I was in the kitchen making final dinner preparations as my older children were setting the table when I overheard my then 4-year-old ask her 9-year-old big sister, “Maddy, why is sexy a bad word?”
There was a pregnant pause. Then Madeline slowly began to speak, “Well…uh. You know, I think that’s a question for Mommy.”
The kids have asked me why I don’t want them to listen to certain pop songs that have sage phrases like “I’m sexy and I know it” or “bring sexy back.” I haven’t gone into great deal, but I have started to explain the difference between the words “beautiful” and “sexy.”
When I first became a mother, I harbored a lot of fear about my daughter’s perception of beauty because I had suffered from an eating disorder and struggled with my own body image and had made my appearance my idol. I was terrified that my own children would make let their outward appearance become a barometer of their self-worth and waste precious years of their lives at war with the scale and the mirror.
Fortunately for me, my first daughter was born pining for pirate parties and soccer. She didn’t seem to pay much attention to the frilly stuff. Rachel, my second, liked to play dress up and pretend she was a princess, but it was just one of many interests, and these days she prefers reading while wearing comfy clothes rather than pretty frocks.
Enter Mary Elizabeth. The girl has loved makeup and shoes from the day she first discovered my vanity and closet. She piles on the pink puffery, and most of her tantrums involve bad hair days or wardrobe malfunctions. She never leaves the house without myriad accessories. At a recent birthday party, a friend of mine complimented her shiny bracelet bling. She told her thank you and that it was her “party bangle.” I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word bangle.
When she was probably around 2, I recall her picking up a blush brush and making it dance across her cheeks. My first impulse was to tell her to stop, but I hesitated when I saw the way she was smiling at her reflection. I had a parenting epiphany. I had no business trying to dissuade her from pursuing beauty or encouraging her to eschew all things feminine. God designed her to be a mark of beauty in the world and to find a way to express her femininity. For some women like my Mary Elizabeth, that may involve applying tasteful makeup and wearing pretty things, and that’s okay. And truthfully, taking one look at my closet clues you into the fact that I am drawn to pretty things (shoes!), too.
Over time, I’ve grown in wisdom and now recognize that when any of my daughters want to slap on some lip gloss or play with a makeup brush, they aren’t on an extreme makeover mission. My daughters don’t (yet) see their bodies or faces as objects to be adorned or altered. They see them as canvases on which to paint, as mirrors with the potential to reflect inner as well as outer beauty.
As humans, we are drawn to beauty. As women, we may be similarly drawn to making ourselves beautiful even as we recognize that beauty transcends the external and the material world. This desire to be beautiful might make some women uncomfortable. It may feel an awful lot like superficial vanity. But as Pope Benedict XVI explained, our attraction to beauty is a power that “unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards each other, to reach for the beyond.” In other words, the pursuit of beauty is good because it leads us to a deeper yearning for the divine. God is the source of all beauty.
But most of the pop singers aren’t crooning, “God made me beautiful, and I know it.”
One of the problems is in today’s world “sexy” and “beautiful” have become interchangeable and seem to mean the same thing even though they’re entirely different. Mary is beautiful without drawing attention to herself or being “sexy.” Sure, Marilyn Monroe was beautiful, but so was Mother Teresa.
Sorry, Justin, but we really don’t need to bring sexy back. It’s already rampant. We need to put it back in its place and reserve it as an offering from a wife to a husband, not as the goal for our daughters.
What I will one day tell my daughters is this: Pursuing sexiness over beauty leaves a woman feeling empty. A “sexy” woman might feel she’s only as valuable as how much she’s noticed. She feels all she has to offer the world is skin. I know because I was once the college girl singing in the church choir who wore her skirts way too short. I didn’t believe in my own worth, so I needed men to notice me to affirm that I was someone of value. In fact, I still struggle with searching for external ways to give myself value, but I am hoping my own challenges will better equip me to empower these lovely daughters of mine.
And I know I am not alone in my struggles. Modern Western society has distorted what it means to be beautiful as well as worthwhile, and this is why so many grapple with poor body image. It’s why young women feel the need to wear flashy, immodest clothing, or moms chronically diet, or grandmothers tirelessly fight the aging process. Attention from men or even compliments from girlfriends make us feel attractive, and, hey, if others think I’m attractive or sexy, then that must mean I am a little bit beautiful and if I’m beautiful, then I’m worthwhile and have something to offer the world.
But we’ve got it backwards. To reclaim the beauty of Creation, we have to turn that equation inside out. I want my daughters to recognize their worth and their dignity lies in their being, not their doing or their looks. I want them to know that it is in their ability to love and accept love in return that makes them truly beautiful. This is the kind of beauty cannot help but attract people. We know our value and have dignity and so we express that beauty to everyone we meet, and that is what makes us beautiful.
Unfortunately, our primary conception of beauty is that of the pretty, sexy variety. It’s a kind of beauty that grabs our attention and takes our sensations hostage.
Most wouldn’t argue that a woman on the cover of a Victoria Secret’s catalogue isn’t beautiful, but she possesses a kind of beauty that doesn’t give. Sexiness grabs. It seizes. It can be almost violent – a force that takes a hold of others. Sexiness has its place. A woman who feels sexy for her husband is one thing; a child who sees being pretty and sexy as synonymous and wears flashy, immodest clothing is another. Sexiness should be reserved for our spouses, and it shouldn’t be inexorably linked to our beauty.
Pursuing raw sexiness (no pun intended) simply takes more than it gives.
Real beauty, on the contrary, is a gift. Authentic beauty is Eucharistic; it is transformed to what is offered and becomes a living sign of Christ’s love.
I brought dinner into the dining room and smiled at my daughters. My young daughter forgot to ask me about why “sexy” isn’t a good word, and I considered sharing my heart, but I’m not sure they’re all ready for that. For now, I will keep blacklisting the word “sexy” from their vernacular. I’ll keep encouraging my girls to be drawn to the beautiful, to share their beauty with others and to believe in it, and to sing with all their heart, “God created me. I am beautiful and I know it.”