Aug 29

Every Woman Grows Up Believing She Is Ugly

Every woman grows up believing she is ugly.

Me, I was a stick figure of a girl, all knobby knees and elbows. My breasts never really did develop. My hair vacillated between stringy straight and too-tightly permed, earning me the unfortunate (and unfortunately accurate) nickname of “Shelli Temple.” I didn’t tan like most of the girls in my Southern California town. While my sister baked and bronzed in the sun, I turned an angry pink, followed by an uncertain brown speckled with freckles. Even my (then future) husband’s first compliment to me was “You’re smart,” not “You’re beautiful.”

Then, something happened. I had a baby. Moments after birth, the nurse placed my newborn girl in my arms, and my daughter looked up at me. Mine was the first face that she saw. It was the one that she stared at while I nursed her. It was the last thing she saw as she drifted off to sleep, and the first thing she saw when she woke in the morning.

Unknowingly, I became her standard of beauty.

It was easy enough to accept her assessments as a little girl: “You’re pwetty, Mommy.” That earned her a smile and a snuggle, because it was sweet, even if she didn’t know what she was talking about.

She’d sit on the couch, and I’d sit on the floor in front of her, letting her comb my hair.

“Your hair is so pretty, Mommy.” I thought she was quaint.

She grew older, into her teens, and she asked me what I thought of her outfit. She wanted me to show her how to put on make-up, even though she rarely wore it — because I didn’t wear it often myself. She trusted me to be the authority on what would make her beautiful.

I thought she would grow out of it, but she never did. A couple of years ago, my sisters and I got together for a sisters’ weekend. We invited my daughter to join us one day to take pictures. She took some group shots, and then she did a few individual portraits as well.

“This one is my favorite,” she said.

Shelli Proffitt Howells portrait

Shelli Proffitt Howells portrait

I looked at it. I had just had my hair cut into an a-line, but it didn’t frame my face elegantly like it was supposed to. Instead, stringy straight, it blew wildly in the wind. My nose, which I’d always felt was too big for my face (thank you, Grandma Proffitt), was prominent. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so all the lines and wrinkles around my eyes were evident. My head angled in a way that emphasized the looseness of my neck. And those freckles. Yep, I was still cursed with those freckles.

My daughter didn’t see any of it. She saw the way my eyes lit up when I smiled. She saw my face — the face that was the first thing she saw more than twenty years ago. She saw the woman who had been a fixture in her life, always looking just like that, always radiating love.

She thought I was beautiful.

Maybe it’s time I let myself believe her.



  1. conniecockrell

    Your post brought tears to my eyes. Yes, I think we all believe we’re ugly but as you just demonstrated, it’s not true.

    1. Shelli Proffitt Howells

      Thank you so much, Connie. As I’m trying to teach my daughters to see their own beauty, I realize what a hypocrite I am. I think we all need to redefine what it means to be beautiful and accept that we already are.

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