I’m thinking of my daughter and fearing what will be her life-long engagement with the cult of beauty we shape around women.
Yesterday, I glimpsed four-year-old Maia dressed in her Greek hero’s armor and sparkly princess accessories saying to the mirror, “you are SO beautiful!” This was the first time I’d heard something like that from her. She’s received the compliment from others. But for years now I’ve carefully avoided praising Maia’s appearance. Instead, I’ve encouraged her intelligence and celebrated her kindness. Because these are the characteristics I’d rather she aspire to, the ones I’d like to see her define herself with. Here at the start, I hope she’ll act thoughtfully rather than think too much about her looks.
Applauding my daughter’s wit and heart has been easy. When she was three, she asked for battle armor for Halloween so that she could dress as Heracles and Athena. Because Athena can change her appearance, Maia explained, she could be both Athena and Heracles for Halloween. So long braids, armor, and a lion’s fur cape it was.
She’s smart and sweet, too. She’s often the first to share. Her favorite part of a treat is giving one to someone else. How could I not want to focus on these kinds of character traits? Why would I tell her she’s pretty and teach her that “pretty” is who she is or should try to be? How could I let her think that “pretty” is why I love and admire her? “Pretty” is problematic, as poet and performer Katie Makkai expresses so well.
Hearing my daughter at the mirror yesterday reminds me that she’ll not always like what she sees there. Soon enough, the world will teach her to look for what’s missing rather than admire what’s there. She’ll see flaws: if voluminous waves are popular, she’ll see flat, stringy hair. If models flaunt straight hair, she’ll call her waves unruly. If she’s slim and muscular, she’ll wish for curves. If she’s Rubenesque, she’ll stare down the enemy in the mirror.
Because there’s always someone slimmer – blonder, taller, more photogenic, stronger, more voluptuous, luckier, wealthier, just fill in the adjective of the moment – to compare oneself to. But right now, Maia’s looking into a mirror. Not a mirror, mirror on the wall. Just a mirror. And she smiles.
So while she sees beauty, I’ll hang mirrors. A mirror in every room! I want my daughters to see themselves while they’re honest and innocent enough to see the beauty there. Now I understand that in focusing so carefully on Maia’s intelligence and kindness, I’ve left something important out. This:
Maia, you are SO beautiful. Maia, you are SO beautiful!