My daughter’s so much prettier than I was at her age. So why don’t I feel jealous?
LAST week my 13-year-old daughter, Lily, came home with her school photo. She threw it down on the kitchen table with a scowl: ‘It’s terrible. I hate it.’ I felt a twinge of irritation. I remember only too well what it was like to be in that awful chrysalis stage between child and woman, all gawky limbs and buck teeth.
But Lily is stunning, with pillowy lips, peaches-and- cream skin and startling blue eyes. Yes, she has braces — her ‘metal smile’, as she puts it — but she has been lucky enough to inherit her father’s gorgeous looks, not my plain features.
I picked up the picture and just stared in amazement for a few moments: I could barely believe the beautiful, confident girl smiling back was my daughter.
‘Are you kidding me?’ I said crossly. ‘You should see my school picture at this age!’
I looked truly hideous in my early teens — splayed teeth, goldrimmed John Lennon glasses and lank, hippie tresses. ‘At least your hair’s a nice colour,’ my mother used to offer feebly, as she searched desperately for something suitably encouraging to say.
I’ve always known I’d never make my fortune from my looks. My younger sister was the pretty one; I was the clever one. But I can’t pretend it didn’t colour my life, even making me fearful of having a daughter of my own.
I was inwardly terrified I’d be jealous of her, watching her bloom into womanhood just as I lost the last of my limited attractiveness. The cruel irony being that just as a child begins to blossom, her mother’s lustre wanes.
But the reality, I find, is quite the contrary. Instead of feeling envious, I wallow in the reflected glory of my daughter’s beauty. I feel a vicarious thrill of pleasure whenever someone comments on her prettiness.
It’s as if, through Lily, I am finally the attractive girl I always wanted to be. I take every compliment personally, glowing with pride.
At the same time, distant alarm bells ring as I worry what the future holds for a girl who is praised for her appearance from birth. Will it skew her priorities in life?
AFTER all, only now am I realising that the silver lining to being plain is I’m far less bothered about ageing, having found other ways to boost my selfesteem long ago. Lily is really smart, but will today’s selfie- obsessed society, plus a childhood peppered with compliments, teach her that looks matter above all else?
When I was her age, in addition to having a face only a mother could love — and she did, I never doubted that — I was already 5ft 10in in my bare size nine feet.
Towering over my classmates, forced to be the boy during ballroom classes at my all-girl convent school (I still struggle not to lead when asked to dance), I felt like Cinderella’s ugly sister.
My mother promised valiantly that I’d ‘grow into’ my big nose, and that ‘handsome’ women kept their looks longer than pretty ones.
She’d tell me I was beautiful on the inside, and I’d fire back: ‘Who wants pretty kidneys?’
Shy and insecure, I buried my huge nose in a book so I could pretend not to notice that boys never gave me a second glance. I didn’t bother with make- up because — as harsh as it sounds — who puts lipstick on a pig? I didn’t cry myself to sleep at night over the way I looked, but I did sadly wonder what it would feel like to be beautiful, just for a day.
As I grew older, I began to realise that sex appeal and attractiveness have little to do with looks and everything to do with attitude.
Anne Boleyn reputedly had six fingers, a sallow complexion and unsightly moles, yet seduced Henry VIII and turned Tudor england upside down. (Admittedly, she did lose her head in the process.)
I discovered that laughter and sexual confidence went a long way towards making up for average looks, and that by spending money on a good haircut, learning some wily make-up tricks and dressing well, I could make the most of what I had.
That’s not to say there weren’t wobbles of self- confidence along the way. Take when my pretty younger sister married aged just 20; I secretly wondered if any man would ever want to make a plain Jane like me his bride.
FOOLISHLY, I married the first man who asked me, convinced I wouldn’t get another chance — and such was my fragile selfesteem, I wasn’t really surprised when he soon left me for another woman and I had to raise our two young sons alone.
But lightning did strike twice and I remarried two years later, this time to a wonderful man way out of my league in the looks department. Tall, blond and blue- eyed, he resembles a Norse god.
friends call him ‘The Viking’ and tease that I used witchcraft to snare him. But he tells me I’m beautiful on a daily basis and I know, to him, I am.
When I learned I was pregnant again in 2002, I hoped it would be another boy. Apart from everything else, I didn’t want a daughter who looked like me — I’d survived the death by a thousand cuts that is being plain. Being beautiful opens doors, no matter how much we pretend looks don’t matter.
The homely girl doesn’t get invited to the best parties or picked as a Bond girl. If there are two candidates for a job with equal qualifications, nine times out of ten the prettier girl wins out.
All my life I’d swallowed the hurt of rejection and learnt to make up for my lack in the looks department by being smarter and wittier than any other girl in the room.
But it had been a painful learning curve, and one I didn’t want any child of mine to have to follow. So when I found out I was expecting a daughter, I prayed she would inherit my husband’s genes.
I soon discovered my prayers had been answered. of course Lily seemed beautiful to me, her mother, but it quickly became apparent that everyone else thought she was, too. As a baby she was delicate and dainty, with a halo of blonde curls. And the compliments just kept coming as she grew up, praising her feline blue eyes, porcelain skin and megawatt movie-star smile.
‘She looks like Julia roberts,’ her orthodontist told us, as he fitted the braces on her teeth a year ago. ‘Wait till these come off. She’ll be a knockout.’
My husband jokes darkly that he’s putting her name down at a romanian convent, and that any man who wants to date her will have to get past him and his shotgun first.
Meanwhile, I must admit shopping with her has become my favourite hobby. everything she puts on looks stunning. She never has to dress to hide her flaws because she doesn’t have any.
Not that she’s obsessed with clothes: I have to coax her to dress up at all. She’s happy in jeans and a comfortable T- shirt. And as for the attention, she shrugs it off. It’s as if being so flawless has given her the freedom not to obsess about her looks like so many females.
It’s me who wants to talk about it all the time, to tell her every day how amazingly gorgeous she is. But I try to restrain myself and am careful to praise her for what she does, rather than how she looks.
Lily has her head screwed on pretty straight. She had Type 1 diabetes diagnosed when she was six, and cares far more about making sure her illness doesn’t stop her doing all the things she wants to do.
She is far more concerned that she is able to attain her ambition of becoming a surgeon — which might require her to operate for ten hours straight without eating — than whether she has the perfect ‘thigh gap’.
When I showed her my old school photo, she said: ‘You weren’t ugly, you were just a caterpillar waiting to become a butterfly. And anyway, I’d much rather be ugly than diabetic. No one ever died from being plain.’
Chastened, I realised two things. first, Lily is not just more attractive than I was at her age; she’s smarter, too. She really is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. Pretty kidneys and all.
TESS AGED 13
LILY AGED 13