The Arbiter of Beauty

A little girl, of about six years old, came running up to me while I was on yard duty on Friday at lunch. Her head was down, but she kept looking up to see if I was aware of her. As she got closer, and slightly out of breath, she said, with her head turned away from me and her hand outstretched in the same direction, “Mr. G., Mr. G., A– just called me ugly.”

Why, at six years old, is she dealing with self-image issues? Shouldn’t she have enough to deal with, with her new teeth growing in, her math quiz that she’s not quite ready for, or just eating lunch?

And, what about A–? How is she already so clever to know that N– would be upset by such a slight? How do A– and N– already have a standard of beauty, at only six years old?

I’ve got self-image issues, sure. I judge the way I look. I stand in front of the mirror, criticising my physical appearance. There are certain outfits that I just will not wear. I think about going to the gym to make my body look a little nicer. I judge people who are my contemporaries based on how they look. I have an idea of what I find attractive in others, and what I find ugly. I’ve slowed down to get an extra half-second look at the cute woman walking on the sidewalk.

Like N–, I should already have enough to deal with, with the attrition of my teeth, the math lesson that I will be delivering, and getting myself some lunch after my yard duty is over.

These days, people only judge my beauty behind my back. They’re keeping me safe from their reverence. This I know. Like A–, they, and I, already have a standard of beauty.

I don’t know who I’d run to if someone called me ugly to my face.

It’s not uncommon for little girls and boys to come running up to me with a problem when I’m on yard duty. Often, I think they just want to tell somebody about what just happened because they’re still trying to figure out how the world works. They just want someone to care about their experience as much as they do. In many ways, we never really grow up.

Children have a tendency to repeat themselves when they think they’re not being heard and understood. After getting through to N– that I understood her problem, I asked her one question: “Do you believe her [A–]?”

N– had to think about it, giving me time to kneel down – these knees of mine – so that she and I were face to face, with the noonday sun shining directly into my face forcing me to close my left eye. With only my right eye focused on N–, I asked her the question again, to which she still had no reply.

She had internalized it. She had to think about whether or not she is ugly. At only six years old, she did not know that she is not ugly. She, to whatever extent, believed A–.

I rephrased my question, asking: “Do you think you’re ugly? I don’t think you’re ugly.” Still, she had to think about it. I asked this same question twice more before she finally said, “No.”

Unsatisfied, I asked the question again. I egged her on until she finally said, “No, I don’t think I’m ugly.” With this answer, a smile came to her face.

That’s when I was able to tell her that if she doesn’t think she’s ugly then there’s no reason to believe A–. She took a step closer to me as if to lean in for a hug, but that’s not allowed. I squeezed her left shoulder and told her to go play with her friends. With her head held a little higher, she ran off in the same direction that she was pointing in earlier.

I’m still unsatisfied. I want to hear her say, “I am beautiful.”

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