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Washington Voices

Spitting image is true beauty

Sat., Aug. 17, 2013, midnight

‘Wow. She looks just like you.”

My daughter Emily and I exchange a look over the grocery cart. This acquaintance in the produce aisle isn’t proclaiming something new. He’s uttering a phrase we’ve heard countless times since she was about 10.

I’m not sure if it’s our matching brown eyes, the shape of our noses and chins, the way we smile or some other combination of genetics that make people exclaim as if it’s shocking we should resemble each other.

We don’t even have to be together.

A few years ago I remember spotting Emily’s new choir director at a local coffee shop. I hadn’t met her yet so I went to introduce myself. Before I could even open my mouth she gasped. “You must be Emily’s mom.”

That’s happened over and over when meeting the teachers, coaches and the parents of her friends.

They shake their heads and marvel. Then they utter the same five words.

“She looks just like you.”

Of course, from the moment I first held Emily in my arms, I found her features exquisite. She was perfect and full of promise.

While I sometimes searched for the ways she resembled Curtis or me, mostly I just saw Emily, a delightful girl with a sense of adventure who has enriched my life beyond words.

When the “she looks like you” comments started during her tween years they forced me to face my culture-driven physical insecurities and put them in their place.

No more staring in the mirror to pick apart my imperfections. No more bemoaning the ways my face and figure didn’t meet society’s standards of air-brushed beauty.

If my daughter looked like me and I didn’t like how I looked, in even the tiniest way, what message would that send?

It hasn’t been easy. I still slip into self-deprecation like an old shoe. After years of practice it’s a hard habit to break.

Every day girls and women are barraged with messages meant to make us feel unattractive so we’ll spend a lot of money on products to make us more eye-catching. If that weren’t enough, we perpetuate the myth that conventional beauty makes everything better.

Since my teen years, too many conversations have included a sick turn-taking where women pay each other compliments while bashing themselves in the same breath.

“I love your hair. I wish mine weren’t so straight (or curly, or wavy, or thick or thin).”

“That dress looks so good on you. I wish I could wear red (or black or orange or purple).”

And the worst one, often accompanied by a soulful sigh and a self-conscious body pat. “You’ve lost weight. I wish I could take off a few pounds.”

Why do so many women act as if disparaging their own looks will make their friends feel more secure? It doesn’t.

As a mother, I didn’t want Emily to tie her sense of self to appearance, regardless of how pretty she was. It’s too precarious a quality to build an identity on.

Her coveted curly hair would have been a bane if she’d been a teen in the ’60s. How silly.

Instead, I wanted to raise a confident girl who knows her worth, who knows she’s loved and valued, who knows she can dream big and work hard to achieve those dreams. She can do these things because she’s capable.

More importantly, I wanted to raise a daughter who knows that good character and confidence allures and endures while the standards of beauty constantly change. No matter the current fashion, kindness is always an attractive quality.

If she could internalize this I knew she could see through empty praises meant to manipulate and bounce back from petty put-downs. She’d also be better able to choose good friends, good boyfriends, and eventually, a good husband.

That’s why, when someone inevitably exclaims, “She looks just like you” my response is always the same.

“Thank you.”

I consider the clichéd comparisons as compliments because Emily is the loveliest person I know.

When I look at her, I see an amazing young woman full of admirable qualities. She’s brave, responsible, amiable and hard working. She’s taken her natural talents and strived to hone them, pursuing excellence with passion and grace.

She’s encouraged her brothers, mentored other kids and shown constant kindness and support to her family and friends. Her character shines through.

She’s beautiful.

That’s what I’d like to look like, too.

Contact correspondent Jill Barville by e-mail at .

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