I grew up with a dad who told me I was beautiful—a lot—thereby defying the conventional wisdom that daughters who are told this will define their worth by their appearance. I don’t. That’s probably because he also told me I was smart and capable and fun to be around. I somehow believed him about those things, but not about the beautiful part. Not even a little bit.
I would roll my eyes as he’d say it, reaching out to hug me, thinking to myself, He just thinks that because he’s my dad. My subscription to Seventeen magazine reminded me faithfully every month that I was not, in fact, beautiful at all. My hair was stick-straight (a debilitating handicap for ’80s hair). I had a bad complexion. I had the shoulder span of a linebacker in an era when giant shoulder pads were routinely added to women’s shirts, seemingly for the sole purpose of enhancing my freakishness. I was no curvier than the 13-year-old boys I desperately hoped would ask me to dance, even as I loomed over them with my gargantuan height. Clearly, my dad was delusional.
But he was the best kind of delusional. He was the kind of delusional every daughter needs. He saw something in me that the mirror didn’t, and he routinely and faithfully pronounced me beautiful regardless of all objective external measures.
Without a doubt, we should tell our daughters that they are strong and capable, that their minds are gifts to be utilized, that their imaginations are tools to be implemented, that their bodies are vehicles for accomplishing good. But I also contend that we should tell them they are beautiful. All the time. Whether they buy it or not. Trust me on this:
When she tells you she’s fat, tell her she’s beautiful.
When she tells you she’s plain, tell her she’s beautiful.
When she tells you she’s too X or not Y enough, tell her she’s beautiful.
When she tells you no one will ever want to date her, tell her she’s beautiful.
When she says nothing at all, tell her she’s beautiful.
She won’t believe you, any more than we believed our own fathers and mothers. But she will hear it from someone who genuinely means it, with no ulterior motive. She will hear it from you first. And that matters.
Because you don’t want her to hear it from someone else first. If we leave the soil of our daughters’ self-worth unwatered by our unconditional admiration, we send them into a world happy to satisfy that parched ground with conditional praise. What if the first person who tells her she’s beautiful is a shady guy she meets in class? Let her blossom well-watered by your compliments, offered for no other reason than the sheer joy of knowing her.
Your daughter knows when you tell her “You’re beautiful” that what you mean is “You’re beautiful to me.” And though initially she may perceive this to be the most well-meaning lie ever told to her, in time she will grow to recognize it as the most basic truth she can ever hear you speak: No matter what anyone else sees when they look at you, I see you when I look at you, and I say that what I see is beautiful. The end.
I see you. I love you. I know you. You are beautiful. To me.