Build a healthy message of value

Published in the Courier Mail 28 April 08

READING the paper over coffee is lovely – except when you read something that makes you choke on your flat white.

The sudden inhalation of caffeine and subsequent spluttering and coughing occurred when I read comments by entrants into a bikini contest that were extolling the virtues of said contest and the empowerment they felt. More than a few perspectives on bikini contests popped into mind, yet none of them included women being empowered by them.

So while reading the news online last week, it was fortunate that I’d already finished my coffee when I discovered the latest addition to children’s literature.

My Beautiful Mummy, written by Florida plastic surgeon Michael Salzhauer, details one mummy’s trip to get a nose job, tummy tuck and breast augmentation. It’s aimed at 4- to 7-year-olds and, according to the author, was written to help children understand what is happening when mummy comes home from hospital in bandages.

You can understand to a point. It’s certainly true that a household is disrupted if mummy has to go to hospital. In fact, in many homes, if the mum has even a few days in bed with the flu, entire household routines self-destruct. Children can experience a variety of emotions if their sense of security and emotional safety is threatened and children’s books can often provide a way to process and discuss these feelings.

These are the reported reasons that Salzhauer wrote My Beautiful Mummy. And perhaps his motivations were noble. However, what may have been sincere intentions are undone by the way he has framed this issue.

Reportedly, the mum in the book warns her daughter that “she will look different after the bandages come off”. The girl asks: “Why are you going to look different?” Mum responds: “Not just different, my dear – prettier!”

Any child reading this book, or having it read to them, will come away with a very clear message that mummy’s beauty is all about her straighter nose, flatter stomach and larger breasts. Inappropriate value is being placed on physical perfection and flawless looks. And all of this in a book aimed at 4- to 7-year-olds?

When bikini contestants claim empowerment, and My Beautiful Mummy suggests that beauty is only skin-deep, women – and it seems now children – are being taught that their value is summed up by how they look. Images of stars such as Pamela Anderson looking slim and glamorous, make the misconception more acceptable.

So strongly is this message coming through that young teenage women are trying to access non-medical cosmetic surgery at younger and younger ages. Discontent with their physical appearance is fuelled by unattainable, Photoshopped images promoted in the media and the answer seems to lie in a scalpel. To address this worrying trend, NSW has just overhauled legislation to ensure people who want non-medical cosmetic surgery have to wait until they are 18.

Yet this trend is understandable if you start to look at the messages being given to women. If mummy needs a nose job so that she can be prettier, does that mean mums who can’t afford a nose job can’t be beautiful?

These messages aren’t just promoted by advertising companies but, sadly, are often reinforced by other women. The unsettling, but not altogether surprising report recently of the Big 21 club at a private school in Mackay is just one example where the top 21 prettiest girls in the school wore their rank, from 1-21, on their wrist. This destructive situation reinforces to the 21 girls in the club that their value or empowerment is based on how they look, not who they are. Further, one can only hope that there was good counsel available for girls who were excluded from the club as they were deemed “not pretty enough”.

While Salzhauer is suggesting a plastic surgery solution for such dilemmas, a far healthier solution is a radical re-imagining of the measure of a woman.

A clue can be found in a quote by Evelyn Underhill when she said, “beauty is simply reality seen with the eyes of love”.

We may have a slightly crooked nose – or a perfect nose. We may hate bikinis. We may also love them. In a sense these things are irrelevant. For if we look at the reality of ourselves, and those around us, with eyes of judgment, then we will always notice a flaw. Yet when we learn the art of unconditional love – when we can accept and offer that – then beauty is revealed all around us.

A woman who is loved for who she is, rather than what she looks like, becomes more beautiful every day – both in perception and in stunning reality. That’s the message our children should be hearing and it’s a lot less expensive than plastic surgery.