I remember when my father said that I was beautiful, I was quite young but old enough to remember clearly. He had lifted me up, tossed me in the air where I stretched out my arms and pretended to be an eagle. I was carefree, wearing my dirt stained dress and my braids needing to be undone. But I believed him.

I used to force dad to tell me how beautiful I was because I believed it only when he said it. But that was just me; five year old me.

Dad chose and bought all the clothes that I wore. I couldn’t go shopping with him because he bought the clothes in town where he worked, which was far from home. The only time that I had complained about what he bought was when he brought home a sweater that was very big.

He explained that it was the last one of its kind and that I would wear it for a longer time. It was only when I saw Ciara wearing an oversized sweater did I decide that it was time to wear mine. So that was how I started to inspire my friends and fellow schoolmates. I was in grade seven but I became a trendsetter to learners four years my senior. I loved it when my friends asked me what I thought they should wear.

They would ask me how I thought they looked and I would say “Beautiful! Beautiful.” That was the word that made me giggle when dad said it to me as a child. That is also the word that introduced me to the knowledgeable me; the fifteen year old and counting me.

“Dad, do you think that they could give you leave so we can go to the theme park on a Saturday, sometime this month?” I asked my father one evening. He only chuckled and made a sad face to her. “OK, how about we go on Sunday and skip church then, we are only going to skip one service. Surely God will not mind.”

This time, Dad laughed really loud and wagged his finger in front of me.

“Noooo, Hilary.”

We were very close. We had learned how to depend on each other. I was now sixteen years old, in tenth grade and had sunk deep into my adolescence stage.

My father knew though, how to curb the frequent tantrums I threw. He knew when to take a step back when I banged the door in his face. He got the pimple creams I requested and listened through the complaints of acne, weight-gain, homework and the ‘Life sucks!’ expressions.

Dad and I we still very close, but there is one thing that had changed; I no longer believed him when he told me that I was beautiful.

“Of course you would say that, you’re my dad,” I would often respond.

One day in March I apparently walked around the house in a very strange posture; I was crouched like somebody whose tummy was painful.

“Baby do you have a tummy bug?” Daddy asked concerned.

“Yes, but I have just taken a pill.”

“What pill? We only have headache tablets,” he asked, starting to stress.

“Dad, I’m okay.” I said shutting the conversation down.

Very late that night he must have assumed that I was asleep, he came into my room. He pushed her door very slowly but found me standing in front of the mirror. My top was up to my bra and I was staring at my reflection while rubbing my navel gently.

Dad stood at the door, looking relieved that I was not sick but instead of looking upset, he looked like he felt an overwhelming rush of sadness. I stood there, staring at him and my hand still on my navel. The glistening of my ring struck him and for a while he stared at it.

We both stood still, looking at each other and hoping that someone would eventually say something first. He looked at the floor, almost as if reading the reason why his only daughter – who always communicated everything to him – would pierce her navel without telling him. He then closed the door, without saying or hearing a word.

The following morning I found the usual note written: “Daddy loves you my beautiful pumpkin. Enjoy your day.”

When I went to school I was not as loud as I would usually be in the bus. And neither did I laugh as loud as the class clown in my classes. I kept on wondering what my dad was thinking, how angry and disappointed he was in me. I knew that he would never hit me but at that moment I wished that he did believe in corporal punishment. The silence on that previous night, was a lash that burned and ached far worse than a hiding.

When my dad arrived at home, and to my surprise, kissed me on her forehead as usual, he told me about his day at work and asked how mine was. The navel piercing dilemma was never discussed on that day, neither on the day after that, nor the weeks and months after that.

Our relationship was still okay. Dad continued to be the father and I continued to be the child.

I passed my tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade. My obsession with the idea of beauty also progressed.

I got a nose ring, changed my hairstyles whenever other people ‘copied’ it and I refused to go out with friends without putting any make-up on. My dad continued to tell me how beautiful I was and I continued to shrug it off. But it was during this time that he felt he needed to make me believe him because I was going to varsity the following year. Fatherly instinct told him I would be miserable when I saw other students who were far more ‘beautiful’ than I would ever be.

“Baby, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.”

“Dad, I want every beholder of those eyes to see me,” I laughed. “I’m joking dad, I just want to feel good and looking good makes me feel good.”

“But you got the definition all wrong. It is not necessarily what you look like, it’s only a part of it.”

“See dad, that’s the thing, beauty for you is not beauty for me because you are old and I am young.”

“But the beast of beauty is the same for both of us. It doesn’t choose which age group to devour, it…” at this, I laughed really loud.

“Dad, really? Beauty and the beast?”

“No, not beauty and the beast. What I mean is that beauty can be a beast. Your mother…” he sighed. My laughter receded at the mention of my mother and I stared at a magazine on the floor in front of me.

“Your mother never really cared about her looks. She never tried hard to look young or anything like that. I always told her that she was beautiful when she woke up and whenever we lay down.”

“Too much information dad, way too much.”

“No listen to me,” he said, “then one day she went to hospital because of acid that accidentally splashed on her cheek. From that day onwards things changed. She became more conscious than ever about the way she looked. She spent hours in front of the mirror trying to cover up a scar that was only clear when you really got close to her. Everything in the house became a mirror, especially the pots when she was cooking.” Dad and I both laughed softly at the thought of mom in the kitchen.

“It was as if she now realised how much she had neglected her outward beauty and was compensating for the time lost. She became happier on days when many people told her how stunning she looked and a little sad on days when they failed to acknowledge her efforts. When I told her of her beauty she would say, “You’re my husband, of course you would say that.” That small scar was barely visible but it triggered something so gigantic.” Dad’s tone was sad.

“The beast, it owned her. It told her that she was only beautiful when people said so. It forced her to spend time on activities that would enhance her outward beauty rather than spending time with me or her family for that matter. When she fell sick, weeks after you were born she looked like… a person that she used to be. We talked longer. We spent time watching all my favourite soapies and all her shows. Once, I carried her and we danced. She laughed so loud, like you do. She was feint but she had the energy to laugh.

“And on her last days she looked so content, so happy and cheerful like your name. When I told her how beautiful she looked she simply said, “Living with lovely people who adore the inner-me makes me feel beautiful. Thank you.” So I never mourned her for too long because she died a happy person.”

After dad said this, he pulled me closer to him and we embraced each other. I resented him for withholding this piece of intimate information from me. But as he held onto me a little longer, I felt a sense of liberation from my ideology of beauty; a liberation that made the beast smaller and smaller and finally non-existent.

Tell us: What is your definition of beauty?