A Little Girl, A BIG Red Balloon And A Radiant Reminder of What Being “Beautiful” is All About

girl with red balloon

beau·ti·ful [byoo-tuh-fuh l] (adjective) – possessing qualities that give great pleasure or satisfaction to see, hear, think about, etc.; delighting the senses or mind.

By now you’ve likely seen the link to the so-called “Dove Experiment” that is making the rounds on social media.  Apparently inspired by the mind-numbing statistic that accompanies the post (i.e,  that “only 4% of women around the world consider themselves to be beautiful”), the ingenious folks at Dove retained the services of a retired forensic artist to prove a point, namely that women are far more critical of their own appearance, specifically their facial features, than even other women are of them!   And, as evidenced by the sketches that resulted when the two groups were asked to describe the same face – and the tears that flowed from those faces when the women were confronted with their “self-harshness” – Dove did just that!  The video is quite moving and its implications are profound and important.  Respectfully, however, it leaves several important questions unanswered: Where do these negative self-perceptions come from?  Against what standards are these women self-evaluating?  How do we begin to take steps to ensure that our daughters and other loved ones are not part of a similar “experiment” and shedding those same tears 5 or 10 years from now?

Because here’s the troubling reality:  As disturbing as the 4% figure in the Dove piece is – and, make no mistake, it’s deeply disturbing – I believe it also is grossly overstated!  The fact is:  In my 54 years occupying this planet, I don’t think I’ve ever met a single woman who, if asked, would say that she considered herself to be beautiful – and, over the years, I’ve met (and I continue to meet) many beautiful women.  Conversely, if you were to ask women (and, again, I’m talking about 99% (if not 100%) – not just 96% – of all women) if there is a physical feature or characteristic about themselves that they wish they could change, all of them would readily find at least one thing, if not several.  Ask them why they would change those things, however, and the response is not likely to be as quick.  I know, because I did just that yesterday with a young attorney friend, who recently celebrated her 33rd birthday.  She not only is a great person, she is beautiful.  And yet, she will tell you she’s one of the 100% (i.e., there are things about her that, given the chance, she would change and she certainly doesn’t “consider herself beautiful”).  Ironically, she was the one who insisted that I see the Dove spot.  We chatted about it at some length in anticipation of this post and I presented her with the following:

“If I were to go out on the street right now and select 50 men at random – of all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds and ethnicities – and ask for a showing of hands as to how many of them think you’re beautiful, I am 100% CERTAIN that every hand would go up, without a moment’s hesitation.  I’m equally CERTAIN that if I did the same thing in 50 different states and 100 different cities, I would get the same response – with a possible exception or two (allowing for the fact that since the cross-section is completely random, we might stumble upon one or two blind people!).”  At this point she was blushing a bit, while simultaneously trying to allow herself to ponder the prospect that I might be speaking the truth.  “Here’s what I’d like to know,” I asked: “If I were to do that and the results turned out the way I expect, would it move the needle?  Would you be any more likely to consider yourself beautiful?”  She paused for a moment and then, ever the honest one, conceded it (and she) wouldn’t!  “What then is the standard?” I asked. “Is it other women, because I’m fairly confident they would reach the same conclusion as the men.”  “I don’t think so,” she said.  “I guess I just compare myself to other women and wish I had some of what they have . . .”

How do we start to move away from all of this – men and women?  My cut:  We’re looking in the “wrong mirrors” to assess our beauty and, in turn, to define our self-worth.  It’s probably easier for me to say and think that, given the fact that I don’t have a chance in the mirror.  After all, I have a really big head. I’m not talking about big in an egocentric, swollen kind of way. I’m talking about geometrically disproportionate-to-the-rest-of-my-body big. I’m talking about make-a-child-party-hat-look-like-the-size-of-a-snow-cone-cup-on-a-basketball big. I’m talking about don’t-bother-trying-to-buy-me-a-hat-because-it-will-never-fit big. I also happen to be one of the only people on the planet to have been born with an “upside-down” smile.  And then there’s the “small” issues relating to my ears (one of which is slightly lower than the other), my legs (one of which is shorter than the other), my eyebrows (one of which is higher than the other) and my shoulders (which, truth be told, are more than a little on the “relaxed” side, as opposed to being squared as I’ve repeatedly been told “they should be”).  Bottom line:  If studied too closely, I’m a veritable “mess” in the mirror, which probably accounts for the fact that come next year I will be left off of People Magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People” list for what will be the 55th consecutive time!

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll be the last person on Earth to trivialize body image issues or the obvious power they have to influence the lives and behaviors of others, especially women.  I am, however, convinced that the path to feeling good (okay, I’ll settle for better) about ourselves and, ultimately, to true happiness depends on our willingness and ability to care less about the reflection we see in the bathroom mirror each morning and more about the reflections we create in the sometimes radiant, often tear-filled eyes of those whose lives we touch with gifts that will never be captured by a mirror—gifts of friendship, kindness, trust, compassion, empathy, encouragement, understanding — even the simple gift of our mere presence and our willingness to listen.  How can I be so certain? I’m certain because I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to see those reflections dozens of times in my own life—and, not surprisingly, none of them had anything to do with the size of my head, the shape of my smile, the levelness of my ears or the length of my legs.  In fact, I saw it again this past Saturday, when I politely arranged for an adorable little girl to get a BIG red balloon at Chick-fil-a!  That simple gesture, made anonymously to a complete stranger, led to a smile that lit up the entire restaurant – a smile that reminded me: “You know what, Don, you’re beautiful!”  There, I said it . . .


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