The Ugly Truth

I had lunch with some female friends this week and we were swapping news and updates in the usual way, when one older lady revealed she was soon to be a grandmother.

“I don’t mind whether it’s a boy or girl, as long as it’s healthy,” she said, and we all nodded dutifully and agreed because that’s what you’re supposed to say, I guess.

“When I was pregnant, I didn’t mind if it was a boy or girl,” added another friend. “I just didn’t want a baby that was ugly.”

And we all looked a bit shocked because, well, that’s not what you’re supposed to say. 

My friend went on to confess that when she had her daughter, she was initially disappointed that the baby wasn’t cute. In her family, there’s a lot of praise for big, bouncing, beautiful babies and her daughter was rather scrawny and grumpy looking. When she was pregnant for the second time, she silently hoped for a beautiful baby.

“Luckily, my eldest has really grown into her looks now,” said my friend. “I know all children are beautiful in their own way, but I just wanted my children to actually be beautiful.” 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m a feminist. So this kind of conversation doesn’t sit easily with me. I hate the idea that people are judged by their appearance, and I consider the way that girls are raised to feel they must conform with certain standards of grooming and beauty is nothing less than tyranny.

And yet…

I look at Flea and I see that she is undeniably cute. She has long blonde hair and big eyes, and skin that makes me weep with bitterness. Her nose turns up at the end and her ears don't stick out. I appreciate there’s a degree of parental bias at play here, of course.

I know part of what makes Flea popular is the fact that she has a brilliant sense of humour. She is generous and quick to laugh, and has a well-developed sense of the absurd. But I also suspect part of her popularity is about how she looks – research confirms that kids as young as 4 prefer to play with children they consider to be attractive, and I’ve seen time and again that adults indulge Flea because she is small, cute and blonde.  Would they like her as much if she looked a bit weird?

As a feminist, and someone who believes that it’s what’s inside that counts, I am very uncomfortable even typing that sentence. Of course, all children are beautiful and precious and loved. Obviously.

But as a Mother, and someone who wants my child to have the very best life she can, I breathe a (slightly uneasy) sigh of relief that my daughter is pretty. I know that people who are considered attractive tend to have more friends, are more likely to get a great job, will probably earn more over their lifetime, and have more successful love lives. Who wouldn’t want that for their children?

So… when you make wishes for your children do you wish for health and happiness  – and a quick shake of the pretty stick in their direction?   Or do you have a great tip for helping kids understand it’s what’s inside that counts?


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 12th November 2010 / 9:33 am

    I was the exact opposite…I was hoping for a slightly dorky looking one as I didn’t want her to rely on her looks to get through life. Sadly (or maybe not) she has inherited her fathers good looks!

  2. 12th November 2010 / 9:35 am

    It’s a tricky one. My boys are cute too (and amazingly it’s not just me that thinks it). To the extent where complete strangers will stop me to comment on my older son’s eyes, and I have started to ask mums at his school not to do so in his hearing because I want him to understand there is more to life than just being good looking. I think I may be particularly sensitive to this because my husband’s family place what I personally think to be far too much importance on physical appearance, so I play it down as much as possible – but like you, I’m secretly glad that this is one more thing in both their favour – that they’re easy on the eye. Thank god I don’t have daughters, is all I can say!

  3. Carole
    12th November 2010 / 9:38 am

    When my sons were at Toddler groups, one of the mothers was hawking her daughter and son round model agencies. The one comment that stuck in our craw, more than others, was that her children were so beautiful that she had a duty to share them with the world!
    We also had a friend with a son who had developed learning and movement problems due to epilepsy. He was the cutest, cheekiest, friendliest, bundle of trouble we had all had the joy to know – and we all adored our time with him. He died aged 6. My elder son (who was about 8 at the time) said that his death – from a massive fit – had been for the best, however, because he would have gone on to be an ugly adult. . . Out of the mouths of …

  4. Beth
    12th November 2010 / 9:49 am

    I (rather obviously) think my children are the most beautiful humans to ever grace the planet but I think that is a Mother’s prerogative to believe that.
    I have been told numerous times that they will be heartbreakers when they grow up. (I don’t want them to grow up though.)
    Personalities play a big part in perception of an ugly person. A good looking person who scowls permanently doesn’t appear as attractive as a not so good looker who smiles all the time. I know which one I’d prefer as a friend.

  5. Nat
    12th November 2010 / 9:50 am

    It doesn’t matter. My youngest baby looks like a old man but he’s adorable. My middle child is very gorgeous in every-way. He’s perfect, going to get deep now. 3 weeks ago he got hit by a car his face took the impact. His Tongue was lacerated & was quite literally hanging off at the end. 3 weeks on his Tongue is almost healed & quite obviously now his brilliant White perfect smile is now showing one dead tooth at the front. Really I couldn’t care less what he looks like I’m just glad he’s alive.
    I tell My eldest she’s pretty but I don’t say your hair or your eyes. She said to me this morning so & so in her class is beautiful. Kid is ok looking & bit overweight but a very nice child & Eliza said she’s pretty because she’s nice to me. Glad she’s able to see beauty in that way too.

  6. 12th November 2010 / 10:02 am

    What a beautifully written post and a true pleasure to read.
    Well my son is now 20 months old and has been a “cute” baby from day one. No one could believe how open his big and beautiful blue eyes were, even at 45mins old. He looks the same now though they are even more blue, if thats possible. He has the button nose and wavey blonde locks to match.
    People have suggested we take him to modelling agencies but I think for right now he is getting too much attention for just being cute. If that makes any sense? We want him to learn real values and morals and not depend on being cute to get by in life.
    We would like more children but who knows how we’d be with a cute little girl…..

  7. Abby
    12th November 2010 / 11:06 am

    I’ll be honest, I was hoping for a healthy, smart and (gasp!) beautiful baby. I don’t see why having a cute kid means that they will be unable to learn that real beauty comes from the inside or that it is unwise to judge a book by it’s proverbial cover as they grow. I just don’t understand why people believe these two ideas are somehow mutually exclusive. Life is hard enough as it is, why not wish for something that could make your childs life a bit easier?

  8. 12th November 2010 / 11:40 am

    Isn’t it interesting how lots of people have said “actually my child really is beautiful”? Because, while, clearly they’re wrong and none of their children is a patch on mine, I wonder sometimes if we can actually see our own children.
    I think mine are amazing. I look at them and I wonder how B and I, perfectly ordinary-looking human beings, could have produced three such astoundingly attractive children, (and not just because I have a personal theory that the people who grow into stunning adults are the ones who weren’t amazingly attractive children – long limbs, pronounced features, and rangy bodies all look much better on a twenty something than a five year old).
    Anyway I suspect that I may be the only person (well, perhaps not the only one, my mother probably feels the same way) who thinks so. But I also think that that’s important. Because I manage, simultaneously, to know, intellectually, that I’m perfectly pleasant looking, but nothing special, and to believe that I am amazingly beautiful. And that’s because my parents told me I was, and now I am lucky enough to be married to a man who tells me I am, and taking aside all questions of feminism, isn’t that just another way of telling you that you are loved, and special and amazing, and giving you the confidence to believe in yourself?
    So no, I don’t specifically want my girls to be beautiful. I suspect they probably won’t be. But I want them to feel it. Is that wrong?

  9. Nikki
    12th November 2010 / 11:59 am

    I really don’t think it matters at all. Our daughter was bald till she was 2 but had the most gorgeous eyes and smile! Now she’s 5 it’s still wavy and a bit crazy as she’s still got baby hair, but nevertheless she is an absolute stunner in our books.
    Our Son on the other hand was a gorgeous baby and is a fabulous looking 4 year old now – very cute and boy does he use it to his advantage….
    It only matters as much as you make it matter. As for baby competitions and model work – don’t get me started on that rant. I wouldn’t put my kids pictures on my locked down FB site let alone in the public domain….

  10. 12th November 2010 / 12:04 pm

    Dorky would have been cool with me, too.

  11. 12th November 2010 / 12:05 pm

    It’s a tricky balance to strike, I think you’re right.

  12. 12th November 2010 / 12:06 pm

    Blimey, that’s quite shocking. Luckily, I’m not so deranged as to think Flea’s so beautiful it needs sharing with world though!

  13. 12th November 2010 / 12:07 pm

    Yes, I think being cheery is a HUGE part of what makes Flea popular – her teacher told me recently that Flea’s the only kid in the class who has never fallen out with anyone, never been cheeky, or had to be told off. She is just a happy person. Which is the best thing in the world EVER in my book.

  14. 12th November 2010 / 12:08 pm

    I used to call Flea the Hippo. Her early years weren’t her finest, from an aesthetic point of view 😉 And well done to Eliza, pretty is as pretty does, I quite agree.

  15. 12th November 2010 / 12:09 pm

    Why thankyou! Yes, I was once invited to submit Flea for TV commercials, the director on some filming we did for my job said she’d be perfect – but I’m not sure I think it’s healthy for girls (in particular) to become focused on appearances so young.

  16. 12th November 2010 / 12:09 pm

    Yes, I guess you’re right – they’re not mutually exclusive. But I guess many of us have that notion that pretty people just don’t have to try so hard, maybe?

  17. 12th November 2010 / 12:11 pm

    Yes, empirical evidence suggests that most of us are wrong about how beautiful our children are, but it’s a parent’s right to think their child is stunning. No quibble with that.
    I think it’s interesting though how many of us admit to taking pleasure in that and hoping for it, I guess.
    But I think you’re quite right that you can know you aren’t beautiful but still feel beautiful and perhaps that’s the best of all worlds?

  18. Sarah Wolf
    12th November 2010 / 12:17 pm

    Oh god – I’m so glad your son is okay. Healthy and happy. That’s what matters.

  19. 12th November 2010 / 12:20 pm

    Hm. Well, my first was born with a whopping great hole in her face
    and if anything can get you thinking about what looks mean, that does. I was terrified she would look very odd and be bullied; I wasn’t too worried about beauty, but deformed was not high on my list of things to be cool with.
    Luckily she got mended fine and turned out to be a cute toddler and a very averagely attractive nearly teen – and I think she’ll blossom further. But it will be, I think, because she has honesty and kindness and thoughtfulness written right through her like words in a stock of rock and it just shines out.
    I’m not really pretty but my dh is good looking and they do all look more like him I think, so this doesn’t come up masses.
    But we are very, very strict in this house on it being person, not looks, which counts. And I don’t know what we’ve done to make it happen, but my eldest at any rate is extremely able to spot a nasty personality inside a set of pretty faces. I am hot on “it’s how you act, not how you look, that will make you happy and give you friends” and I just do not pander to fashion and bling and all the glitzy crud that gets flung at kids.
    And as for the rest, jeez, nothing focuses the mind on what really matters like NOT bringing a baby home from the maternity ward. If I once feared birthmarks and another baby with a cleft, I’d now bring home a baby that looked like the chuckle brothers with a bad gurning habit so long as it came home alive and with a brain that worked.

  20. 12th November 2010 / 1:26 pm

    I’m another one who’s secretly relieved that her boys are both handsome(of course I’m biased, but I think it’s true!). It always seems that those who are good looking kids tend to be picked on less, and with Max being on the autistic spectrum, I like the thought that (hopefully) with having Zack as a big brother, he won’t be picked on too much.
    It’s sad that this is what it’s come to though, isn’t it?

  21. 12th November 2010 / 1:58 pm

    WOW this post has hit me hard, it’s a great post by the way and yes like everyone else I know my sons are both handsome. My eldest was universallly known as a bonny baby with his large dark eyes and impossibly thick longs dark lashes (so wasted on a boy!). I was so complacent in that knowledge when he was little. People still say to me he’ll be a heartbreaker. But I breaks my heart that how ever beautiful he is deeemed to be he will still have epilepsy.
    Knowing that has made me look at my youngest in a differnt light. Where his brother is dark, he is light and his beauty is in his smile, his cheekiness and his bubbly personality. He’ll go further on those even though he is not as handsome as his elder brother.

  22. Andy
    12th November 2010 / 2:41 pm

    “but I just wanted my children to actually be beautiful.”
    Regardless of feminism, this statement is at best bizarre, in the middle is pandering to media stereotypes, and at worst is offensive.
    What does “actually” beautiful mean? Beautiful enough for others to drool over when they reach 18? As perfect as the impossibly perfect airbrushed models we are all subjected to on a daily basis? Physically attractive but dull as sh*t?
    I would’ve thought a parent would be the most likely person to find their child “actually beautiful” but, sadly, it seems not.

  23. 12th November 2010 / 2:50 pm

    Great read and provoked me to think long and hard about how I want my little one to turn out.
    When I was pregnant I remember joking about how awful it would be to have an ugly baby. Now I am a mum, I don’t think I could joke like that again. All babies are cute bundles of scrumptiousness and watching their little personalities is a true joy…even if they have a slightly big nose or sticky out ears.
    I am disappointed that we live in a world where beauty gets you places, even if you are a hideous person. Of course I want my child to be beautiful, but above all else I want him to grow up with good values, lots of emotional intelligence and a cracking sense of humour.

  24. 12th November 2010 / 2:56 pm

    A great read and provoked me to think long and hard about how I want my kid to turn out.
    When I was pregnant I remember joking about how awful it would be to have an ugly baby. Now I am a mum I don’t think I could joke like that again. All babies are cute bundles of scrumptiousness and watching their little personalities develop is a true joy…even if their ears stick out or their noses are too big.
    I am disappointed that we live in a world where beauty gets you places, no matter how hideous a person you are. Of courses I want my son to be beautiful, but above all else I want him to have good values, lots of emotional intelligence and a cracking sense of humour.

  25. 12th November 2010 / 5:00 pm

    It’s very honest of your friend to admit that she wanted a beautiful baby but I find it quite sad. I didn’t think at all about ‘beauty’. Having had two miscarriages I was grateful to get through the pregnancy and go home with a baby. Nipper is a nice looking lad with blond hair and big brown eyes. Since we’ve recently found out that he’s on the autistic spectrum it’ll be interesting to see if his looks make any difference to his ability to make friends since this is often tricky for ASD kids.

  26. 12th November 2010 / 5:12 pm

    Hi Merry, thanks for commenting. You’re quite right that healthy is all most parents really wish for and I think it’s important that we, as parents, help educate kids into understanding that.
    I agree that personality makes someone shine – that’s why I think Flea is special, she’s reasonably attractive but it’s her humour and generosity that make her extra special to most people, I think.
    And yes, gurning is 100%, absolutely better than never having a child to look at and think, “Gosh, she’s got big ears, hasn’t she?!”

  27. 12th November 2010 / 5:13 pm

    It is sad, but big brothers are useful in all sorts of situations, and I speak as the younger sister of three big brothers!

  28. 12th November 2010 / 5:14 pm

    Thanks Tattie, what an interesting comment. You’re quite right that beauty doesn’t automatically make life easy, and it’s certainly no protection against health issues or heartbreak.

  29. 12th November 2010 / 5:16 pm

    I dunno, don’t you think there’s an objective standard of beauty?
    It’s a philosophical debate but I don’t think there’s anything offensive in saying you believe it exists, and you hope that as well as being healthy and happy, your children meet that objective standard, is there?
    I guess for many of us we believe our children are beautiful and I like the idea of making children ‘feel’ beautiful regardless. But there’s part of me I admit that thinks if other people also think my child is beautiful her life might be a little easier as a result.
    Although it didn’t occur to me when I was pregnant, I must admit!

  30. 12th November 2010 / 5:18 pm

    Oooh, you’re so right – I think funny looking babies are absolutely one of the best things in the world.

  31. 12th November 2010 / 5:22 pm

    Hmm, I know where you’re coming from.
    I have previously written about my miscarriage and the very ropy pregnancy I had with Flea so it didn’t occur to me when I was pregnant to worry about what she looked like – I was fully expecting to lose her right up until the day she was born.
    There’s actually part of me that quite envies women who are relaxed enough while pregnant to devote mental energy to that sort of thing, though!

  32. 12th November 2010 / 10:09 pm

    I was blond as a child, and grew up thinking it must be boring to be an adult, because all they ever talk about is hair. That was always the first thing people said to me “oooh, lovely hair”. It really annoyed me, and as I was a shy child, I used to hate how self-conscious it made me feel. My daughter is blond, white blond, and has blue eyes to go with it, so she has to endure the same (though she isn’t shy, so she probably deals with it better).
    One thing that amazes me about this, is how on earth it can still be socially acceptable to express a preference for blond hair (even if jokily), after the history of the 20th century. It would be really unacceptable if someone said “what lovely white skin”. Why is it ok to say “ooh, blond hair and blue eyes… lovely…”? It’s really quite racist, if you think about it.
    Great post. Lots to think about.

  33. 12th November 2010 / 10:29 pm

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, can’t think of anything worse than Barbie and Ken lookalikes… children who are fixated on their looks grow into adults who tend to find fault with themselves and forever trying to change into something made up by the media and not really achievable.
    Viva la difference.
    I have never focused on looks. We moved to get out of the rat-race of 7 year olds being fashion conscious and having to have designer labels. Childhood shortened.
    Let them be free, mucky, unconcerned about their looks. They will grow up into healthy, happy, well balanced adults – with personality.
    (Gone slightly off piste – sorry).

  34. 13th November 2010 / 11:39 am

    Excellent article, reminds me about Arlene phillips.

  35. Nikki
    13th November 2010 / 1:33 pm

    Safer not to!!