beautiful little girls in the studio, only one was mine. Only one was my beloved and I couldn’t imagine anything better than her little determined face and the curve of her precious cheeks.
And see that’s the thing. I know Lucy. Her face is more familiar to me than my own. And I would change NOTHING about her. Not one eyelash. From her muscular little legs to her sweet round toddler tummy and her deep hazel eyes, I would be outraged at the idea that she should be any different. Because she’s perfect as she is. Each tiny feature is what makes her Lucy. And I love it all. I delight in her Lucy-ness. And it would pain me so much if she looked in the mirror and despised her reflection. If she wished any small part of herself away.
And it makes me wince to think of the world she will grow up in. The constant barrage of signals telling her she should conform to a virtual ideal of beauty, at all costs. That she’s not good enough. And that she should be ashamed because she never will be.
And y’all, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it begin with five-year-old little girls. Every year, ballet costume measuring day was my least favorite teaching day of the year. I would take a measuring tape and write down what size costume each little dancer needed for the recital. It should have been easy. But it wasn’t. Because starting at age 5, they were anxious.
I would hear, “How much bigger am I than last year?” “I’m embarrassed because my tummy is so big.” “I need to go on a diet.” I would answer, “You’ve grown stronger and more beautiful than last year.” “Your tummy is exactly the beautiful tummy you should have.” “Little girls need to eat food that makes them healthy and strong. You don’t need a diet.”
FIVE YEAR OLDS. And as the dancers got older, I could see the anxiety follow them. Ballet culture has a terrible reputation for body image and eating disorders, but the studio were I taught was proactive about being nurturing and promoting healthy body image (and I am so proud of them for that). It wasn’t just the ballet mindset feeding this anxiety, it’s part of the psyche of our culture and our little ones are buying into it. And it breaks my heart.
So I would give the pep talk. That they are ALL different sizes with different bodies. And that God has made them all perfectly. That they are all beautiful, as dancers and as young women. But I would cry on my way home because I knew the damage was already being done and my five minute talk couldn’t overcome what was already taking it’s toll in their little hearts.
When I was overcome watching Lucy dance last week, I realized that this must be the way God sees us, through the eyes of love, a deeper love than I could ever have for my daughter. He made me. He made me Haley with the easily-sunburned Irish skin, wide feet, and short legs. He delights in my Haley-ness. And the stretch marks covering my middle? He loves those marks of motherhood. The motherhood that has uncovered more of the woman He wants me to be. No change would make me more beautiful to Him. That I would wish any of it away or see my reflection with dissatisfaction and regret must break his heart.
Would I want Lucy to look like the child model in a GAP advertisement? Heavens, no! Then she wouldn’t be LUCY. Would I want my husband to look like Idris Elba? No! It would take away from his Daniel-ness. But I struggle to be content with myself. Is it because I don’t truly understand that I am God’s beloved, just as little Lucy is mine?
To model the self-image I desire for my daughters (and son), a deep confidence that they are beautifully and wonderfully made and beloved by God, I cannot look in the mirror unsatisfied. I must rest in the assurance of God’s love for me–just as I am. All of my Haley-ness.
I’m not there yet, but I have two little girls and one little boy watching me everyday. And that is motivation enough.