I was walking with my children along an ocean-front path in Cape Elizabeth at Portland Head Light last week, gentle waves rolling against sheer cliffs, a cool breeze ruffling the wild rose bushes, when my nine-year-old daughter, Lydia, stopped and pointed into the leafy jungle.

My best friend (left) and me (right) plucking chickens on my Oregon farm.

“Look, Mom!” she said. “A beautiful pink flower!”

As I stooped to peer into the bushes, something bright and pink caught my eye.

Lydia recognized what it was before me. “Oh.” She sighed. “It’s just a piece of trash.”

The “beautiful flower” was someone’s discarded candy-bar wrapper. Disappointed, we continued walking, but the image stayed with me.  Isn’t it the same with me?  I wondered. How often do I see something bright and shiny and call it “beautiful” before recognizing it isn’t even real? 

As a farm girl whose mother cut my hair in the kitchen, who grew up wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs and was often mistaken for a boy–I felt ugly. So ugly that in first grade, while playing with one of my best friends, I wondered, What is it like to have an ugly friend like me?

Looking back, I now recognize my friend and I both wore scrappy clothes. Both had kitchen-scissor mangled hair. Both had never peered between the pages of a fashion magazine. And we were both beautiful. But my seven-year-old self saw beauty as the girls whose mother’s curled their hair and dressed them in cute clothes.

It often takes time and perspective to recognize true beauty, but by then damage may have been done.

This week, I’ll be kicking off Great Reads for Girls at the Patten Free Library in Bath to hand out copies of Nancy Rue‘s recently re-released book, “Here’s Lily!” about a sixth grader who wins the chance to be in a fashion show. Only, before her big appearance, something alters Lily’s natural beauty and she must decide whether to participate.

Over the next four weeks, we’ll discuss the book, put our creativity to work with fun crafts, play games, and talk about REAL beauty–where it comes from and how to nurture it in a society caught up in the synthetic.

I’ll tell them the story of the trash we mistook for a flower and of a little girl who grew up wearing her brother’s hand-me-downs and of a flicker of red I saw in the bushes this week while driving to the grocery store. At first I thought it was another piece of garbage, but then it lifted its wings and flew off. And I smiled, recognizing true beauty.

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment… instead it should be from your inner self,” I Peter 3-4.

What makes you feel beautiful?