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A Letter to my Daughter about Beauty

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Words by Théa Rosenburg // Image by Kelly Kee

There are certain things that I wish I could tell you, but I suspect that they are the sort of things that you will have to learn for yourself—the sort of lessons that stick better when they come after years of struggle. Perhaps there is something in the struggle that is important, I don’t know. But here is one of them: you are beautiful.

Unless America has changed dramatically during your lifetime, or we have, at God’s call, moved elsewhere, you will have grown up in a country that worships physical beauty. You will have heard—from ads, from friends, from family, and probably even (though we fight against this) from us—that it matters tremendously what you look like, that it is of the utmost importance that you be beautiful in a particular way.

And yet here is what I’m learning: you cannot rightly judge your own beauty. No matter how you pore over your own reflection or scrutinize every photograph of yourself, you cannot break your beauty down into modifiable pieces, because whatever it is that makes you beautiful vanishes the moment you try to pin it down.

You are most beautiful in your least guarded moments: that is what I’ve learned. And you cannot capture that beauty in the bathroom mirror. You cannot persuade that beauty to stay, not by tinkering with makeup or pinning your hair up just so, because beauty has less to do with the shape of your nose or the width of your hips than with the way you look just before laughing. It shows in the way you smile at your father when he isn’t looking, or turn your face toward an open window to catch the breeze. Sometimes a photograph can capture this, but only when you least expect it (and rarely on family picture days).

I have visited new mothers often enough to know that this is true. They come to the door exhausted, wearing yoga pants and stained t-shirts, clearly unwashed and with their hair in a knot, and yet they shine. That glow doesn’t come from their clothes but comes, I suspect, from the fact that they are too busy delighting in their baby’s face to take more than a cursory look at their own. Their beauty is a by-product of joy.

You are beautiful, my daughter. If you are a grown woman now, know that I have always thought this; I hope I have told you so often. You are beautiful, no matter what you may think when you look in the mirror.

I know that mothers always say that about their children, and now I know why: we are the ones who see our children in their most vulnerable moments, when they are weak with fever or fast asleep. We watch them skip through the yard alone, inventing stories; we see them offer their best toy to a friend without being asked; we receive their spontaneous affection. We knew them when they were too young to try to impress us, and we knew that they were beautiful then. People say that mothers are biased, and they’re right. But I sometimes wonder if we aren’t the best judges of our children’s beauty: we can’t be objective, of course, but why should we be? Beauty is not an entity separate from personality or history, and so we see those imperfections that a more objective critic might condemn and know that they add to a child’s beauty rather than detract from it.

Here is another thing I have learned: it is not wrong to appreciate beauty in others, or to strive to draw out the beauty in ourselves and in our surroundings to the best of our ability. That is to say, I do not consider it a sin to wear makeup, or to be attentive to the way we dress or style our hair. But when we begin to believe that it is a certain shade of lipstick—or a new dress or necklace—that makes us beautiful, that is when we fall into sin.

Peter wrote, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3–4). Women who believe that beauty can be purchased or put on become, somehow, less lovely: their makeup hides what shouldn’t be hidden, their clothes reveal what shouldn’t be shared, and their beauty becomes a thing that they are able to step out of at the end of the day.

But the other kind of beauty, the one I’ve been talking about, goes beyond the reach of makeup, and is, as Peter says, “imperishable.” Wrinkles can’t reach it; creaking joints can’t slow it down. Its roots go deep, past the elegant hair and flattering dress, and into our very spirit, where we are most ourselves. Tend to that place, daughter: look for beauty there and learn to draw it out, by loving the Lord and those he’s given you to love, by delighting in the life he’s given you to live, and by trusting that he did well when he made you.

Rejoice! That joy will suit you better than the loveliest dress ever could.