My 7-year-old just uttered her first complaint about her body. “I wish my cheeks weren’t so big,” she casually said, as she looked into my bedroom mirror while I got dressed for the day. I tried not to register any dismay on the outside, but my heart sank a little that we’d already arrived at this. This, of being female in modern America.

I paused and met her eyes in the mirror. “You think so? You just look like Catherine to me. And when I see Catherine, I see the person I love.” My tone was light but certain, I hoped. “But they’re so poofy,” she continued, poking each perfect cheek with each perfect index finger. “Well,” I shrugged, smiling, “you only get one body, so you might as well enjoy it.”

Why couldn’t I just tell her she was beautiful? She is, after all. It would be so easy. This all happened right after I wrote – to some controversy – about why I don’t really tell my little girls they’re beautiful.

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I’m sure I will tell them they are beautiful from time to time, but I’d been trying to put off the focus on what others (including me) think of their looks for as long as possible. I’d wanted to show my warm love and acceptance in other ways.

At the point I wrote that article about letting them just be who they are physically, my 7 and 4-year-old girls had never once put themselves down. They’d never once asked for reassurance about whether they look pretty. They simply seem to enjoy themselves, dressing up or dressing down or dressing crazy, and giving me fashion advice and poring over my jewelry and accessories. Being female is fun in our house, an adventure in style and self-expression and creativity.

Now we’d suddenly seemed to have moved into another era, a preview of the earthquake of preteenhood and teenhood that others tell me is coming. But a moment later, I was glad I’d kept my worries to myself. You know what my daughter said after I told her we only get one body? “Oh, I was just kidding, Mom.” And off she skipped, and I haven’t heard boo about it since.

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What would have happened if I’d taken her cheeks in my hands and said seriously, “You are so beautiful and perfect. Don’t you ever forget it.” Maybe that would have been for the best? It was a split-second decision, but I didn’t, not yet, when self-doubt is barely a whisper in her head. For starters, she might have flagged this as Serious Conversation About A Big Issue. And I was glad, based on her lighthearted conclusion, that I hadn’t made it into more than it was.

But sometimes it’s more than idle chatter. A friend recently messaged me her concerns about her young daughter: Any ideas on how to stop my 5-year-old from CONSTANTLY asking, “Do I look pretty?” We’ve tried to be very aware of how we talk to our girls but it apparently hasn’t worked on our youngest. Sometimes she even comes to me with a pouty face and says “I look ugly.” I feel constantly drawn into appearance-based conversation with her and it breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart, too. Clearly this is more than what I’m dealing with at my house. I shared with her what I told my own daughter, about her looking like the person I love and about getting only one body. I talked to her about sharing Lisa McCourt’s sweet picture book, I Love You, Stinky Face — Mama is putting Child to bed, and Child asks a series of silly but sincere questions which Mama patiently and tenderly answers. “But, Mama, but, Mama, what if I were a swamp creature with slimy, smelly seaweed hanging from my body, and I could never leave the swamp or I would die?” Mama, of course, answers, “Then I would build a house right next to the swamp, and I would stay with you and take care of you always. And when you splashed to the surface, I would say, ‘I love you, my slimy little swamp monster.'” And so on, words of unconditional love on every page.

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I pushed a little more. If it were my daughter I’d be tempted to say, “I think you’re perfect and beautiful. But what if you really were ‘ugly?’ What would that mean? So what! You’d still be you, and I’d love you that way too.” Unexpectedly, maybe considering the worst case scenario – to this child, being ugly – and knowing it’s surmountable, could take the pressure off.

And there’s an argument that cultivating a “so what!” attitude is more strengthening than compliments. Can we ever “fix” someone’s insecurity with compliments? We all know the typical call-and-response that even adult women sometimes engage in. Call: “Ugh, my thighs are SO horrible!” Response: “Oh no, no, they’re perfect. Look at mine!”

Do these reassurances really make anyone’s thighs feel smaller? No. Do your friends’ reassurances that you are perfect the way you are make you stop starving yourself? Or maybe it’s overeating that you can’t seem to stop, despite the love and reassurance of others? Does your husband’s insistence that he finds you sexy, that the lights can stay on, that the sheets can get thrown back, and that your clothes can come off make you feel enough in your aging, post-baby body?
Absolutely, we should reassure and compliment our friends, family, and spouses. That’s part of being a warm, kind, and loving person. But when it comes down to it, we women have to own our bodies, and by ourselves realize that we are enough, and that our beauty is in our confidence, strength, self-acceptance, and, yes, even in our imperfection and “ugliness.”

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I can’t give that to my girls. Upcoming body changes, increased self-awareness, and peer and media pressures are going to rock them to their core. This is inevitable. So what can I give to them? I can – and I believe I should, especially before doubt grows too big – put it back on them.

They are strong enough to mostly hear (kindly, lovingly) “this is your body, the only one you get, be good to it” instead of “you are beautiful.” The first is always true, but the second may fall on deaf ears.

They will not always feel beautiful, because so many pressures (and maybe even unkind people) will tell them they’re not. But they can learn to flip the bird at what everyone else, including their mother, tells them. They’re the only ones who can own their image. And that ownership is a gift I can try to start giving them now.

Sharon Holbrook is a writer living in Cleveland, Ohio. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @216Sharon.

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