My parents were babysitting my daughter one night when she was 3. I went to pick her up and found her cloaked in one of my mom’s fringed shawls, bejeweled in necklaces and twirling in a full-length mirror.
“You look beautiful,” my mom cooed over and over. They had spent hours in front of the mirror doing this.
I smiled. Evelyn seemed so happy. But under it, I was torn.
When I was pregnant, I intentionally kept my daughter’s sex a mystery. I didn’t want anything to inadvertently affect her gender development. It was probably a little insane on my part, but I insisted on neutral-colored baby gear. When she was a newborn, I dressed her in onesies with teddy bears and footballs and dogs. Never princess crowns.
Gradually, things slipped. I bought her a cloth doll, someone else bought her a Barbie, I put a bow on her head. Suddenly, relatives were shipping in dresses by the ton. One thing led to another, and now her favorite colors are purple and pink, and she won’t go anywhere without her chapstick—or “lipstick,” as she likes to call it. She talks frequently about baking and spends more time tending to her babies than many adult moms I know.
So that night at my parents’ house, part of me expected to arrive to an elaborate dress-up party. Another part of me was worried.
Being pretty or thin isn’t inherently bad but, in my experience, it seems like being pretty often comes at the expense of more meaningful things.
As a child, I thought my mother was the most beautiful person in the world. Her face was freckled and usually wearing a big, bright smile. My favorite thing was her red hair, soft and heavy. I remember what a handful of it felt like in my tiny fist, like something very special that only grown-up women had.
It didn’t take me long to realize my mom didn’t share the same views about herself. She spent a lot of time getting ready in the morning and making off-hand comments about her butt or her stomach. Her hair was the target of her harshest criticisms. Because it was so thick and sleek, it didn’t take well to styling products. She was always trying to shape it into something big, fluffy or curly—something against its nature.
Without realizing it, I wound up doing the same thing. In eighth grade, I spent hours one morning blow-drying my hair to curl a certain way and pinning a bandana to my head just perfectly. When I got to school, a boy thought he’d be funny and yanked it off my head. He might as well have ripped my shirt or pants off. I wasn’t just mortified, my day was ruined.
This carried on well into high school. I didn’t try as hard on my volleyball team for fear my hair would get messed up. I didn’t speak up in class for fear something was “off” about my makeup. I would opt out of social gatherings altogether if the right side of my hair (the stubborn side) wouldn’t curl under the way it was supposed to.
I don’t blame my mom. Her confidence is her own battle to fight. But I do feel a responsibility to be more body-positive around my own daughter. When I first held my daughter, skin to skin after giving birth to her in my bedroom, I imagined raising a girl with a strong sense of self, a girl unafraid to speak loudly or be active.
My hope is that she feels free to realize her true preferences, independent of what I like.
I wanted to raise her with an ongoing narrative—an ongoing example—that an adult woman isn’t just somebody’s mom or wife or daughter. An adult woman is an entity unto herself. A human with motives, talents and goals to realize. Being pretty or thin isn’t inherently bad but, in my experience, it seems like being pretty often comes at the expense of more meaningful things.
And if being pretty is an end goal, it will always result in disappointment, because bodies change. As far as investments go, I want to teach Evelyn that beauty is the worst investment a girl could make in herself.
The best thing I can do for my daughter isn’t to regulate her interests, but to regulate my own behavior. I refuse to criticize myself in the mirror. If I’m doing my makeup, I talk about how much fun it is to make art on my face. And I never, ever criticize the bodies of other women—fat, thin, masculine or feminine.
I can’t force her to like the outdoorsy things I like or to favor reading over watching a princess movie. This would be akin to the canonized hyper-masculine dad trying to get his effeminate son to play sports. My hope is that she feels free to realize her true preferences, independent of what I like.
And if I am beautiful to her, in her child eyes, I hope that she sees that same beauty reflected back when she’s twirling in the mirror.