Tag Archives: Appearance vs. Substance

Ugly is a Matter of Perspective

The downside to 11-year-old slumber parties is clear – a very big mess, very little sleep and the very real danger of permanent hearing damage. If you have not experienced the extraordinary pitch and volume of excited pre-teen babble… well then, I’m happy for you.

On the upside, it’s a fascinating peek into the mind of children-becoming-women. I mostly hung out in the background at my daughter’s first sleepover party, as per her strict instructions. And if I happened to lurk in the hallway listening from time to time, who’s to know? After all, it is my house.

It’s a lot like I remember. A lot more OMG and iPod usage than I’d like, but the silliness and the shrieking and the inhuman levels of energy ring a bell. The enthusiasm of childhood intersecting with the concerns of growing up.

The birthday girl wanted a “fancy dinner,” so she and all her guests dressed up, then big sister played waitress and Mom played chef and somehow everyone got fed. There were candles and flowers and the good china and the good white tablecloth. It’s possible that more food ended up in the “wine” glasses than in their stomachs, but they weren’t complaining.

After cheesy party games, presents, a movie, pranking poor big sister and several hours of whispering (until Mean Mom made an appearance at 2:30 am), they managed to get a few hours of REM in.

Enough, apparently, that the next morning they found a few minutes to wax philosophical. They even asked me to weigh in on the conversation. I think the question had originally been asked in jest, but the discussion seemed pretty serious for pajama clad partiers.

If you had to choose,
one or the other for the rest of your life,
would you rather be pretty or smart?

On the surface, it’s a simple conversation starter. Like, what kind of superpower would you choose? Or where would you go if you could go anywhere in the world? Fluffy and unimportant. But in this day and age, for a group of young women just discovering who they are, it’s a serious question.

What’s most important to you? Who do you want to be? Why?

Of course, this is a rhetorical argument – we don’t have to choose, though it may seem like it sometimes (but that’s a blog for another day). And on some level, our physical appearance and natural intelligence is not within our control. We are who we are. Accepting that is the first step to contentment. Still, we can nurture and enhance both our mind and our look. With limited resources, we tend to focus more on one or the other.

Our priorities and values, especially as women, can be largely determined by our devotion to either appearance or substance. It affects how we see ourselves and others. It affects our goals and our dreams and our sense of purpose. It affects how we spend our time and our money and our lives.

I gave the girls the “Mom Answer” they expected. Of course, I’d rather be smart. That’s what I was supposed to say.

Afterwards I wondered… is it really true? I mean, I definitely want to be pretty. I’d love to have movie-star good looks and wear size 2 and fend off drooling hoards of admirers. Who wouldn’t?

But would I trade the power of my mind, the things I know and have experienced, my connection with God, my common sense, and my hard-won slivers of wisdom for that? Even just a little bit?

Never. Not for all the pretty in the world. I wouldn’t lessen myself that way.

Yet, women do that all the time. We live in a world that tells girls, in thousands of different ways, that their value lies in how they look and what they weigh and how well they can attract a man. Sometimes we even slap a “feminist” label on it and call that power. But real power isn’t being noticed or shaking your ass – real power is being confident, unique and strong in a way that is MORE than skin deep. The world doesn’t need more pretty women, it needs more smart ones.

Without time to prepare, I didn’t offer the eloquent, inspiring comments I would’ve liked. I said something about looks being temporary. That I need intelligence to understand and enjoy the world. That I want to do something good and important and make the world a better place, not just decorate it.

One little girl looked at me, then said, quite sadly,

“But then you’d be ugly.”

There was a pause then, before other conversations intruded and crepes wanted flipping and sleeping bags needed folding and the party carried on.

I carried that sad comment with me all day. And I wondered about the nature of ugly, about the world we live in and the world we’re making.

If a girl chooses smart. If she chooses substance. Could that, ever, be ugly?

So here’s my answer girls: don’t pick pretty. Pick smart. Even better, pick kind or brave or outstanding. Because there’s nothing uglier than a pretty face with nothing behind it.

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