Tonight I read a post on the lovely Thea Smith’s blog (Do I Really Wanna Blog?) titled Unpretty. It brought to mind a piece I had published previously on Web Child. It seemed fitting to post it again, as an extension of my comment on Thea’s thought-provoking and honest blog. It also seems to be a logical continuation of my last post – The Naughtiest Girl Goes to a Party.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Mirror, mirror on the wall… this seems to be my current ironic refrain as I survey my almost 40-year-old reflection each morning. My usual daily routine is a perfunctory application of make-up and the reluctant acceptance of whatever style my willful head of hair might deem appropriate. But, just as I obtain a certain level of satisfaction and think that I look okay my eight-year-old daughter comes and stands beside me. As our mirror images gaze back at us, her blemish-free skin, graceful posture and fuss-free ponytail put my paltry efforts to shame – and bring to light some issues which concern me.
Indiana is beautiful. Of course, as a mum it’s what we say about our kids. But, objectively speaking, Indy seems to have an arrangement of physical features which is generally accepted as being aesthetically pleasing in our society. I say this in as detached a way as possible because for most of my life I have struggled to make peace with the concept of physical beauty and its place in our world. In turn I worry about the impact it may have on my daughter’s life.
Rue it though we may we cannot ignore or deny the fact that beauty is a form of currency, and I think one of the challenges we face as parents is to teach our children – and especially our daughters – how to negotiate the sometimes treacherous way it functions. Of course, worshipping at the altar of physical beauty is as old as Helen of Troy so our current obsession with the Jolie-Pitts of the world is nothing new. But it’s the often proffered side-dish of vacuousness and narcissism which I fear. How do I teach my daughter to wear her beauty with a patina of humility and goodness?
I was an average looking child – a little on the small side but occasionally attractive. However, my best friend in high school possessed a precocious beauty which literally turned heads. Walking beside her long, stunning self often made me feel invisible. I admit with embarrassment that I became obsessed with appearances – a preoccupation that still occasionally pops in to say hello. I loved my friend for much more than her beauty, although the fact that she later became famous for her looks (amongst other talents) went some way towards justifying what I knew to be true – she was indeed a genetic freak.
My own daughter – despite her debut as an unattractive newborn – has blossomed into a particular version of westernised beauty with her tawny blonde hair, big blue eyes fringed by long dark lashes and naturally olive skin. Our initial response upon realising that the flat head, blotchy skin, gappy teeth and crazy hair of her babyhood were temporary was to constantly tell her that she was beautiful. Now I wonder why it mattered so much to us. But as a new mum I believed that praising her this way would safeguard her against future self-image problems such as those I had experienced. The flipside of this praise was that I was verbally rewarding her for what she is – as if it was as significant as what she does. I wised up and pulled back a little on the ‘beautiful girl’ comments replacing them with, “what a caring girl you are,” or, “you made a great effort at gymnastics today”.
I guess we’ve been lucky so far because Indy has always had a shy and self-effacing nature but in recent months we have noticed her increasing awareness of her appearance. She is not at all obsessive but the other day she said to me, “Mummy, I’ve got skin like a model.” Considering the fact that I have never had cause to use the word ‘model’ when chatting with the kids, I was a little shocked. This had obviously come from elsewhere. I asked her, “Why is that important?” to which she replied, “Models get to have their photo taken and be in magazines.”
“Well that doesn’t mean much,” I countered, “you don’t have to be smart or nice to have your photo taken.” She pondered it for a minute and didn’t seem particularly perturbed by what I had said. It was then that I became aware of the fine line between giving her an over-inflated sense of the importance of beauty and of damaging her developing sense of self. I also know that I can’t completely prevent her from discovering that she has a measure of this particular form of currency (although we may find that it, too, passes – just as her newborn cone-head did) but I will continue to remind her that courtesy, respect and education are three things (at the very least) which rank above beauty in my books.
My high school friend was often defined by her physical appearance, but I also remember her as incredibly smart, quirky, hardworking, loyal and kind. Without these qualities she would not have been so beautiful. I wish the same for my daughter.
Am I being too harsh on my daughter? How do you teach your kids about appearances over substance?