Usually when I mention my husband’s ex-wife is a professional cheerleader, I’m met with empathetic groans of understanding from other women. Over time, I’ve realized it’s because professional cheerleaders (and models and actresses and any other pretty face you see in the media) embody a kind of beautiful that not only fits, but defines a specific standard of beauty. A kind of appearance lauded and idolized, as evidenced by articles like this. Or this. And this. And even though I hate to admit it, I actually appreciate these empathetic responses because it makes me feel less crazy about feeling this sort of angsty self-awareness for not being that kind of pretty. But as a mom, I want to teach my son about beauty in a way that will shape him forever.
As I’ve edged past 30, and still continue to fight with the image I see in the mirror, I often wonder how the way I do or don’t value my appearance will teach my daughter how to value hers. I marvel at how social constructions of beauty have infiltrated my mind and my home and what that will do to her and what I should be doing about it.
Lately, I’ve started to wonder the same thing in regard to my son. I don’t worry about his self-esteem with regard to his appearance as much as I worry about the value placed on my daughter and the way she looks. What I do worry about is how he will receive the same messages about appearance, and how it will affect the way he values women. While we, as women, are told “it counts more when you’re pretty,” I wonder if the contrast in appearance between myself and his dad’s first wife will have an effect on his perception of women and value, how beauty plays a part in it, and what being beautiful will mean to him.
I need to mention here that I think there is a great deal of athleticism involved in dance and cheerleading. I was never much of an athlete myself, but this isn’t a spiteful post about the uselessness of NFL cheerleaders. If anything, I think they deserve to be compensated more fairly for their time. With that said, my husband’s ex-wife is the type of pretty that marketing companies rely on- she’s beautiful, by a widespread standard.
I can deal with my own insecurities. I can handle understanding that what makes me “me” is something that has little to do with what I look like. I get all that. And while I hope to instill that in my daughter, I have this fear that one day my son will learn his dad was married to a professional cheerleader, and wonder why he would ever end up with someone like me instead.
I wonder if Charlie will see my husband’s first marriage as an accomplishment.
I wonder if he’ll brag to his friends about it. I wonder if I’ll care (and suspect I will.)
Being that Clay’s ex is who she is, I’ve become ultra-aware that I stand in stark contrast to a certain type of beauty standard. And while I’m sure I am beautiful in other ways, I’m also aware of the strength and power that the media will have in convincing my son that being a specific kind of beautiful is the best and only thing that matters. I know that he will be inundated with images of what beautiful is and that subliminal messaging will tell him that certain “types” of women are more valuable than others based on the way they look. But in the end, I’m hoping I can set the foundation for him to question what he sees and hears in the media and teach him that being beautiful is only a very small part of a much larger picture and that it doesn’t have much (if anything) to do with your physical appearance. After all, We talk to girls about questioning beauty standards, but what are we telling our boys?
So, with all my might, here are…
The things I hope to teach my son about beauty:
- First and foremost, your wife is not an accessory. She does not exist to make you look good or cool or successful. If you enter into a relationship with any of these thoughts, I can assure you things will not work out in the long run. You need to find the person who challenges you, makes you better, and who you can just be you with. That’s when love and happiness can grow.
- It’s okay to like what you like. If you love someone for who they are, but nobody else thinks they’re attractive, then forget everyone else. And forget what the media tells you. You’re allowed to love anyone, and you don’t need an outsider’s approval. Also, it’s fine if you don’t follow a heteronormative trajectory. I know I’ve made a lot of assumptions about your feelings toward women in this post, but know that I will always love and support you, no matter what. If you do happen to be gay, my son, I’ll never have to worry about you loving another woman more than me. And I win forever.
- There is a space where what you look like doesn’t matter. Sometimes that space appears unexpectedly in your own home after a toddler has thrown up on you and himself while you’re holding him, and you have no choice but to ask your husband help you quickly strip down to your 9-month pregnant birthday suit and get you both in the bathtub before you, too, throw up on the carpet. In instances like these, you just are who you are and handle what you need to handle- what you look like has no relevance because nobody looks that great in vomit. With the right person, that space will come. So find it, own it, and embrace it.
But the lesson I most want to leave you with is this:
The best kind of beautiful is the kind you can’t see, but feel. After four moves, four jobs, and two babies in two years, your dad and I have learned that love isn’t about looking good together. It’s the joy of discovering someone, even at their worst. It’s the small, helpless laughs you have together while the baby cries and the toddler plays in the dog water that have nothing to do with physical beauty. The shared moments and smiles in the space between the crazy. The kisses despite unwashed hair and yesterday’s eyeliner. It’s the serendipity in finding yourself in a moment where you can’t feel anything but peace.
It’s beauty you can feel, baby, not see.