I’d been in the process of raising three rowdy boys by the time my last child, a daughter, came into the world. We brought her home to a house overflowing with springy contraptions purchased under the delusion that having other things to bounce on would protect my furniture. There were also trucks, baby dolls, and the most forgiving craft supplies I could find. I’d worked hard to cultivate a home that I thought resisted gender stereotypes.
It seemed to work well for my first, who proudly donned tiger-print and floral dresses to school through first grade and loved to build towers as much as he loved to brush dolls’ hair. But by the time my daughter was old enough to get her grubby little hands in all the things, she seemed to be solely reaching for my make-up and shoes.
She would spend a few minutes with the legos, but it would never last long. She was drawn like a magnet to the bright hues of my lipsticks and the sparkles on heels I’d worn back when I’d been at weddings every other weekend. She had also decided that dresses were the only acceptable attire, and even attempting to have her wear something else would precipitate a meltdown of epic proportions. Besides growling at all the perfectly good pants that were sitting unworn in her drawers, I watched her obsession with curiosity, wondering what her seemingly traditional gender-role interests might mean.
It shouldn’t have been surprising, I suppose, given the way that she watched me each morning spread creamy color across my face and then carefully brush dark mascara on my thinning eyelashes. I could present her with as many monster trucks and marble sets as I wanted, but it wasn’t where she saw me, still – blissfully – her idol, spending my own time.
And then one morning a few weeks ago, this feisty four-year-old was getting dressed for preschool and wasn’t liking the way the pants I was requiring her to wear under her rainbow-striped dress looked. “Mom!” she cried in a tone that held the kind of deep annoyance that I had once thought wouldn’t come until pre-teenhood. “This is not pretty! I’m not going to be pretty in this!” And then she burst into real-life crocodile tears as she crumpled into a heap on the floor.
I knelt down and heard the words starting to instinctively come out of my mouth: “Sweetheart! Of course you’ll be…” and then I stopped myself, my mind glitching as I registered what it was I was saying. I took a breath.
While part of me wanted to roll my incredulous eyes at the idea of my four-year-old being besotted by fashion anxiety, another part of me wanted desperately to reassure her of her beauty. I wanted to tell her, just like my own mom had told me, that she was pretty no matter what she wore and no matter what anyone else thought.
But yet another part of me, one who had the benefit of social movements that came too late for my own mom, didn’t roll my eyes or reassure her. Instead, I asked her why she wanted to look pretty.
“Because you look pretty,” she said matter of factly. She looked at me with her tear-filled eyes. “And so I want to look pretty too.”
I spent the next few days mulling over how I wanted to respond to her when this inevitably came up again, and doing so brought me back again to how my own appearance anxiety was managed by mom and the world at large.
I was a really cute baby and toddler, a not particularly cute grade schooler, an average-looking but convinced I was ghastly unattractive high schooler. But no matter how I looked, I was assured I was beautiful.
Maybe my parents truly believed in my beauty – one can forgive them their biases – but I’m pretty sure that the affirmations were rooted more in not wanting to see me suffer. My mom, like most of her generation, couldn’t stand to see me in pain, and particularly not pain of potential rejection. And so she layered on the pretty platitudes, hoping that at least some of them would make it past the skin barrier and grow in me the mythical confidence that was the focus on Baby Boomer parenting.
There were big gaps in this approach, not the least of which was that I wasn’t that pretty. To be clear, I’m not saying that in some self-effacing manner, but more for the record. I wasn’t particularly pretty and that was okay. Or it should have been okay. But my mom’s persistent reassurances seemed to reinforce not that I was beautiful, but just how important she thought it was for me to think I was beautiful. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I was perceiving how dire this situation was.
The other big gap in the logic of her reassurance was her insistence that, though according to her I was pretty, it didn’t matter what anyone else thought of my appearance. Again, I couldn’t have recognized it exactly back then, but I was hearing and experiencing the inherent contradiction. Her desperate reassurance of my beauty didn’t line up with the screw-them-all attitude she was trying to instill. Either I was pretty and other people’s opinion of it mattered, or me being pretty was irrelevant. It mattered or it didn’t.
And for her and me and almost everyone else at the time, it mattered.
Our modern era has seen some shifting from the body positivity movement to the body neutrality movement, but I’d argue that for most of us a truly body neutral approach still feels highly unnatural. It’s like shoes that could eventually be our favorite, but we’re still trying to break it.
Very few of us can say honestly that if called “ugly” on the street we wouldn’t want to hide under our blankets for at least a little while. Or that we don’t cringe a bit when someone posts a photo of us in particularly bad lighting. But I appreciate that the concept has gained traction and that more of us than ever are striving for this sense of identity that exists separately from how the world perceives our looks.
I’m a pragmatist at heart, and I have a deep love for evolutionary psychology, and so while I have high hopes for physical appearance to become less and less important in our culture, I also know that it’s likely not a social or biological reality. What I mean is that as human beings, we are wired to be attracted to what is pleasant to look at. What we find beautiful can be highly socially constructed, but we are moved by beauty – be that a waterfall, a paint color, or a darling face. I actually love our human affinity for beauty.
I think when we set our sights on body and beauty neutrality, what we are really aiming for is a world in which beauty matters, but it’s not all that matters. Perhaps we’re longing to have beauty appreciated, but not define a sense of identity. Most importantly, we don’t want, or at least I don’t want, beauty to hold such a place of privilege that we judge and discriminate based on its presence or absence.
It’s not a simple thing to translate these nuances into responses to a four-year-old’s frilly dress meltdown or a fourteen’s or forty-year-old’s anxiety about the acne on their face. Maybe, though, it would sound something like this:
“I get it. It feels so important to you to like how you look. I see how much you want to feel beautiful. Maybe it’s because being pretty makes you feel a little bit safer? Maybe you notice that friends seem to treat you differently – even better – when you do these things? That makes so much sense to me. I’ve felt that way too.
We live in a world where people sometimes think being pretty is the most important thing. It’s okay to feel like it’s important to you. It makes sense. And what I want you to know it’s not the most important thing. What matters most is how you treat yourself and how you treat others. I know, I know. That sounds silly and maybe even lame. But I’ve been around a while and I can tell you it’s true.
Let’s talk about how you want to feel in your body and in your skin. What do you want how you do your hair and what you wear to tell other people about you? Let’s talk about what your eyes like to see and maybe how they started liking that? Let’s talk about the things you love about your friends and me in addition to how we look. What are some of your favorite things about you? I have so many I could share, but I’ll let you go first.
Love, you don’t owe anyone pretty. Not me, not your friends, not people you’re dating, not the world. You can be pretty or not. It’s interesting, but not that interesting. It’s something, but it’s not everything. I love all the ways you look and all the ways you are.”