By Kelly J. Baker
“You’re beautiful,” my daughter says to a sixty-something waitress with a halo of wild gray curls. The waitress looks tired and worn. The compliment seems to take her by surprise, as if it unsettles her. She pauses, tentatively smiles, and murmurs a hushed “thank you.” When a five year old offers a compliment, you take it, even if it doesn’t resonate. You say, “thank you.” You smile. Maybe, you even offer a compliment back. The child says, “you’re welcome” with bright smile. Sometimes, she just nods and grins mischievously.
My daughter makes these pronouncements of beauty daily: at the grocery store, at her elementary school, in parking lots, in the street, in nature, and at home. She uncovers beauty in birds and squirrels, sunsets and cloudy days, the green grass and the autumn leaves, her toddling brother and smiling babies. Beauty appears everywhere as if waiting for her alone to identify it. She finds people, especially women, beautiful and never hesitates to tell them so. Shape, size, skin color, and age don’t matter. Beauty appears to her as inclusive and expansive.
There’s no stopping these declarations of who, or what, is beautiful. They erupt from her in a clear, singsong voice. Her excitement telegraphs through her inability to stay still. I cannot bring myself to try to contain them. The words emerge when I least expect them. She catches a cashier off guard. She shouts at teenagers walking in our neighborhood. She lovingly tells her grandmother, my mother, how beautiful she is. She compliments her friends, and they shrug off her words in the midst of play.
Many women appear stunned by her pronouncements unsure what do when a now six-year old offers a compliment seemingly out of context. (Is there a context for compliments? If so, my kid refuses to acknowledge it.) Others focus on her “cuteness” to return the favor, as if the compliment must be reciprocated. Some ignore her outright. She doesn’t appear to mind. Once she’s declared someone is beautiful, that beauty exists whether acknowledged or not.
I wonder what my daughter means by beauty. I want to ask her. I stop myself before I can utter the question because I’m afraid the question will change her. If I make her define why someone or something is beautiful, I fear I’ll make her question her visions of beauty. So, I don’t ask. Instead, I try to embrace her lesson of limitless beauty and apply it generously. I want her to keep finding everyone beautiful. I want to find everyone beautiful too.
My daughter also finds beauty in me, usually in the moments when I think I’m anything but. In the mornings before coffee, without my trusty under-eye concealer and the benefit of a hair brush. In the afternoons when my energy and patience are low, she tosses the compliment around haphazardly ignoring whether it landed. In the evenings while she snuggles close, she whispers, “You’re beautiful.” She touches my cheek or holds my hand. I hold her tightly, forcing myself to remember these fleeting moments and her kind words.
No matter how I look, she finds beauty. Glasses or contacts, yoga pants or jeans, make-up or none, I appear beautiful to her. She’s pronounced my beauty, so it exists.
Like the strangers she compliments, I’m often stunned by her words. I find myself at a loss of what to say. Most often I respond with a rushed “thank you,” but in trying moments, I hold back an exasperated “seriously?”—she finds me beautiful, even though I rarely think of myself in such terms.
Instead, I can enumerate my flaws, and the many features I dislike: my nose, crooked bottom teeth, chubby cheeks, and squishy tummy. I want to say I’m not beautiful, but I would never say this to her. This is my opinion, not hers. What I look like does not define who I am, I remind myself. This is not all of me. Yet, my disquiet with my appearance remains. This is my burden to bear, not hers, so I smile and offer my thanks. My daughter finds me beautiful, so I am.
I revel in her appreciation of beauty without judgment. I look for beauty with her. I point out what I find beautiful. I hope her visions of infinite beauty can make my definitions more expansive and forgiving. I attempt to ignore the cultural pressures that assert beauty is limited rather than limitless. She sees no limits to what can be beautiful. I hope she always does.
After listening to her declarations of beauty for over a year, what I realized is that “you’re beautiful” is more than a compliment. It is also my daughter’s way of saying “I see you.” For her, there are no flaws, just human beings. When she tells me that I’m beautiful as she holds my hand, she’s explaining that she sees me. “You’re beautiful” is “I love you.” These words become her way to articulate that I bring beauty to her life as we encounter the world together. I’m her mother, she’s my child, and beauty is all around us. I’m glad she points to beauty, or I would miss it because of my limits. She sees me, and I see her. She loves me, and I love her. She’s beautiful too.
Kelly J. Baker is writer, who lives in Tallahassee, Florida with her husband and two kids. She can be found online at www.kellyjbaker.com or on Twitter @kelly_j_baker.