Can We All Agree On One Thing About Beauty?

Tomorrow, my daughter and I will appear on the TODAY Show.

A friend of my son asked my wife, with the kind of skepticism only a fourth-grader can muster, “Why do they want Mr. Flanagan on the show?” My wife responded, somewhat skeptically herself, “I guess they think he has more to say.” The young lady just laughed, rolled her eyes, and returned to her play.

Kids will keep you humble.

beauty

Shyanne Photo Credit: tanya_little via Compfight cc

But I do have a little more to say, because the letter to my daughter wasn’t complete. Near the end of the letter, I wrote about the last question I ask her every night: “Where are you the most beautiful?” And her answer: “On the inside.”

Why do I use the word most?

Because the last question of the night is always preceded by another question: “Are you beautiful on the outside?” And her answer: “Yes.”

Yes, I’m beautiful on the outside and, at the same time, I can affirm I’m most beautiful on the inside.

Can We Agree?

We have to ask both questions of our girls and, frankly, of ourselves. Without both questions, we end up thinking dualistically about beauty, and we end up in unfruitful debates about whether makeup is good or bad, or whether women who wear makeup are really strong or actually insecure. We end up picking sides and fighting it out.

But this is not an either-or debate.

It’s a both-and conversation. And we need to treat it as such, because we need all women together on this one. In fact, if we hope to stand strong against the messages about beauty and worth bombarding us, we need all women and all men together on this one.

Can we stop debating whether cosmetics are good or bad and instead simply agree they will never fully and forever deliver anyone into a sense of beauty and worth?

Can we agree that no fleeting, transient physical attribute or accessory will ever do so?

Can we agree no solid sense of identity will ever come from a focus on what’s happening on the surface of us, even if the surface is very good and very beautiful?

Can we agree that if my daughter tells me she doesn’t like the shape of her body, I won’t try to assuage her shame with compliments about other physical attributes, because then I’m just keeping the focus on her body, and her body will never be an enduring source of her peace?

Finding the Magic Inside

When I was in high school in the mid-90s, “magic eye pictures” went viral in the old fashioned way—everyone bought a book of them and stuck it in their bathroom reading basket. Magic eye pictures had two levels of graphics. The surface level was a random collection of beautiful shapes in a range of colors and patterns. But beneath this beautiful layer, there was another layer—a layer containing an organized, coherent, meaningful image.

If you stared at the surface of the picture, you saw only the random, chaotic beauty. But if you let the surface go out of focus, if you stared past the surface—deeply into the picture—the three-dimensional image depicted beneath the surface would jump out at you.

These were moments of true epiphany.

And we human beings are like those magic eye pictures.

We are physically magnificent creatures. Our surface layer is often a beauty to behold, full of brilliant color and vibrancy. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s something to be celebrated. But if we allow our gaze to rest there, if we look only at the surface of ourselves, we will feel like the surface of those pictures—a random collection of colors and patterns, with no real meaning or purpose.

But if we can avoid getting caught up in the details and distractions of our surface layer, if we can focus past it and gaze deeply into ourselves—and into others—an epiphany awaits us.

We will discover an image arising out of the chaos.

We will see the shape of who we are and it will bring with it a sense of coherence and purpose and meaning.

We will become three-dimensional creatures, alive in the world, jumping off the page of life, prepared to be ourselves in a world desperately in need of people who simply know who they are.

When we gaze deeply, we discover a self-image that cannot be touched by time or tarnished by age.

Forever Beauty

Several weeks ago, after I had asked my daughter our two questions and was walking out of her room, I heard her voice in the darkness. I returned to her, and with her voice full of curiosity, she asked, “Why is inside most beautiful, Daddy?” I responded with the first thought that came to mind.

“Because it’s a forever beauty.”

Her quizzical look dissolved into a smile and she laughed, saying, “Oh, yeah, I forgot.” As if she already knew it. As if it had slipped her mind. And I believe that might actually be true. I think as children we may be more fully, purely aware of where our real worth and value and beauty lie. As we grow up, we simply forget.

Which is why it’s good to remind ourselves. Over and over again. Are we beautiful on the outside? Absolutely. But where are we the most beautiful?

On the inside.

Forever.

Question: How do you remind yourself or your children about where “forever beauty” lies? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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For more information about our appearance on the TODAY Show, and for an update about the upcoming UnTangled Video Hangout, click here to visit the UnTangled News page. 

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Next Post: “How to Make Fear Our Traveling Companion”

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Megan Zeigler

    As I read your blog this morning it made me think of several things but one that I am blessed! I struggled with this beauty thing for a long time until I met my now husband. He tells me I’m beautiful everyday and on days when I’m not feeling particularly pretty he tells me more! Thank you for your post! Keep up the good work!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Megan, give your husband a high five for me; I love to hear about guys like him!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Thank you for this post. I think you are so right about the importance of girls and women hearing these messages about beauty from people who love them to inoculate them against the barrage of images and messages that show too few ways to be beautiful. It is important for us to acknowledge that we all need to feel that we look good (outside) as well as knowing the greater value of the good that is inside.
    You were explicit about this being something we all need as men and women, and I think it may seem like it goes without saying when we are battling the word count that may push us over the edge in a concise post. But little boys who grow into men need this, too. At six, my son has just started to need clarification about whether he can still be beautiful or if that is only for girls. I’ve shown him sunsets, art, isolated areas in nature and assured him that beauty is for everyone, even if “pretty” and “handsome” have chosen sides.
    I have no skepticism that you have more to say. I appreciate you saying it.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Totally agree, Shel. Boys are taught to fuse their worth to externalities, too. We all need to be reminded where it really lies!

  • Raj Kushal Rathour

    I waited a whole week for this post & somehow knew there would be some kind of magical quality to it. & for once I was right. Kelly, both those beauties are part of who we are. The outer god/nature/our genes, gave us at birth & in its own way we were perfect & beautiful as could be. Every mother will vouch that about each child here. With time each aspect of that will be questioned, jeered upon, be ravaged till it eventually looses the shine with time & can only be patched upon & covered & leave scars that sorely stick out in the mirror. That was & will remain our passive, superfluous beauty for how others can think of us as or for us to look at into the mirror & venerate.
    The inner we were given to mould, work on, enhance & bring out. That is who we will be to ‘us’ & that is what we share with others & will touch the lives of those around us. Thats also the kind of beauty in which we’ll have a choice to make brighter & more complete. With each ravage of time & living alongwith the cracks of the added brokenness will our inner beauty become more complete, more us. Thats where I learnt that ugly is the street i have a choice to walk into…. & also walk out of -That brings character to the beauty inside. Then I look at the scars in the mirror & suddenly they start to look beautiful & with there own story to tell

    • drkellyflanagan

      Raj, love to have you commenting right here on the blog! As always, I’m so grateful for your reflections!

  • Ann Moir

    I am lucky enough to have been blessed with a Dad who has always told me I am beautiful. It’s so important for kids growing up to know that this isn’t something they have earned or worked for, just an outpouring of a father’s love and appreciation for their children. It colours the way we see the world and how we respond to it.
    This attitude is something I would like to think I also learned to share with the world around me, appreciating the beauty of the person rather than just their form!
    As I grow older and physical beauty shifts ever further from society’s advertised ideals, I realise that I still rely on this inner affirmation, so Thanks Dad! And thanks for the reminder Kelly!

  • futuredoll

    The analogy of the magic eye picture is spot on! I wish that you had the platform to point this out in the 80’s when being judged on your outer presentation was the only criteria.

  • Christina Davila

    Growing up I found it very hard to believe anyone when they told me I was beautiful. I’ve always been on the chunkier side lol I blame my mom for all the rice and beans in our kitchen (I’m Boricua). My parents always tried to build my self esteem, but every time I went to school it would just be crushed again. I’m going to be 23 in April and I’m just now becoming comfortable in my own skin. I’m lost a lot of weight and put some back on over the years, so I had to find a different source of beauty when I looked in the mirrors. Particularly for girls, it doesn’t make sense for our bodies to be our symbol of beauty because they are designed to fluctuate. Nowadays, my sense of beauty come from my relations with people. If I can be empathetic and compassionate through any strife then I know inside and out I’m just a beautiful person. I still work out and have begun a new lifestyle of eating whole, organic foods, but it’s no longer for the looks. It’s simply because I choose a healthier lifestyle in the hopes of being a great role model to my children (whenever I actually have any). Btw, I’ve already scheduled to DVR the Today Show so I don’t miss you and your gorgeous daughter!

  • Cindy Jones

    I encourage my daughters to see and value their inner beauty by making sure that I praise their CHARACTER each day in some way rather than just giving out compliments about their appearance. I believe that through recognizing their character (kindness towards others, being sensitive, making wise choices, acting with integrity, etc.) that I can help bring some focus to the beauty that lies on the inside of each of them. Compliments are nice to receive (which I give as well) but can also tend to be very “surface” oriented and can inadvertently put an emphasis only on what is seen outwardly. One has to look much more deeply in order to see what lies beneath; into the heart and soul of another. And isn’t that what we REALLY want anyway….to be seen on a deeper level for who we truly are?

  • Di

    Firstly let me say it is admirable this father takes time with his daughter, I guess I would just question how many fathers are asking these two questions of their sons….granted I don’t have kids, but I think I would ask, what made you happy today? What made you sad today? Because if a child is experiencing happiness & feels supported during sadness, they will be confident children and as a result feel “beautiful”

  • Dave Bacher

    My granddaughter is 2. I taught her to respond to the question I always ask her. “What does Papa love?” As she takes her fingers and draws a heart shape on her chest, she says, “My Heart”. This is my way of showing her what true beauty is and where it found. I know pain will come to her heart. It happens to all of us. This is my way of staying “on message” with her. When pain does come (and it will), she will know where her God-given value comes from and won’t need to “discover” it when a 16 year old boy tries to convince her that’s she’s more beautiful in the back seat.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Absolutely LOVE this, Dave.

  • Julie Fitzpatrick

    Thanks for thinking about this stuff and sharing it.

  • Anonymous

    What if, my inside is not the most beautiful? What if I took a good look into myself, and realised I am an envious person, belittling and always seeking fault in other others just to make my self feel better about myself? Although never really showing it outwardly, but I know these feeling exist inside. What if I know I am ugly inside and so guilty of it but so very struggling to change?

    • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

      Anonymous, a good look at your inside laid bare in this post reveals some beauty you may be overlooking. You are looking at yourself bravely, nakedly, and honestly; that is beautiful. You are seeking not only to do good and to act right, but to be good and to feel it bone deep; how very beautiful. You are not satified with the ugly thoughts that don’t truly make you feel better; and that too reveals beauty.

      Many of us feel less than, not enough. And it would be the easier thing to stay with the ways that others are even more disappointing than we are to ourselves. But a far better journey is to build beauty in ourselves and our lives. Our inside doesn’t have to be the “most beautiful.” I think pieces of beauty –moments of beauty– will do. Because it’s what we build on.

      Your bravery in this post is beautiful.

      • drkellyflanagan

        Shel, your reply here is the epitome of what I hope for in these blog conversations. Thank you! And I couldn’t agree more. Anonymous, oftentimes, when we look inside, we are only encouraged to look as deep as our ego, and it can often be a painful thing to behold. But look farther, look deeper, and you will begin to unearth a true self that is a beauty to behold.

      • Anonymous

        Thank you for your encouragement. It brought me great comfort as I was having a difficult few weeks battling the with myself. There are certain qualities of my personality that I am struggling to alter/ grow out of, and I think it will take time/age and wisdom for that. But I felt much more hopeful now, and felt blessed that I am given the insight to realised my own weakness.

  • Jessica Lahner

    Love this tread of posts! I recently reflected on my own role in women’s body image as I raise my three sons. I wrote about it here: http://wp.me/p36Ddu-8t. This is such an important topic and not reserved for women or those raising girls – we are all responsible.

  • watshipi

    As a person who suffered from acne conditions most of my teenage years, i learnt that true beauty is in the inside. There were times i would not want to go to school asking myself how i was going to face the world. My friends and family would tell me that i’d survive and that me the real me is inside and anyone who chose to look at the outside while neglecting the inside would be at great loss. I had the acne treated and now im 21,yes i do look better than those times BUT I CONSTANTLY REMIND MYSELF THAT NOTHING SURPASSES THAT FOREVER BEAUTY INSIDE, FOR IT DOES NOT CNANGE. Thank you Dr Flanagan for your posts they mean a lot.

  • Giovanna

    I was excited to take a look at this blog, after reading a touching text written by Dr. Flanagan. However, I find myself disappointed with this particular article, and I imagine others must share the feeling, when noticing that Dr. Flanagan used a picture of his daughter wearing eye make-up, and an intricate hairdo – which takes “prep time” and patience to achieve. There would be nothing wrong with that (except the amount of make-up for a little girl), if the message here wasn’t supposed to be one of less preoccupation with external beauty, and more validation of inner beauty. It would be much more coherent if Dr. F had posted a picture of this beautiful child in her natural beauty; something casual, maybe after coming back from school or playing in the yard. Also, the article implies that everybody is beautiful on the outside, which is, obviously, not true (“Are we beautiful on the outside? Absolutely. “). Anyway, I hope this is received as constructive criticism.

    • Giovanna

      I submitted my message accidentally, before I had a chance to complete it. I meant to say it’s obvious that, at least within our society standards, not everybody is considered or perceives themselves as beautiful. That makes inner beauty that much more valuable, in fact, it’s fundamental that we recognize it as the only true beauty.

      • drkellyflanagan

        I don’t mind constructive criticism. I do just want to clarify for people reading this, though, that the image is not of my daughter. It’s a stock image used via Creative Commons.

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  • Annie

    My ‘beauty’ always seems reliant on things. From my parents saying ‘you’d look beautiful if you lost a few pounds’ to colleagues saying ‘if you wore more make up to cover up your skin problems you’d look lovely’ to my grandmother saying ‘if you dressed more girly you’d be pretty and appealing to men. No man wants a women who wears trousers all the time’ to aunts and uncles saying ‘you need to be more of an extrovert if you want people to like you’. Pretty sure I’m not beautiful inside, obviously not beautiful outside either.

  • jasmin

    People are so obsessed by the outer looks…but its the inside beauty that really counts.Love your blogs Dr. So empowering !!

  • gw

    I love this blog. I go to archive articles every so often and found this one today. This article spoke a lot of truth. How internal beauty lasts longer than external beauty. How beautiful faces and bodies will not bring a solid sense of identity. How our true radiance comes from our true self/values/worth. The internal/external beauty conversation is not an either-or debate. Definitely not. I’d like to add another dimension as we want the world, our children and everyone else to see the inner beauty of people. It is the fact that we are not born equally from a culture and beauty standpoint. And for many children, teenagers and adults, this really hurts. A teenage boy who is short and has a tiny frame. Anyone born to have a larger body naturally. People with facial feature that are less attractive. People of colour…. and so on. We can all work on embracing our inner beauty. However, there also needs a place to hold and validate those tender feelings of rejection and pain when what is seen outside is not embraced by our culture and people around us. If the struggle with the external beauty is minimized, the celebration of the inner beauty sometimes get misused as a quick-fix to the true pain inside.