By Mark E. Smith
As the father of a 14-year-old, I often find myself in an odd predicament. Whenever I show someone her picture, or she’s with me at an event, people graciously note how beautiful she is. And, while I sincerely appreciate such comments, thanking them, I never really say what I’m thinking: You really have no idea how beautiful she is.
See, as with all 14-year-old girls, my daughter’s beauty isn’t based on her exterior facade that conforms to a symmetrical face, slim stature, and flowing hair that pop-culture idolizes, but a beauty that’s within – that which is inherent within all young ladies. My daughter exhibits remarkable loyalty to her friends, where her sense of popularity at school isn’t about who wears what, or who knows whom, but that everyone is her friend, where she reaches out to others based on the quality of their characters, not so-called “status.” And, she exhibits a remarkable sense of empathy, where if one of her friend’s family is going through personal struggles – divorce, job loss, abuse – she finds ways that she can help comfort that friend in times of need.
My job, of course, as her father is not just to support my daughter, but to have very direct conversations with her about how proud I am of her, that she’s inherently beautiful, that I want to support her growth into a strong, independent, emotionally healthy young woman. Researchers have proven that a woman’s most formative years toward her lifelong self-esteem and identity are in her teens – and it’s a make-or-break time for fathers who will shape, for better or for worse, their daughters’ identities.
Yet, our obligation toward building life-inspiring self-esteem in young ladies in their teens can’t stop with our own daughters, but must be extended to others we meet. The fact is, when women enter their 20s with low self-esteem, it’s often too late for any of us to have an impact. We know that low self-esteem established in the teen years often manifests itself in a woman’s adult life through destructive relationships with men – from as subtle as being controlled and having little voice in a relationship, to as blatant as abuse – and through alarming forms of “self-medication” ranging from drugs and alcohol to promiscuity. The fact is, when women need outside stimuli to feel validated, as opposed to simply knowing their intrinsic strength and beauty from within, so much of their potential is lost, where no matter how much we strive to help such an adult woman recognize her inherent beauty, the emotional scars are usually so thick that it’s among life’s toughest hurdles to overcome.
It’s for these reasons why we should all reach out to young ladies in their formative teen years, where they’re still open to seeing their intrinsic beauty, where as mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, teachers and coaches, we should never pass on showing a teen her intrinsic beauty while we still have the opportunity to truly make a difference with strikingly simple but vital words of encouragement.
As a father himself, Rene Szalay of Ki Mobility, recently presented me with a remarkable opportunity to hopefully make a difference in a young lady’s life. I first met Rene 22 years ago at an adaptive sports camp in Chico, California. I graduated high school a few weeks before the camp, so it was my first real foray into the “wheelchair world.” Rene, however, was four years older than me, and a literal star in the wheelchair tennis world. At the camp, I witnessed how the teens looked up to Rene, and I realized the impact that we can each have on the young people around us – it was a powerful lesson in inspiration. For the following 22 years, I never crossed paths with Rene again; yet, his presence at that camp stuck with me.
Recently, while working an Abilities Expo, I joined fellow mobility industry colleagues after hours – everyone usually hangs out together regardless of our companies and roles – and Rene was among this particular group, gracious enough to note that he is a bit of a fan of my work. As I’m typically wound a bit over-the-top, I ended up horsing around with the group, and didn’t get a chance to see if Rene remembered Chico, 22 years earlier? However, the following day, true to Rene’s character that I recalled, he showed up at my booth with a 14-year-old young lady and her mother, noting that they really should speak with me. I had no idea what it was about, but I know that guys like Rene and I put people before products, and if he left his booth to bring the daughter and mother to my booth, it probably wasn’t product-related.
The young lady had cerebral palsy, and used a manual wheelchair. In typical 40-year-old-dad fashion, I asked her what her favorite subjects in school were and such – the cliché questions we use to build some rapport. However, eventually what came out was that she was struggling socially in school, that she didn’t feel like she fit in as the only one with a disability among her classmates. I told her a bit about my being the lone student with a disability when I was her age, and how my own daughter and her peers likewise struggle with questions of identity, that other young ladies feel just as insecure, but some just hide it better than others (adults are no exception at that, either!). Yet, what I mostly discussed with her was who she really was, loving Shakespeare and classical music – amazing for a 14-year-old. And, as I told her, I was in awe of her intellect and wisdom, that beyond her adorable appearance – complete with pink highlighted bangs on her blond hair – her inherent beauty shined, that there was no doubt that she would go on to do great things. “Concentrate on developing who you truly are, avoiding the no-win game of trying to fit a made-up social mold,” I shared. “Being exactly like everyone else in life gets us no where – we just blend into a crowd, or live to other people’s bland standards. But, being yourself, where your unique gifts and beauty shines, is where you thrive in the world. You are beautiful, just as everyone is in their unique ways, and your intellect and wisdom are going to propel you to an amazing, impacting life. …It only gets better from here.”
I’m known for pulling people aside and having extremely candid conversations, where I’m not bashful about laying the cards on the table if I see someone struggling in emotional pain or going down destructive paths, where I’ll share that there are healthy ways to get one’s life back on track. Again, though, with adults, such talks usually have little effect beyond the moment because one person’s caring can’t overcome the other person’s lifetime of pain – serious work must be done, and few adults have the capacity, tools, and will to shift their lives (and when it is done to a meaningful level – ridding dysfunctional behaviors – formal counseling is typically involved).
However, we know that the door is still wide open on teenagers, where adult mentors can show a 14-year-old young lady her inherent beauty and it truly registers. If you have a young lady in your life, don’t pass on those moments that emphasize her inherent beauty, where you help polish the strengths that she’ll use to live a healthy, happy, impacting life.