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Recently, I was talking with a dear friend of my family about getting old. “The biggest thing I really don’t like,” he said with a wry smile, “is when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I wonder, ‘Who IS that ugly old man?’”

I told my friend what we tell our students. “In nature, it’s not the rocks or the trees or the mountains that are the most thin or smooth or young that seem the most beautiful. We see the greatest beauty in the mountains and trees and rocks that have unusual shapes and are weathered by time. We need to start seeing people that way, too. You can decide to see yourself as looking great, just the way you are.”

“That’s a good point!” my friend, a big nature-lover, said thoughtfully. “I’ll try to remember to do that.”

In many cultures, feeling good about how we look is a large part of how we define our value. And our belief that we are valuable, as well as powerful and competent, is the most important self-protection tool we have.

Unfortunately, the definitions of beauty many of us are taught to believe leave most of us feeling inadequate. However, as I told my friend, we can decide to believe differently.

Here is how we discuss this issue in our teen and adult workshops.

Suppose we were to ask a group of young children, “Do any of you ever wish you looked different?” Most of them would be very puzzled and wonder what on earth we were talking about.

Have you ever seen a three-year-old look in the mirror? Three-year-olds are fascinated when they see themselves. They will smile in the mirror and say, “Why, it’s ME! My tummy is BIG! I have a SPOT on my nose! Wow! How interesting!”

But, by the time these same children get to age 10, if we were to ask if any of them wishes they looked different, most of them would raise their hands. Isn’t that sad?

You might say “society” is teaching them to wish they look different, and you might say “the media” is teaching these lessons – but each of us plays a role in what “society” means and in what the media promotes.

So, for the sake of today’s three-year-olds, next time you start to say to yourself, “I’m ugly because I’m too – fat, skinny, bald, hairy, babyish, old, etc. etc.” – stop yourself. Throw those unkind words away, and replace them with, “I have my own kind of beauty.” Or, “I have my own way of looking good.” Or just, “I look great!”

Please do this for yourself, and please teach the people who are important to you to do the same. Together, we can strengthen our communities’ ability to value the beauty in each person in the same way that we can see beauty in each mountain, tree, or rock precisely because of their distinctive age, surface, shape, or size.

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Published: March 20, 2012   |   Last Updated: July 27, 2016

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.