“Mama, a little girl said Jude has an ugly face,” my six-year-old told me tearfully.
Tears stung my own eyes as I lead us through the lobby to the van. Looking down at my youngest daughter, Jude, who has Down syndrome, I felt my chest contract. You know these things are coming, but still, when they arrive? It feels like it’s with the force of a trailer truck.
And I knew that was just the beginning, because someday Jude was going to be more aware of these words. Right now it was her sister and I who dealt with the pain.
“People say mean things,” I told my daughter as Jude ran ahead of us laughing. “And some people think that people who look different are ugly. Sometimes it’s not even that they’re being mean; they just don’t know how to say someone looks different.”
I remember a time when I worried about what Jude would look like as well. A coworker, years ago, asked me if I was scared to have more children beyond the three at the time.
“They’re all so beautiful,” she said. “What if you ran out of luck and had one that was, you know, not beautiful?”
At the time, the comment offended me because of the value laid on beauty. But many years later, during another wakeful night, I lay in the dark and worried she might be grotesque.
I immediately experienced great shame. How could I think this about my own child? About people with Down syndrome in general?
Through my mind ran all the pictures I looked at after googling “Hispanic children with Down syndrome.” They weren’t ugly, I realized as they flashed through my head.
They were different to my eyes, but not hideous. Beautiful.
From that moment on, I challenged myself to rethink beauty. I’d already begun to work on this idea by learning to love my fat body, which society deemed unattractive. I’ve never been a pretty girl myself, so part of the work became an exercise in learning to see my own beauty.
This was important because for a long time, I just told myself beauty didn’t matter. I didn’t exist to be beautiful. It wasn’t my job. And I still believe that, because I don’t think we’re obligated to make ourselves beautiful. But there’s a big difference between that and not seeing your own self as beautiful.
I wanted to see the beauty in myself so I could see it in others. All others.
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When the nurses first placed Jude in my arms, I looked down at her and in wonder said, “She is beautiful.” She was, too, with her lovely almond-shaped eyes and her tiny nose.
I was surprised — and I shouldn’t have been. I realized then that my child would combat a life of people thinking she couldn’t possess beauty. I imagined how people would emphasize her other characteristics like they did with me.
“You’re lucky your boyfriend likes smart girls,” someone told me when I first began dating my now-husband. Being smart was a boon, you see, for being ugly. This person, as did many others, couldn’t imagine my husband finding me beautiful.
For me it was my smarts. What would it be for Jude?
I became determined that she would learn to see herself as beautiful. She wouldn’t learn to make herself beautiful by standards outside of her control. Her identity wouldn’t be formed by what others saw as beautiful but by what she saw as beautiful. And that would mean herself.
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Beauty confuses me. I am anti-capitalism to my core. The system that grinds people into workers and consumers, destroys the vital things that make us human, and twists the things we hold dear into shallow advertising bites. Beauty is a commodity in our modern world. We see beautiful people on television and in magazines selling us more than cars and perfume: they’re selling us a look.
As a younger woman, my response was to just step out. I shaved my head. I wore garish make-up. I rejected beauty to the point where I worked at making myself ugly. I praised my other attributes, deciding they were better than beauty.
But none of those things healed the brokenness inside me. The self-loathing. Being ugly set me outside the norms of society, but without self-love, ugly meant the same thing to me as it did to society.
When I had Jude, I started to meet people with Down syndrome as well as other disabilities, including those that shaped people’s bodies and faces. I didn’t see these people in the media. They weren’t in advertising campaigns.
It wasn’t something I could put into words until a Target advert landed in my mailbox. I opened it to see a beautiful young girl with Down syndrome modeling a pair of funky pants and a cute t-shirt. I cried as I looked at her. Cried because in her face I saw my daughter.
“Take my money!” I wanted to yell at Target. But I was also uneasy. How did I reconcile this feeling with my anti-capitalism? I wanted my daughter to grow up seeing people who had Down syndrome and other disabilities in advertisements and on TV. I wanted her to be represented in media, because in our world, that kind of representation means value.
Being beautiful in our world seems to be related to being seen. This warred with how much I hated the system.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the advertising. But I am starting to understand why I don’t want little girls at the Y’s Childwatch to call my daughter ugly. It’s the same reason why making myself ugly didn’t lead to self-love. What is needed, I would argue, is NOT a dismissal of beauty, but perhaps a redefinition.
Instead of loading beauty with capital, perhaps we could load beauty with value in terms of difference, celebration, and empowerment.
What if beauty was about seeing the difference in others as unique and lovely? What if beauty meant seeing the whole person and not just the glamorous parts we’ve learned to value? What if we started to train our eyes to behold beauty in all of humanity? Could we do it and step outside the dynamic of beauty as a selling point?
For my girls, I’ve begun this process by helping them understand that their beauty belongs to them. How they choose to define beauty is more valuable than how others define it.
I tell them often that they’re beautiful, along with telling them that they’re strong, smart, and capable. I tell them they’re beautiful when they get out of bed with their bed heads. I tell they’re beautiful when they’re flying during trapeze class. I tell them they’re beautiful after they’re done crying. I never tell them to do things to make themselves more beautiful. I ask them often how they like to look and I give them the space to choose their own styles, haircuts, and clothes. Just as their bodies are their own, so is their beauty.
With Jude I go even further. I tell her every day that the features marking her as having Down syndrome are beautiful. Her almond eyes. Her tiny nose. Her adorable shell ears. All the things the doctors pointed out to me as they said, “Your daughter has Down syndrome.” Those things that make her different make her utterly beautiful.
When she’s old enough to hear people who see difference as ugly, I hope that all these words, all these conversations, make her realize that her beauty is hers. It does not matter if others can see past their own conditioning. What matters is that she can see, and that as she sees it in herself, I hope she will see it in others. All others.
[Feature Image: An individual with dark brown hair and wearing a grey t-shirt stands outdoors. They are holding a child with long blonde hair to their chest. Both adult and child are looking away from the camera. Source: Flickr.com/Carol Von Canon]