Beauty and the Belief

I just spent a week with two of my marvelous granddaughters. They’re in their early teens and by objective measures – not just a grandmother’s bias – they’re accomplished, smart and beautiful. And yet for a week nearly every time they passed a mirror or looked at a photo, I heard, “I look atrocious” or, “Ugh, I hate my hair” or, “My expression is awful.”  These are kind girls – they’re generous toward their friends and easily overlook flaws in others. But not in themselves.

It’s always been hard for girls to measure up to the ideals of beauty.  When, in 1847, Charlotte Bronte chose to underline Jane Eyre’s intelligence and character by emphasizing her plain looks, she was cutting against conventional depictions of women. Today, does anyone actually believe that the “historical biographies” of American Girl dolls outshout their flawlessly attractive facial features?

th-1Our standards of female beauty are impossible to reach.  Actresses and models are made-up, styled, dressed in designer clothes, shot and then Phototshopped. What we see is a fiction whose features are unattainable. It makes me crazy when bright, athletic, healthy 13-year old girls cringe when they look in the mirror, comparing themselves to these impossible misrepresentations. But those are the images they’re shown over and over until the comparisons are a matter of reflex, not thought.

Circulating images of themselves through the immediacy and ubiquity of social media raises the stakes even higher.  If your photo is going to be shared  – perhaps even without your knowledge – on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter “you want to look good,” my granddaughter told me last week, “You don’t want to look goofy.”

But how quickly that rationalization turns into negative self-talk. How easy it is to go from, “Please delete that because I’ve got food stuck in my teeth” to “Oh, wow, I look terrible!”  They’ve not yet learned that being beautiful arises from the belief that you are beautiful, that the beast of homeliness conjured in the negative self-talk we bring to our mirrors disguises a beauty deeper than skin tone..  In the constant onslaught of “perfect” images,  women learn early to disbelieve the details that comprise their physical identity, holding at arm’s length the accidents that distinguish one beautiful person from another.  And it doesn’t end with youth: how many of us believe that men grow more distinguished in later years, women simply grow older? When mixed with inaccurate ideas about courtesy, many women – grandmothers and granddaughters alike – embrace the principle of humility while still holding themselves to unrealistic ideals of beauty.  It’s deemed to be far more polite to say, “I’m having a bad hair day” to, “my hair came out great this morning.”

So what can be done to help the young women in our lives? First, talk about beauty with them. Voice your concern about what you hear them saying about themselves. Be gentle and clear. And don’t nag.  See if they’d be willing to engage in a reinforcement game:  “I’ll pay you a quarter every time I hear you say something nice about yourself.”

Second, tell them the truth. My granddaughters and I saw Gwyneth Paltrow during our Christmas vacation.  Two months later she was on People magazine’s Most Beautiful Woman cover.  It was pretty easy to see that the woman on the cover didn’t look much like the mom we’d seen on the beach playing with her kids.

Most importantly, be a role model.  Make sure the girls around you hear you say good things about yourself.  Show them that you believe in your beauty as well as theirs.  When you look great, say so – this is too important a topic to be coy about. Not only will you be modeling positive self-talk but you might even feel better about yourself.

I tried all of this toward the end of the week with my granddaughters.  I told them that it saddened me when I heard them belittle themselves.  We talked about the movie star we saw on the beach and the one on the magazine cover.  They listened and we moved on.  I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing until I passed a mirror and thought, “Wow – do I need a haircut!”  I guess I’ve got a way to go in the role model department.


Margaretta Noonan
Margaretta Noonan
While still a senior executive at a global company, Margaretta Noonan started asking herself, “Am I All There?” After several years of exploring the topic of employee engagement – her own included; Margaretta co-founded ngage, a technology-enabled solution that creates a continuous connection between employees and managers about the issues that are critical to organizational success;. Margaretta spent 30 years in Human Resources and senior leadership with global Fortune 500 companies in the retail and professional services industries. Knowing that a company is only ever as strong as the talent inside it – in addition to ngage, Margaretta heads a woman-owned consulting business, noonanWorks (, dedicated to working at the intersection of employee engagement / customer engagement and financial results.

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