“In the grand scheme of things, you’re only pretty for a second. So, you’d better back it up with something.” That’s what I told my teenage daughters in an attempt to keep their vanity in check.
I’m currently living in that transitional stage—going from beauty to what I’ve backed it up with. I’m 43 years old.
Vanity is a tough fight. And physical beauty, in the way that our youth-valued society defines it, is an easy distraction. Girls forget that they should be learning who they are, discovering their passions, and honing their emotional intellect.
I believe that substance beats beauty, but I also adjust my posture and check the camera view before I click the green button when my husband FaceTime’s me from the road.
I want the sight of me to make him smile. Just looking at him does it for me. Every crevice in his face reminds me of our path together—his wit and invaluable support.
Does he love my deep grooves and capped smile? Will I still hold his attention in 10 years? He would view my self-doubt as not having any faith in him. “I can’t wait until you’re a silver fox,” he’d say.
The conviction to age gracefully is different than actually watching age tug at me. As the mother of two teenage daughters, though, I have to confront these feelings and know where I stand if I truly want to be their living example. That’s not an easy feat when vanity creeps in from every crack and corner. Makeup to conceal, push ups to strengthen, and push-up bras to keep it all in proper place—those are our culture’s expectations.
I don’t believe it has to be all or nothing. I wear makeup when I want to. Just because I encourage my kids to focus on their character doesn’t mean I forbid them to enjoy their beauty. All points on the spectrum are worth celebrating.
My girls enjoy a day in heels and the persona that makeup can enhance. But it can’t be their source of self worth.
Hard work and commitment to character are much more important than the color-coordination of one’s wardrobe and the smooch-ability of cherry-blast lip balm. We all feel judgment around our looks. And yet, this standard of beauty is based on an ideal that that cannot be sustained.
As a child, I lived across the street from my aunt. I spent equal parts of my time in both houses, playing with my cousins. Once, I had to pee while my aunt was in the bath. It was a one-bathroom home and I was young, maybe five. No shower meant no shower curtain. My feet dangled from my seat, not touching the floor, and I watched her bathe.
Her heavy breasts lay on her belly. She lifted each one to wash underneath. I was shocked by the size of them and couldn’t imagine growing breasts so large that I would have to lift them up to wash what was beneath. I hoped that such a deformity would never happen to me. But after 43 years of gravity and four total years of breastfeeding, it is me.
In the morning, I stand braless in my bathrobe and pack lunches for my family. I recognize the bewildered and worrisome looks from my daughters. Is this what they have to look forward to? My breasts rest above the rope that ties my robe closed. I’m sure they wonder if the rope line is the only thing keeping them above my waist.
It happens to all of us, in one way or another. Yet, to point out a woman’s age or that she looks old is taboo. Some women will fight it to expensive, delusional ends. I’ve decided to look forward to being an old lady. It sure beats the alternative. Nobody wins the battle against age. It’s our one collective destiny.
The only way to cheat age is to die young.
Did I always have this conviction? No. It took me having two daughters. I want my daughters to understand that they decide how they will live their lives. In the end, it all comes down to life experiences. Why spend too much of that precious time fretting in front of a mirror? When instead, we can make meaningful memories and connections. This means that I have to see it within myself, challenge the vain mindset, and reject the marketing that tells me I’m not good enough … young enough … pretty enough.
Do my girls love me because they think I’m attractive? No. But, vanity is a hard fight that I don’t always win. I have to continue to challenge society’s expectations of me. My focus is to cultivate my talents, underscore my character, and to fall into life’s season of substance—gracefully.
This essay originally appeared on Erma Bombeck’s Writers Workshop Blog.