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The Problem With Pretty

katherine webb

(Photo by Matt Cashore, USA TODAY Sports)

Not being much of a football fan, I wasn’t watching when the University of Alabama beat Notre Dame the other night. But being an avid news fan, I couldn’t miss the stories about how sportscaster Brent Musburger raved about Katherine Webb, the beauty queen girlfriend of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.

I really didn’t understand all the fuss. Men have been making comments about beautiful women as long as women have been making comments about good looking-men. I may be a feminist, but I also recognize that appreciating beauty is an essential element of human nature.

Initially, I didn’t perceive any problem. At least, I didn’t perceive a problem until I read a story about how Webb and her parents responded to all the fuss.

They weren’t bothered by Musburger’s comments. And why would they have been? Webb is a beauty queen. She struts around in a bikini in front of cameras. She obviously wants to be noticed for her appearance alone, and her subsequent reaction reflected that.

What bothered me was the importance Webb’s parents placed on her being beautiful.

Apparently (according to family), Katherine was once considered an ugly duckling because of a skin condition and her height. Her mother said that being in the Miss USA pageant helped build her daughter’s self-esteem. In other words, her mother believes Katherine’s self-esteem hinges on others’ perceptions of her appearance. And that’s what bothers me about this “news” story.

Self-esteem is complicated. Yet, like so many other issues, people try to simplify it. Several years ago when my children were in elementary school, they attended an assembly about self-esteem.

“What activities did you do? I asked. They looked at me puzzled.

“We didn’t do anything,” my son said. “Some lady just talked to us about how we should have self-esteem.”

We moved on to other subjects, but I was irritated with the school for wasting precious educational hours on some pointless presentation. You can’t teach or preach self-esteem. True and lasting self-esteem is achieved through experiences of success and through overcoming difficult situations. Our responsibility as adults is to provide children with those opportunities.

And self-esteem isn’t an “all or nothing”  concept.

People don’t either have or not have self-esteem. Most of us feel confident in one aspect of our life while struggling in others. When I was younger, I had excellent self-esteem about my intelligence and ability to do well in school because I had volumes of success in academics. I had very poor self-esteem in regards to my appearance because I’d been told I looked like a monkey and was a four on a scale of one to ten.

Experience taught me that what others think of my appearance has absolute nothing to do with my value as a human, my capacity to be loved or my ability to be happy.

But those are lessons I learned from decades of life experience. Katherine Webb doesn’t have that yet.

Instead, she is surrounded by people who put an inordinate value on appearance. People who coach her that plastering on makeup to cover a skin condition is essential. People who have convinced her that fitness means being skinny enough to meet society’s standards for wearing a bikini. People who equate being called beautiful with being accepted.

Maybe I’m being a bit judgmental because I was raised to never rely on my appearances for anything. Sometimes that message was delivered in a subtle manner as my mother never bought fashion magazines nor wore makeup. At other times, the message was delivered loud and clear –  like the time she told me that I was lucky to be smart rather than pretty. And even though those words hurt at the time, they also held a great deal of wisdom.

When you can’t rely on your appearance open doors for you, you develop other skill sets. And those achievements and successes are what truly build self-esteem.

There is nothing wrong with being beautiful, but there is everything wrong when women allow it to define them.

And that’s the problem with pretty.