How can women come to have a proper perception of their own beauty? I have a suggestion toward a partial answer.

A great beginning is that fathers learn to see their daughters’ beauty; and then tell them.

I think we fathers too easily forget that insistent voices are telling our daughters how to see themselves. Indeed, these voices are fairly screaming. How insistent and confident is our voice, and what exactly are we saying? Here is a matter for careful reflection. It might be more urgent than we realize.

There is a fascinating difference between men and women as regards being told ‘you are beautiful.’ Men surely want to be ‘attractive’ or ‘handsome.’ But we normally don’t speak of men as ‘beautiful.’ Or, if we do say ‘he is a beautiful person,’ we are often simply abstracting from the matter of his outer appearance.

With women it’s more complicated. While ‘she is beautiful’ can often mean simply ‘she is physically attractive,’ at the same time it usually refers to something both physical and beyond physical. This seems connected with how a woman’s sense of her appearance tends to be more closely tied to her self-image than a man’s. In a woman’s beauty, and her sense of herself, somehow the bodily and the spiritual can uniquely interpenetrate.

These are deep waters. Here we glimpse a natural difference between man and woman. We also glimpse how women can be especially wounded by a culture, or perhaps we should say by people, obsessed with things only skin deep.

A woman’s beauty is a human beauty and as such is both spiritual and bodily. Yet the all-too-common failure to see the connection, interplay, and hierarchy between spiritual and bodily things shows itself especially in how we see women. Here a cluster of ugly factors—significant among which are the moral failings of vanity, selfishness, and unchastity, especially among of men—conspire to reduce the true beauty of woman to a mere shadow of the reality.

A father’s place will always be to see what is there, to discover the truth. Part of the challenge is how bodily beauty, abstracted and considered in itself, can be greater or lesser. In other words, from this perspective, some faces are more suited for a painted portrait than others. But it is precisely this greater or lesser ‘beauty’ that too easily obscures or stands in for what transcends it, even while including it: the beauty of the whole person.

For the father, there is no call for pretending or deceiving. His daughter is beautiful. One can notice and appreciate real differences in physical beauty while seeing and confidently affirming the truly greater beauty, the beauty both spiritual and bodily. This is what anyone must see in order really to see this person.

Hearing the right words once or twice, or even regularly, will not in itself be enough for our daughters. Rather, what they deserve is a father who has governed himself so as to have eyes that see. And who then tells them, and conveys to them in countless ways, what is more true than either have yet fully realized: ‘You are so beautiful!’

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Image: The Young Shepherdess (1885) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

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