In every situation in life, there's always a way to make a tit of yourself
Now, I know everyone thinks their mum is amazing. At least they should, she essentially semi-mutilated her own body to bring you into the world – you owe her big time. But for this one I’m going to tell you why my mum is amazing. And it’s not because she is very accomplished at growing the most extraordinarily-shaped vegetables, wins triathlon races, and once almost talked some Jehovah’s Witnesses into believing in science when they knocked on our door. Or rather, it is partly because of those things, but more importantly it’s because of something else.
I always knew that my mum was clever. I always knew she was a strong and brilliant woman, albeit a strong and brilliant woman who’s a complete fruit cake like the rest of us. I have only recently realised, however, that she may be the cleverest woman on the planet. I have only recently realised that she gave me something that every mother should give her daughter.
It is something more important than being given a family heirloom, a hug when you’ve had a nightmare, or even being given “the talk”. It is your sense of who you are and what makes you worth something – as a person, as an individual, as a member of a family. Aside from all the crucial things like food, shelter, love, and reindeer socks at Christmas, this is one of the most important things your parents can give you.
And until recently I hadn’t realised what a good job my parents (and, because I’m a woman, particularly my mum) had done with this aspect of parenting.
When I was growing up, I don’t remember my parents saying things like “you look nice/pretty/beautiful” very often. I don’t remember them ever making much fuss at all about my appearance. And when I was little, I never really thought about this much. Maybe I thought it was a little bit odd. Maybe, in my teenage years I was slightly offended by it, and in more foolish moments perhaps thought them slightly unloving for not saying things like that (although, to be honest, anyone who has seen photos of me in my younger days would no doubt argue that there may have been one or two other reasons the word ‘beautiful’ wasn’t thrown around too much). But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was actually the most caring, most important thing they have done for me.
I didn’t really figure this out until a little while ago. I was talking to my mum about something or other, and I don’t remember her precise words but she said something along these lines:
If you tell young girls that they’re pretty all the time, and make a big fuss over their appearance. If you give them lots of attention and affection that is centred around them looking beautiful, then they will learn to think that people only love and value them for what they look like.
And I understood. And I thought “my mum is a genius”. Because it seems obvious once someone’s said it to you, right? But I’m not altogether sure it would actually have occurred to me if my mum hadn’t said it. So, whether I have children one day or not, that day my mum gave me one of the best lessons in parenting anyone could give me. And she probably won’t realise she did until she reads this.
Because now I understand that, while it seems quite innocent, “beautiful” is a very dangerous word to use around young people. It sounds like a compliment, it sounds like a kind thing to say, but actually it might do horrible things to the way a young person thinks of themself. The kindest things of all is not to say it. If you have a daughter and you make a big deal about her appearance, if you seem to make a fuss of her because she looks pretty, you might just teach her something that isn’t true. You might accidentally teach her that her only value in life, the only reason people will love her, is if she looks pretty. But no-one loves anyone because of the way that they look.
The way you look is something you’re born with. It’s something that, unless you take drastic measures, you’re stuck with. It does not reflect your value as a human being. It’s not who you are as a person, and it’s not the reason people will love you. What you look like doesn’t make you who you are, what you do makes you who you are.
Too often people, and sadly especially women, seem to live their lives terrified that someone, somewhere might think they’re ugly. I fall into this trap sometimes too. But what we have to remember is that even if someone, somewhere does think we’re ugly, it’s really not the end of the world. It’s actually a hell of a lot better than someone thinking we’re a cruel person, or a selfish person.
And besides, if living in Edinburgh – this crazy, wonky, breathtaking city – teaches us anything, it’s that beauty does not equal physical perfection. Beauty is entirely subjective, it can be anything we find it in. And whoever you are, whatever you look like, you’re already one up on perfection – because you exist, perfection does not.
So if us lot do ever have children, I sincerely hope we won’t tell them that they look beautiful. I hope we’ll be able to teach them instead what I’ve realised my parents taught me – that what matters is not whether you look good in a pair of jeans or not. What matters is whether you’re kind or not. What matters is whether you treat other people with respect or not. What matters is how you behave towards your friends, and towards people who aren’t your friends. What matters is whether you’re courageous about the things that scare you. What matters is how hard you try to do right by yourself and by other people. Because at the end of the day, that’s who you are, that’s what makes you a person, all of those things. You are not your reflection in a bit of glass.
I will forever be grateful that my parents brought me up to know this, and I will always consider my mum to be an absolute genius and a spectacularly good mother for making me realise how important it is.