by Bailey  B.

She looks at her hands, twisting, untwisting, fingers chasing fingers. Now she looks at the ceiling. Now her hands. Twist. Untwist. Twist. All the while she’s saying it, getting it out there: “Sometimes I feel like I’m not very beautiful. I see things in magazines — and I don’t look like that. I know that God doesn’t create anyone ugly, but it’s hard to believe it. Usually it goes away. After I cry.”

I want to cry, want to beat up the Lie, want to scrape up a big scoop of confidence and contentment and love and stuff it into her heart. One thing I do not understand: why beautiful girls think they’re ugly. The long-legged, thick-haired, athletic, gorgeous middle-schooler thinks she is too pale, too big in the hips. The big-blue-eyed homeschooler sobs because the girls at ballet say she has “cow eyes.” The beautiful-hearted, friendly, popular, cutely-freckled girl cannot stand her reflection. My friends talk about diets while I’m on my third piece of cake.

No one is who she thinks she is. I tell her that, laugh it off, comfort her, joke about my own flaws, but I see in her eyes that it’s not sinking in. Words do nothing when the acne is bad, freckles overpopulated, tummy pudgy and hair messed up. What’s worse? She tells me I’m beautiful. She beats herself up and tells me I’m beautiful in the same breath. Words really escape me then.

I want to know why. Why is this such a big deal? Why do skin cells, fat cells and keratin determine worth?

Because they do. Girls compete and compare — not for a man and not for beauty, but for herself, for her security. There’s an undefined pressure to be beautiful in a circle of girls — whether one constantly feels runner-up to the resident beauty or whether one is surrounded by girls who spend decades each day in front of the mirror, discuss diets or describe other girls by less than flattering features. I once heard another girl explain her friend as someone who badly needed Proactiv. It wasn’t meant as a cruel jab, just a passing explanation, but it threw me into quiet confusion. If someone could say that without a second thought — and with a knowing giggle afterward — did she see me the same way? Did others define me by my acne? Did they think me slovenly, ugly, second-rate because of a few clogged pores?
ylcfbeauty3-400x600It’s unnerving when one feels like the only girl amid a bunch of women, women already watching their calorie intake or fussing over their makeup or going in detail about how this or that article of clothing makes them look fat. I had been quite content to eat whatever wound up on my plate or go entirely makeup-less or wear whatever I thought looked pretty — until I learned that in the female social circle, those things mattered. Big time. You could be cute and funny, but you got a star by your name listing you as “great but….

This is something I’ve only learned recently, since I spent much of my growing up with boys, tomboys and imaginary horses. I didn’t have an older sister so I got to set the stage for what beautiful, cute and fashionable meant to my younger sisters. (I wasn’t qualified for holding any opinions in those area — but my aberrant “fashion” sense is another post entirely, and not so serious.) My mother never talked about dieting or makeup or fashion; I willingly woke up at 6 a.m. to work out with Mom and Denise Austin because it was fun, not because it had anything to do with calories. She French braided my hair and bought cute matching dresses. There were no set dates for me start looking like a grown woman. She let me be myself (which was very embarrassing to her, no doubt). Beauty never felt out-of-reach for me. I never associated tears and heartache with beautiful things. We girls created our own beauty — scrunchied, straight-haired, pimply, kind-of-frumpy beauty. Beautiful was something we were, not something we achieved.

Of course, some days I felt less-than-beautiful. We had many sister councils on the subject — don’t let me lie to you: I cried some nights. But that was long after I was young, long after I had acquired beautiful friends, long after girl conversations became less and less about My Little Ponies and more and more about purses and sundresses. I think it was when I heard girls talking, comparing, gossiping, when I saw the plain girl excluded, when I saw the popular girls wearing cuter clothes and stylish cuts — that’s when I lost innocence and felt shame.

We blame Barbie and the media, but no, that is too far away to hit home. The cause of sobbing middle-schoolers, girls blind to their own beauty? We are. Their friends. Their role models. Their mothers. We are the culprits — for taking out our insecurity on friends, for obsessing over externals, for spending too much money on new shoes. We have created a female culture where only the beautiful may walk free — even if that excludes ourselves. We have made a big deal out of beauty, the external beauty, the beauty that dies off with age and use.

I’m a big sister. I feel ugly some days — so ugly that I want to hide in my bed. But I refuse to speak lies to myself and I refuse to speak lies to my sisters. I don’t want to plant negative thought patterns in their mind; I don’t want them to learn how to scrutinize their beauty. I don’t make beauty a big deal — I let them wear ridiculous color combinations, and we eat whatever we want, and we laugh hard as the post-lunch ab workout. I let myself do it. I want to create a different female culture in my sisters’ lives, in my life — one where we know what’s important and Who defines us, and that beauty is meant to bring delight, not pain.

Bailey is a seventeen-year-old writer and thinker in love with anything literary or theological. First in her life is Christ Jesus. She enjoys romping with her eight siblings and belting out songs in the shower. This fall she starts her freshman year at Hillsdale College. She writes at Big House In the Little Woods, where this post was originally published.

(photos by Jeweliet Kraft)