When your daughter believes she is ugly

Just as I was feeling that I had sufficiently navigated the parenting obstacles set before me for the day, my 6.5 year-old Jie-jie dropped a bomb on me.

After dinner we came back to the room and the kids had baths. Jie-jie was looking in the bathroom mirror while I was combing and blowing out her hair when tears started rolling down her cheeks. “Look at my crooked eyes,” she said. “I look terrible. My face is so ugly.” Then she burst in to sobs. “I will have to leave Sweden soon because everyone can see that my face doesn’t look good! It’s ugly!”

I was completely taken aback. It is true that Jie-jie’s eyes are a little unbalanced. One opens slightly more than the other. They have always been that way. I first really noticed it when she was about 3 months old (and of course assumed that it was my fault – that when I was pregnant I ate too much of something or not enough of something else or whatever). I don’t generally notice it anymore but do intermittently make a point of paying attention to confirm that there is no change. Jie-jie first noticed it a couple of months ago. She brought it up in a very matter-of-fact manner and I replied in kind that it was true. As far as I know, no one else has ever really noticed it or mentioned it to her.

I asked her if anyone had ever said anything about it and she said no but she can tell that her teachers notice by the way they look at her. I wonder if there is more going on here but she wasn’t interested in talking about anything but how we could fix her crooked eye.

I was at a loss for words.

I first thought about saying who cares what anyone thinks, but realized that would be denying the gravity of the problem. Of course kids care about this stuff. I still do.

I then considered that old line – it doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s what’s on the inside that counts so she should let her inner beauty compensate for a crooked eye, but we all know that is wishful thinking and continues to deny the gravity of the problem from her perspective.

I thought about reassuring her that she is absolutely gorgeous, that people stop her dad and me all the time to say that she is beautiful (this is true) but that isn’t the route I wanted to take either. It was too superficial.

I ended up just holding her for a bit, talking about how every person, no matter how beautiful, has imperfections and asymmetries in their bodies. I talked about how most of us spend a lot of time studying ourselves so we are more aware of our imperfections than anyone else. I said I would always try to help her to feel beautiful. I also said (here is a FAIL) that when she gets older if there are situations when she really feels that it will make a big difference, there would be a way of putting on makeup that would make her assymetrical eyes even less obvious. Her dad came and talked about how our bodies change as they grow older so just to be patient.

So, yeah. Isn’t less-than-7 pretty young to be dealing with this? I was unprepared and botched this completely. How should I have handled this and how should I handle it in the future? I was hoping to raise my children as brainiacs who, until college, had their good looks overshadowed by their substantial vocabularies, poor fashion sense, social cluelessness, and penchant for algebra. I guess that is not to be.

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10 Responses to When your daughter believes she is ugly

  1. Andrea, I LOVED this! You didn’t do such a bad job. Just the same, I’m glad I’m gay and won’t be having kids that I’d probably ruin in some other way…

  2. shobavish says:

    From a complete outsider, who is encountering you blog for the first time today, it seems like you handled the tough parenting moment with great poise.It’s heart-breaking when our children express self-doubt in its various forms and there are no easy answers of how to work around it…you focused on her and reassured her that she is important to you, and the experts say that helps.

  3. Matt says:

    Andrea,
    Given that this is one of those things they never offer classes on or we are recieve any forewarning about I think you did a pretty bang up job. The most important thing you did wasn’t in anything you said or didn’t say. It was in the fact that you held here and paid attention to her, in other words you expressed to her that she is loved. IMHO there is nothing more helpful than that when dealing with a moment of depleted self-esteem/image. In regards to your other question yeah 6.5 is way to early to be dealing with doubts about appearance and body image. I fear its a by-product of a culture that in general spends way too much time, effort, and thought on physical appearance. Give that BEAUTIFUL niece of mine a hug and a kiss from Uncle Matt.

  4. akphd says:

    I think you are an amazing mom! I honestly do not think it was a fail to say the makeup thing. It sounds like you validated her feelings and reassured her that you would always be there to help in a practical way. Maybe if she looks around at everyone wearing makeup, she will notice that everyone has “imperfections” that they are trying to hide, and so she will feel less alone.

  5. Jen Reg says:

    hi..i came across your blog for the first time today because this post caught my eye. i remember my 3-yr old son several months ago upset telling me that his “nose is flat and his dad’s is pointed.” i wasn’t sure what to say either so i just told him his nose is different from his dad’s and my nose isn’t pointed either. i even said (hesitantly) that yes, his nose is flat but that’s okay. since then when someone tells him that his nose is not pointed like his dad’s, i’d always hear him say, my nose is flat and it’s okay.

  6. Rachel says:

    That’s a tough one Andrea.
    Jie-jie is such a beautiful girl. I wonder if insecurities are temporarily surfacing because of her recent change in environment. Although, not many assimilate quite well as jie-jie. I think you and Jason handled it wonderfully. Our kids being unhappy with themselves for any reason certainly makes our hearts break. I agree that you don’t want to put emphasis on looks, but I think it’s important for every kid to feel that they are beautiful. It helps there self-esteem, just like knowing they are good dancer, or painter or student. If they can hear it from us enough then eventually they will believe it. Then they will stop listening to any doubt that have inside, which may be the reason they look in the mirror so critically at themselves. The best answer for how to handle this type of situation is hard to know for certain. Jie-jie will probably wake up tomorrow happy and content again without a second thought to what caused her pain today.

    Thinking of all of you.

    ~Rachel

  7. Ginny says:

    Oh, Andrea, my heart hurts for you for that moment when Jei-Jei said she was so ugly, she’ll soon have to leave Sweden. What a kick in the gut! From that point, sounds like you leaned right in there to keep your daughter company in her pain, which seems like the most important thing you could have done. I’m sure you and Jason made her feel better, even if you couldn’t fix it for her.

    Personally, I think it’s fine to let her know people think she’s beautiful. I like beauty — in the clouds, flowers, snow storms, children’s faces… it adds joy to our lives. Her beauty, too, gives people pleasure and that’s a good thing. It is, of course, not the main thing you want to teach her! It’s kind of like the cherry on top, or maybe the colored umbrellas you get in fancy drinks.

    Anyway, for being so totally caught off guard, I think you did fine. Even the make up part — that offered her hope.

    Big hugs!!
    Ginny

  8. Emilie says:

    You did a great job. Though I have to say, I have never noticed this issue at all, and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Jie-jie and hoping that my kids will be lucky enough to be as beautiful as she is! But no, I don’t think it’s unusual to be encountering these insecurities now. I think I was about Jie-jie’s age when I first really started paying attention to the chicken pox scar right in the middle of my nose. Other kids pointed it out to me all the time and it made me feel ugly and self conscious. My mom told me (probably many times during this period of insecurity) that I was beautiful and that having this little special thing set me apart, and was part of what made me beautiful. Honestly, I think it’s nice to hear that, as often what you really want is someone to tell you that you ARE beautiful and that having something different about you doesn’t make you ugly. Anyway, at some point when I persisted in being upset, I remember she said something similar to what you did–that when I got older I could use make up to cover it up if I wanted. Don’t stress about having said that! I don’t know, I think when you’re really upset about something at that age it’s good to hear that you can make it go away if you want. But over the next few years my mom also helped me realize that having the confidence to own who you are and to accept and love the weird little things about yourself will make you happy in your own skin, itself the key to feeling beautiful. I have never tried to hide my scar–not that I’m any good with makeup anyway, but it’s part of who I am and I love it. It’s not easy to understand that as a 6.5 year old, but over time I have no doubt that Jie-jie will get there. She’s a smartie.

  9. Andrea Voyer says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, everyone!

  10. Oh, Andrea…that is so heartbreaking. Like everyone else, I think you did an amazing job, especially having to respond so out of the blue to something like that. Your story has obviously struck a chord with many people. I wonder if it would have affected people similarly if Jie-Jie had been just as upset about not being a gifted athlete or a math genius? I think it is particularly painful for a mom to see that self-doubt in her daughter because it is familiar, you know that feeling, and want things to be different for her. It terrifies me at times to think of the responsibility I bear in being the female role model for my girls. Being raised in the South, I was taught that beauty is power. And it is, to a certain extent, fair or not. But the personal desire to meet society’s definition of beauty or expectations regarding girls’ and women’s bodies is corrosive. Add to that the sexualization of young girls, skeletal models, photoshop, etc., and I wonder how am I ever going to help my girls navigate it all? Am I harming my girls by wearing make-up? Dresses? Heels? Do I continue to let the nanny paint their nails Crayola colors? What about those damn princess dresses? It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized I let society’s expectations have their way with me. I look forward to ya’ll being back home in Vermont this summer. We can sit on the back porch, watch the girls run through the sprinkler, and figure out how to let them make their own mistakes, instead of repeating ours.

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