Posted by: Kate | September 5, 2008

Isn’t She Lovely?

I have a dilemma, and it’s not one often discussed in polite society.

One of the nurses in the Emergency Department has been out on maternity leave for the past several weeks.  She came in today, to show off the new baby, and was accompanied by her two-year-old daughter.  There was much cooing and smiling and admiration, because it’s what you do.

The problem?

The children are not pretty.

They’re not obviously disfigured or scarred.  They’re not appalling.  They just don’t have a pleasing arrangement of facial features.  Eyes spaced too wide, noses sort of squished, ears protruding at 90-degree angles to the scalp, hair that is sparse and unremarkable in color.

This is not, all by itself, a problem.  I, myself, am not overburdened with physical attractiveness, and still feel like a worthwhile member of the species.  I know how to arrange my hair and dress for my figure, and I’ve surrounded myself with people who don’t choose their friends by their dress size, and I’ve landed a husband who finds me attractive even unshowered and wearing yesterday’s jeans.  I find self-worth in other areas, and am willing to accept good-enough in the area of appearance.  (Except for my hair.  I have really great hair.)

My children are products of their parents, and thus are decent-looking kids without being show-stopping gorgeous.  Both have striking, intense dark eyes and engaging smiles, but neither is traditionally, magazineishly beautiful.  This is OK with me, and I’m working hard to make it OK with them, as well.  I try to be realistic with them, telling them that they’re beautiful and complimenting specific physical attributes, but also emphasizing attributes like intelligence, sweetness, and affection when I tell them how great they are.

I try to be honest with my friends’ children in a similar manner; I try to get to know their personalities and preferneces, and find things to appreciate beyond the cuteness.  Every once in a while, not so far amongst my close friends but sometimes with mere acquaintances, I’ll encounter a person – child or adult – for whom I cannot come up with a statement that is both honest and positive.  In such cases, I rely on the virtue of silence.

But sometimes, people openly seek feedback about their own physical appearance.  We all know the stereotypical, “Does this dress make my butt look big?” sort of situation, and we inwardly snicker at the impulse to reply, “No, but your butt makes the dress look small.”  And instead, we politely smile and say, “Oh, you look fine.”  Unless it’s a good friend and they haven’t left the house yet, or haven’t bought the item yet – in some way, the fashion crime has not yet been committed – in which case we can venture honesty in the service of the bigger picture.

Even worse, sometimes people openly seek feedback about their children.  This is the tough one for me, because while I can say negative things about my kids, I’ll get all mother-bear-defensive if anyone else does.  (Which is not 100% true, because I’m very comfortable agreeing when someone notices that my children tend to dress as though they have been thrown into a dryer and had to crawl their way out through whichever clothes were closest, or that certain haircuts make my son resemble a tennis ball and certain expressions make my daughter’s teeth look like they’re being viewed at 5x magnification.)   Still, the point remains, I don’t want people saying unpleasant things about my kids, and I certainly don’t want to say anything unpleasant about anyone else’s kids.  Especially when the topic at hand is appearance, something the kid has absolutely no control over.

So what do you say, in those cases?  When, let’s face it, the child is just not cute.  When the photo on the blog has the caption of, “Isn’t she gorgeous?” and your internal response is, “Um, no.”  I usually rely on words like “sweet,” or “precious,” or “so little.”  I could lie, I know, but I try hard not to.

So, a dilemma.  And a pervasive one; I read a statistic once that something like 95% of college fraternity members thought that they were above-average in appearance.  Not being beautiful is apparently a horrible thing.


  1. I do what you do, sometimes substituting “darling” and even “special” for “precious” or “little.”

  2. You could always say, “I’ve never seen his/her equal.”

    I do find that The Princess Bride can often help me through some of the stickier wickets in life.

  3. I like the silence angle myself. I’ve never been a cooer or a lover of newborns particularly, they all look like monkeys. Even when Clare was born, I didn’t take her into work despite the protestations of my colleagues, because she had a nice dose of cradle cap and little milia on her nose. I had to wait until she ‘looked’ ok before presenting my first born.

    As they’ve grown though, I’ve focussed on personality attributes rather than physical appearance. I’m painfully ‘real’ about my and their physical failings. Mine have come to know that it’s what’s inside that matters – um Adam still dresses like he’s crawled through a dryer!

  4. I always agree because every child is beautiful in their mother’s eyes, and I can’t fault that at all.

  5. You coo and tell the mother how wonderful her children are. They are both healthy and happy kids, that’s a beautiful thing.

    But I know the dilemma… I swear, a friend of ours had a baby daughter who reminded me of Winston Churchill. It was… not good.

  6. It’s true, they are all beautiful in mom’s eyes, and health is not to be taken for granted.

    And I forgot one of my favorites, which only works depending on the timing of the baby’s gastrointestinal system, but still… “Oh, I just love that new-baby smell.”

  7. When we had our first, my MIL would often comment, “I think the least attractive babies make the most attractive people.” I did not understand what she meant until #2 came along and I was comparing photos!

    Emily & Jacob are beautiful inside and out – and so are you! By the way, I agree – you definitely have great hair!!

  8. I don’t remember making comments about a child’s looks. The occasional infant, but they’re all, uhhh…, different looking. It’s fair to say that the rush of friends and relatives staring at them is why they can’t see too well at first. So they don’t get scared.

    Why? were we supposed to say something nice about them?

  9. Uh oh…I better go back and look at comments you’ve left on my blog about my kids… 🙂

    It reminds me of that Seinfeld episode….

  10. I don’t remember ever being faced with the not-so-rhetorical question of, “Isn’t he/she gorgeous?” It could be that I’m not always as socially aware as I should be, I suppose. But, yeah, you can’t really say, “He/She has a face only a mother could love.”

    My husband and I had a big fear when I was pregnant of having a dull, stupid child. We’re both more cerebral than anything and the thought of having a child who….wasn’t…was frightening. Lucky for us, LouLa is amazingly intelligent. Woe to anyone who believes differently.

  11. “Now that’s a baby!” Works every time.

  12. A wise woman taught me: “Oh, s/he’s perfect!!” Because indeed they are, perfect little beings. I’ve used it many, many times.

    And oh, yes, the Seinfeld episode!

  13. I usually say something like, “Oh look at her!”

    A woman I know had a baby who was just not good looking, but she was the happiest, bubbliest baby, so I could usually compliment her on her laugh or her smile. That made things easier.

  14. About 16 years ago, my good and close friend had twin girls. Everyone was ooohhhhing and aaahhhing over the twins, saying how cute they were. Of course, my great friend was eating up all the attention being showered on her baby girls.
    Then you have me. I was never one for sugarcoating things. I thought the girls were the homeliest bird-like little babies I had ever seen. Their eyes were bulging, there was no baby cherub chub even though they were 6.5 pounds each, and their heads were odd shaped (not from delivery) with tufts of kinky blond hair.
    They have since grown up to be quite attractive girls and have grown into their awkward features. However, when I first saw them, all I could muster up was a “What adorable little matching outfits they have.”
    That was when I realized there are many ways to compliment someone when you really have nothing nice to say. So if you ever ask me “Isn’t he adorable?” and I say “What cute little adidas shoes he has!” It’s probably because I didn’t think he was so adorable.

  15. I pretty much do what everyone else above has said – I just substitute words like precious, so sweet…

    and if someone asks, “isn’t he the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? I pretend I haven’t heard exactly and just talk at the baby saying , “yes, so precious.”

    I think most babies are kind of funny looking. They don’t start to get cuter until 6months.

  16. A well-timed “Awwww” is never inappropriate, but I usually just talk to the baby – and never using “baby talk” because it’s demeaning to the little person.

  17. The mother of those children (the ER nurse) may be as honest with herself about her children’s looks as you are about hers, and she isn’t expecting words like “cute” or “beautiful.” One of the my three kids was very odd-looking as a baby. I knew it, and I felt patronized when people said, fakely, to me: “Oh, isn’t s/he beautiful?”

    You don’t even have to comment on appearances. You could say, truly: “I love being a parent, and I’m so happy for you. How are you doing?”

  18. Jane, that is so true about commenting on appearances. I have 3 children. The first was 9 lbs. 13 oz. and the second was 8 lbs. 12 ozs. They were chubby and cherubic from the get go because they had so much baby fat. But when my third child came in at 6 lbs. flat, i looked at the doctor and my birdlike looking baby and said, “Can you put her back? She’s not done!” LOL

    No matter, they were and are all beautiful to me. 🙂

  19. No, 95% of fraternity members are arrogant so and sos.

    I can see my children clearly — not great, not terrible, mostly like their parents.

    I try to find something to admire in the touchy situation you’re describing, but it’s hard. Can you turn it to internal qualities?

  20. well… whatever you do, don’t point and laugh.

    It doesn’t go over well…


    I was surprised by the stats you mentioned? I wonder if that is the same with the general population, or just fraternity chicks?
    Because, I have never once met a girl who thought she was “pretty enough”. Which is sad…. because I’ve met a lot of very pretty girls/women – but, admittedly, I didn’t really know many frat girls…

    But, the stats says they all think they are at least “above average”, huh? Well… I guess that’s a good thing then. I mean, imagine how many MORE insecure and diet-crazy women there would be in our society (or at least in those fraternities) if they didn’t think they at least met the “average” mark!?!


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