“Am I pretty?” Had I had access to YouTube when I was a young teen, given my insecurities about my physical appearance, I might have been tempted to post my own video asking the same question. In fact, as concerning as it may sound that pre-teen girls are purposely inviting public comment asking this question, I don’t think this type of self-sabotage is anything new. It’s just a different generation, same question.
When I was growing up in Urbana in the ‘80s, aside from my two fingers and two toes, I had another blatant difference—I was a dark brunette while the majority of my friends were blonde. Notwithstanding the fact I had no thumbs, I still managed to stand out like a sore thumb. That was the decade during which “pretty” meant looking like Cheryl Tiegs or Christie Brinkley. As an outsider, I was convinced that being pretty was the key to my happiness; I actually believed having fair hair might help. At one point I even asked my mom if I could die my hair blonde(she refused). To my mother’s dismay, I convinced a friend to put “Sun-In” in my hair, anyway, temporarily turning it a strange shade of orange. That was NOT pretty. In truth, hair color was not my real issue, but it was something I could at least try to control or correct. I wished my self-image issues could have been cured with a few inspirational lessons from tales like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling”, but I was a teenage girl with much to learn. I felt like that little homely bird, and could only daydream of growing up into my own version of a beautiful swan.
With no future as a blonde, I searched for other ways to invite compliments. After shedding some pounds during my summer at Interlochen National Music Camp, I discovered there was another option—losing weight. While never heavy, I had been somewhat chubby, especially in my face. As I arrived for Autumn classes at Urbana High School, I basked in the glow of the welcome praise. “Wow, Meg! You look great,” and “Meg, you look so pretty, did you lose weight at camp?” It became a vicious cycle. The more weight I lost, the more approval I received. I continued to diet often, hoping to hear the ultimate compliment: You. Look. Pretty. Those words, whether from friends or strangers, became music to my ears.
One night I was out to dinner with friends on the University of Illinois campus. There, in the restroom, I fainted from weakness. My friends brought me home and despite my strong objection, raised their concerns about my eating habits to my father. That experience was a turning point–definitely another “sliding door” moment in my life. While my weight continued to fluctuate as I matured, my family was now involved and I, fortunately, never developed a serious eating disorder. However, the experience didn’t lead me to abandon my quest to be attractive— which was still the key to deflecting attention from my physical abnormality. That desire followed me for years, until I met my husband, John, who fell in love with me unconditionally.
Fast forward to the present. When I first learned of the “Am I pretty” postings on YouTube, I couldn’t help think of Savanna, our five-year-old daughter. If “pretty” remains the goal, it is up to me to help her define it beyond the boundaries of what a supermodel looks like. Most importantly, somehow I need to make sure she does not learn to define her self-worth by relying on external validation of her appearance.
Just recently, Savanna watched the Red Carpet before the Oscars with me. Pointing at Gwyneth Paltrow, Savanna said, “Mommy, look at how pretty she is!” I nodded, but pointed out Melissa McCarthy to her. “Savanna, isn’t she beautiful?” “Oh yes, Mommy!” I smiled with satisfaction. McCarthy had been nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Megan, the hilarious scene-stealing sister of the groom in “Bridesmaids.” Despite her increasing popularity, McCarthy is a plus-size actress and has had to endure repeated snarky comments about her size. Recently, remarking about her own two daughters, McCarthy told the press, “I want them to be confident, strong, healthy, happy women and I want them to define themselves by their actions and what they do and how they treat other people.” Her words moved me. “You know Savanna, just because someone is pretty, does not mean they are beautiful.” She grinned. Of course, we are just beginning this road together, and I know I already have my work cut out for me. After all, Savanna is growing up a blonde on the East Coast where she’s surrounded by brunettes!