Sitting cross-legged on a twin bed, giggling about cute boys while the summer evening breeze swirled around us — it had been a long time — a lifetime — since the last time I’d done this. Yet there I was on the eve of my baby sister’s graduation (am I allowed to still call her my baby sister now that she’s a legal adult?) sitting in her room and listening to my sister and her friend whisper about love and longing and uncertainty. In that golden moment I was struck by how divinely beautiful they were. And it wasn’t just the smooth skin, shiny hair and flat tummies that come with being 18. It was that magic that happens sometimes, when you see someone with their guard down, and you glimpse the beauty of an ageless soul. They were hope and talent and potential and joy and laughter and sparkling eyes and so, so beautiful.
Then it all came crashing down. (And not just because one of my boys yelled through the door that he’d clogged the toilet and while trying plunge it he’d only made is spill all over the floor. Although that did happen too. Sorry mom and dad!) As I watched, my sister and her friend began to talk about their insecurities, what they’d been told about themselves, what they believed to be true. I realized that even though I saw two gorgeous creatures, they didn’t necessarily see it in themselves.
It reminded me, desperately, of when I was 18. I wasn’t even sure what beauty was, much less if I had any of it. And so I begged people to tell me, to validate me, to re-make me in their image of beautiful. Unfortunately some obliged. For years I took that to heart – that whatever I was needed to be changed. Nothing that was intrinsically Charlotte was right. Boyfriends, bosses, friends, even strangers held more influence on my sense of self than myself.
I wanted to stop the girls conversation. To shake them by the shoulders and demand they see themselves how I saw them! Then I realized I would be doing exactly what all those others had done to me. You can’t make someone see themselves as beautiful. You can only try to teach them how to find it in themselves.
I’ve talked a lot on here about how to find beauty – in yourself, in others, in nature. But what I haven’t talked about is why we lose that ability to see it in the first place. We’re born with it yet somewhere along the way most of us lose it. But why? I had a long, long, long (17.5 hour) drive home from my parent’s house and therefore a lot of time to ponder this question. I concluded that we don’t lose it so much as we have it taken from us, bit by bit. And since I had to listen to endless Disney movies on repeat to keep the littles from rebelling and forcing me to move into a McDonald’s playland in Nebraska, I pictured this as so many poison apples. (Plus aren’t we all still princesses a little bit on the inside? Yeah, you dudes too. It’s okay, you can own it.)
This is what I wish I could have told my sister and her friend about why people will try and take your beauty (and why you shouldn’t let them). As I wrote it out I realized I wasn’t really talking to them anymore but to the 18-year-old child that still lives in me, the one who still wants to be beautiful.
Poison apple: To sell you stuff. It seems so glaringly obvious and yet it’s so effective. You’ll never buy wrinkle cream if you aren’t conditioned to think of aging as the worst thing that could ever happen to you and that you must stave off all evidence of the inevitable by any means possible. You know what they say – if you can’t find a niche to fill, create one! And advertising today has us caught at both ends as it sets beauty as a woman’s only currency and then shows her all the ways she’s lacking it.
Antidote: Knowledge is power. Even my 4-year-old is savvy enough to know when she’s being marketed to but it’s so ingrained in every aspect of our lives it can be easy to forget how many people are trying to sell us something. And the best way to do that is to make us feel less than. Don’t buy it. You are enough as you are, no purchase necessary.
Poison apple: To have power over you. I’ve talked a lot about how I got out of an abusive relationship but I don’t talk much about how I got in it in the first place. The truth is that he made me feel special and beautiful, at least at first. I think he saw I had very little self-worth and used that to manipulate me. Since I didn’t believe myself to be beautiful I relied on his definition of me. And when he decided I was “the ugliest thing he’d ever seen” unfortunately I believed him. He told me he was “just being honest” and “trying to help” me. He told me that he was the only one who would ever love someone as broken as me and I believed that too.
Antidote: Be confident in yourself and learn to recognize manipulation. It isn’t just bad boyfriends/girlfriends who will try to manipulate you and break you down by stealing your beauty. Bosses, coworkers, friends and even strangers can use low self-regard to their advantage and unfortunately many of us wear our wounds on our sleeves. But the better you know who you are, the less likely you are to believe what someone else says you are.
Poison apple: To win. Some people think of beauty as a zero sum game – if you have more then that automatically means they have less. And if they’re dead set on being the prettiest princess in the room then the only way they can win is by cutting you down.
Antidote: Don’t play. Once you realize it’s just a game it’s easier to walk away and ignore petty attempts to draw you into the competition. Resist the temptation to mock others to make yourself feel better. Recognize that beauty is exponential. The more you see, the more there is!
Poison apple: To bond with you. It sounds weird but a lot of us bond over our weaknesses. There’s nothing wrong with that on a certain level but taken too far we’re all monkeys pulling each other back down into the barrel. We live in a culture of criticism, trained by magazine covers with red circles and talking heads concern-trolling celebrities. (Don’t believe me? CNN recently declared the Pope to have gained weight. Not even the POPE is safe from body scrutiny… Next thing you know people will be saying Mary didn’t lose the pregnancy weight fast enough after Jesus was born.) And when we’re taught to look for the negative in every situation, is it any wonder that’s what we see in ourselves too?
Antidote: Stop being so critical. You’ll find that when you stop criticizing other people (and reading those magazines and watching those shows) that it’s a lot easier to be kinder to yourself too. Everybody wins!
In the end I think a lot of people have a fundamental misunderstanding of what beauty is. They think it’s a certain set of physical features or even perhaps a level of success or achievement. But beauty can’t be bought nor can it be earned. We’re born with it. It’s a gift. And every one of us has it.
Would knowing any of this at 18 really have changed who I am? I can’t change the past but I do think it would have made a difference. All I know now is that when I look back on pictures of then-me I wish I could take her by the shoulders, tell her how beautiful she is and make her listen. To me. Instead of to all of them. And of course, anyone reading this list would be well served to think if we do any of these things ourselves. I know I have. Especially the competition one – I can’t count how many times I’ve muttered under my breath about some other girl hoping that looking for her mistakes will make me feel better about mine. But I hope I’m outgrowing that urge. I’m trying to!
This morning as I was driving my kids to track practice, they whined, “Why are you always making us do stuff we hate?!” Track, piano, gymnastics, church, musical theater, flag football, swimming, library programs, volunteer work: I make them try it all. It isn’t because I’m trying to make them into super geniuses or pad their Ivy League college applications but rather it’s because I’ve discovered over a lifetime of hurt that there are things that heal me, things I can always return to to remember who I really am. For me that’s reading, playing the piano, praying, yoga, hiking. For them? I don’t know and neither do they which is why I drag them to different activities.
“I’m trying to help you find what you love. So that when life hurts you will have some inner reserves to carry you through it,” I answered.
“Why? Will life hurt us?” my third son asked, genuinely perplexed as to how whining about running track turned into an existential debate.
It will, so much more than you know, I wanted to say. But I couldn’t. So instead I said simply, “Always remember I love you enough to make you do things you hate.”
Just because someone hands you a poison apple and tells you to eat it doesn’t mean you have to take a bite.
Have you ever had anyone try to make you forget you’re beautiful? What do you wish you could tell your 18-yr-old self?