The “Perfect” Smile

September 26, 2011 | 20 comments

Our nine-year-old has been practicing her smile for two days now. School pictures are this morning.

She set out her shirt last night, along with a matching hair-clip and cubic-zirconia earrings. These things, she could plan for. But that smile? She’s not sure what will happen when the photographer snaps the shutter. 

“Will you pray for my smile, Mommy?” She asked me this morning at the end of driveway, right before yellow bus NO. 44 crested the hill. 

More than anything, she says, the success of a fourth-grade portrait hinges on that smile.

Trouble is, she doesn’t like hers. She thinks her eyes are too squinty. Her permanent teeth aren’t perfectly lined up. Her head tilt is just … off.

We prayed at the end of the driveway this morning, for the real smile — not the one where the corners of her mouth are pinned back and the eyes are forced open wide.

“Be you, Lydia,” I told her. “Your real smile is the best one of all.” 


How about us? What smile are we wearing today?

Yeah, I’ve been there, practicing the look that says, “I’m fine. Really!” It’s the kind of smile where you could grind the enamel off your back teeth, if you aren’t careful. It pairs nicely with the hidden knot in the stomach.

My favorite place to wear the airbrushed smile: church.

When I couldn’t quite muster up a real smile, I’ve pulled my fake-happy from the shelf and slapped that on, along with a little lipstick.

Because the truth is, I sometimes fear what might happen if I wear my hurt on the outside. Vulnerability threatens the shined-up veneer I practice in the mirror. Real feels risky.

I wonder: Will they still like me if they see the mess I am underneath? 

But false veneers assault our Real. Truth is, we can’t maintain a crooked smile to cover up the junk underneath. That’s too much pressure.

A while back, I threw out the fake-happy with the garbage. But occasionally, a recycled version makes a reappearance. I’m working on that. I’m working on letting the only smile on this face be the real one that God created uniquely for me.

I’m looking at the clock now, and in just a few minutes, my nine-year-old will be sitting in front of a camera. I promised her I’d pray, so I’ll do that right now:

Lydia, my prayer for you (and for me) is this: May we always and only wear our real smiles — the ones that crinkle our nose, and make our eyes squint. May we know the freedom that if we can’t smile, we don’t have to. And may our every true smile spring up from a place of inner joy, not manufactured happiness. 

Looking for a reason to smile today?

A LAUGHING PLACE FOR US: Check out these stories on laughter, over at Jumping Tandem. Some of them will be featured over at The High Calling later today.

A SONG FOR US: Perfect People? No. Such. Thing. (Here’s a video I made last spring, to the song by Natalie Grant.)  

TWO VERSES FOR US: This is the truth about you. And, this is proof of God’s delight in you.

A BOOK FOR US: Grace for the Good Girl by Emily Freeman. “Emily uncovers the truth about the hiding, encouraging women to move from hiding behind girl-made masks and do-good performances to a life hidden with Christ in God.”

Linking with Jen today.

by | September 26, 2011 | 20 comments


  1. Julie

    This is beautiful, Jennifer. Just like you and those beautiful daughters of yours. I have become quite comfortable with that airbrushed fake-happy smile but slowly learning to step out from behind it. I find that when I do admit my faults and insecurities it allows Jesus to shine all the more brightly. (But oh it is scary!)

    Saying a prayer for your little ones right now! 🙂


  2. katdish

    My daughter doesn’t take a bad picture. My son, unfortunately takes after his mamma–It’s hard to see the real him in a picture.

    This post reminds me of my best friend’s pic growing up. Her home life was not good at all. In one of her class pictures, there she is, smiling sweetly for the camera, in a dress her mother forced her to wear that she hated. She made one minor adjustment to the dress before the pic was taken, but you could still see the jagged pieces of lace which remained after she had cut off the collar. Talk about a picture painting a thousand words.

    • dukeslee

      Katdish … That is a powerful image. I actually read your message here in the comment box earlier today, but I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon. As a parent, I think about the ways that I might subconsciously (or consciously) try to make my girls into what *I* want them to be. And as a human being, I think about the ways I try to fit in. Me? I would have never cut off the collar. I’d have been too concerned about ruffling someone’s feathers or giving people a reason to talk. (And I came from a good home…)

      Thank you for sharing this story, Katdish.

  3. Megan Willome

    Such precious girls!

    Welcome to the No Fake Smiles Club. Iit’s like the No Friends Club from “Free to Be, You and Me,” only awesomer.)

    • dukeslee

      Love it, Megan! I’m looking forward to some For-Real Smiles with you in a couple days. 🙂

  4. Lisa notes...

    I still can see my 4th grade picture in my mind. My teeth felt too big for my mouth; too much gapping; etc. But I did have a real smile. That’s what I see now. And I thank God for it.

    I pray that Lydia is pleased with her picture. Both now and later. You’re a good mama to pray about her concerns.

    • dukeslee

      I felt the same way, Lisa. In fact, I was afraid to smile at all. I was so insecure and self-conscious. I love that you can look back and see the real smile shining through. Thanks for stopping. I always appreciate what you share.

  5. Sheila Lagrand

    I love this, Jennifer…what a great mom to encourage the real smile, whatever its form, in the school photos.

    I never know what to say when someone commands me to smile. It’s kind of like telling someone to cheer up.

  6. Jennifer Ferguson

    Beyond precious, Jennifer. Beautiful and real and a message of life-giving freedom.

    I would be honored if you linked this to Soli Deo Gloria at my place this week — I think people will be touched by your genuine-ness and the freedom that you offer in this word.

  7. Diana Trautwein

    And here’s another one – a sigh of contentment, that is. SUCH BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS. I love this age from first big teeth through about 8th grade, as these young girls grow into their changing bodies. How I pray they can all do it as un-self-consciously as possible! Wise words you offered, Mama Lee, wise words indeed.

    We’re in San Antonio tonight – exhausted and HOT. But tomorrow we’ll explore this charming town a bit. See you soon.

  8. Stacy

    Sadly, when we do choose to put on our fake-smile, the only one we are fooling is our self. Like you so beautifully wrote, you can’t manufacture happiness, and you can’t fake JOY!
    Loved this….
    May we always be real….free to be who Jesus created us to be!

  9. Carolyn

    Followed you over here from Jen’s blog. I really appreciate you writing about real smiles. Mine has been gone for so long I don’t know where I left it. Hubby and I recently had portraits done. What I thought was a smile did not impress the photographer. He taught me a trick that “makes” you smile, so the pics came out with me looking happier than usual. But after we took the pics, my face was really sore, because I truly don’t use my smile muscles. How saw. Gotta work on that. I’ll be at Laity Lodge for the Writers’ Retreat. If you are going to be there, hopefully we’ll get a few minutes to chat. 🙂

  10. Carolyn

    *sad not “saw”. Where is a good copy editor when he/she is needed?

  11. glenda childers

    I love it that your daughter asked you to pray for her smile. What a smart girl.

    I am reading Grace for the Good Girl, too. Oh my . . .


  12. Kendra

    Wonderful post, Jennifer! I’m reading this a day late, but still totally needed. I am also reading “Grace for the Good Girl”, and wow, it and this post so describe me! I’m learning…slowly, to take off these masks. Its a pretty big process for me.
    Thank you!

  13. elaine @ peace for the journey

    Seeing these beautiful young faces this morning has brought the first smile across my face today. I hope there is more where that came from.

    Tell her she’s beautiful.


  14. Susan-runnermom

    They both have beautiful smiles! Your girls are precious! Rich thoughts in this post–that airbrushed smile….never thought of it in those terms! But you are so right…it’s pretend but what’s in our heart is the real deal. Thanks so much for these words today!! Hugs!!!

  15. Pamela

    I’m sure your daughter’s prayed for smile was shining bright–showing her belief in the God who answers prayer. I loved your encouragement for her to use the smile that belongs to her.


  16. debra

    I have daughters becoming self conscious and you, and some of your sweet commenters, remind me to be ever encouraging them. And ever praying to God they have His eyes to see their beauty! Oh, and what beauties you have … glowing smile on sweet, precious faces!


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