Being a woman is more than a biological distinction, so much more than filling in the space beside the letter “F” on the form provided at the gynecologist’s office. We are so much more than the sum of our unique parts—breasts and vaginas. We are more than beauty. We possess fine minds, capable of discerning truths and imagining brilliant futures. We make the nests, weaving together the moral fiber of a nation, transforming selfish creatures into selfless ones, nudging them over the edge, teaching them to soar. We give comfort, nurture, entertain, inspire, and lead. We may also be the noblest of the noble creatures. Yet we often do not love ourselves enough, sometimes not at all.
Some of us are artifacts from an earlier age when women were cultivated to be pretty and coy. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, women had little value if they were not pretty. Even a loving, intelligent grandmother, Lady Mary Montagu, recognizing that her own granddaughter was plain, suggested that she should be taught to love reading because as a plain girl, especially one whose parents could not provide an attractive dowry, she should not hope for marriage. She should steel herself for the life of a spinster, living at the mercy of a relative, with little more than books to comfort her through longs days and nights. Lady Montagu asserted that “No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting. She [her granddaughter] will not want new fashions nor regret the loss of expensive diversions or variety of company if she can be amused with an author in her closet [sitting room/bedroom].”
Surely we have evolved over the course of several hundred years, but girls in the twenty-first century still compensate. They may put on weight, finding reassurance in food and confirming what they believe to be their destinies. They may let their hair hang in order to mask break-outs and acne. They may bear stooped shoulders if they happen to be taller than the tallest boy. They may resign themselves to their role as a plain girl, choosing modest, unflattering clothing that masks shapes and sometimes even gender. Others may choose outrageous outfits, defying convention and fashion in an effort to prove that being girly and pretty does not interest them. How Do I Look, a program on the Style network, exists to transform these women and prove to them that they too can attract the approval of both men and women.
Other women make war with the plain or unattractive label, relying upon gyms, trainers, diet fads, Spanx, hair dyes, highlights, Botox, collagen, make-up, lotions, tanning booths, and plastic surgery to transform themselves into something they like when they look in the mirror. These women sometimes become so gaunt that we can map veins under a thin layer of skin or count their ribs through thin, gauzy tees. Some of these woman sport lips that enter a room before their noses—lips so enormous that they parody Marilyn Monroe’s pout. Others have eyebrows arched so high up their foreheads that we whip our own heads left and right, looking for the interloper who just frightened them, only to find there is no one else, just a woman who has become a cartoon of her former self.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I am not a woman familiar with gyms. I joined one for a time. I even reached the thirty-minute mark on a recumbent bike, but each of my muscle groups lacks definition. I have Crow’s feet although I prefer laugh lines, a much prettier term for what exists at the outer edges of my eyes. My neck is crepey, or as some younger folk might say, creepy; consequently, I love autumn and winter when turtle necks and scarves may be worn with little comment. Around my lips are wrinkles, the ones that I abhorred on older women when I was young, the ones I dreaded to see in a mirror. I am also overweight, a state I cannot recommend, and I have struggled to find clothes that are comfortable and fashionable, clothes in which I feel attractive. Thus, I have often stepped into the demands of the universe feeling everything except pretty.
I have known others like me, and I have known women who are cute, adorable, pretty, and gorgeous. Without exception, these women are self-deprecating Joan-Rivers. One hates the shape of her nose. Another thinks her ankles are just too thick. Many despise their hair; it’s too flat or curly, too dull or frizzy. We are all part Goldilocks, looking for hair that’s just right. We envy each other, too: the blond next door, the gal with big blue eyes, a colleague with long, graceful fingers, and a sister with Audrey Hepburn’s neck. Our envy rarely looks good on us either.
Lady Mary Montagu also observed, in one of her finer moments, that “A face is too slight a foundation for happiness.” Few of us would disagree. Happiness is what we build within ourselves through our good works, through love. Neither books for our lonely days nor looks for all our days, often bought at great cost, grant happiness. So please, love yourselves so much that you create happiness for yourself. Cultivate more than a pretty face and a lovely form. Let go of self-deprecation and envy. Embrace your nobility by loving yourselves, warts, weight, worries, and all.
(This essay was written for and first published at www.enableher.com, but now, just days after my granddaughter's birth, I wish to share it with her so that one day, when she doubts herself, she can read this and love herself.)