Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

“I always wanted a little girl,” I hear my mom’s voice coo from somewhere deep in my memory, “and when the doctors told me I was having one, I was so happy!”  I was the long awaited dream.  The basket in which my mother had placed all of her hope eggs.  Yet, when I was growing inside her womb, she certainly never expected me to be more of a tomboy than my older brother.  Once my parents had a girl–well, me–they stopped having children.  After all, my mom finally had what she always wanted.  For the first few years of my life, my mom displayed her ever-present fashion sense by fitting me in girlish garments.  When I developed a vocabulary and a mind of my own, however, I swapped my form-fitting dresses for my brother’s baggy, earth-toned hand-me-downs.  I have always preferred boys clothes and chose to wear them in public from my toddler to teenage years.  (Let’s be honest, I’d still choose sweatpants over skinny jeans any day.)  I loved the coverage and comfort of a loose-fitting wardrobe.  While I adorned myself in my brother’s gear, I could do all the things that interested me–climb trees, play sports, catch frogs and fireflies.  None of which were female-appropriate activities.  In fact, when most girls were cradling and caressing baby dolls, I was throwing them down and picking up a baseball bat.  Needless to say, I was not the baby girl my mother had envisioned.  She wanted the gender norm and I refused to give it to her.

Don’t get me wrong, my mom and I have always been close.  Super close.  Best friends, in fact.  I became her sidekick and she became my confidante.  But I’m sure it wasn’t in her original plan to gaze down upon her little girl and see a knotted, bobbed hair-do and a swishy windbreaker suit with holes in the knees from overuse.  She probably wasn’t ready for me to love athletics more than anything else in my childhood world.  And she had no idea what a struggle it would be to make me wear a dress.  “You’ll understand when you have a girl someday and she won’t let you dress her in cute things,” she’d say as I complained while getting primped and prettied for some special occasion.  But, although she may not have understood the choices I made, she never forced, bribed, or manipulated me to be someone else.

For that I am grateful.

It didn’t surprise me, then, when I opened an email from her a few weeks back.  Inside, I found a link to a Huffinton Post article by Shannon Bradley-Colleary titled, “Why I Stopped Trying to Make my Daughter be Pretty”.  Beside it, were words typed by my mother’s hands, “This little girl reminds me of you.”  I feasted on the author’s perspective, finally getting a chance to see through the eyes of a tomboy’s mother.

And I was appalled.

Bradley-Colleary describes her daughter as being beautiful but laments her daughter’s decision to hide that beauty beneath her boyish personality and preferences.  According to the mother, her daughter Clare has a passion for reading the Hunger Games, drawing manga characters, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and learning piano and Judo.  The author also notes that Clare has gorgeous blond locks which she tightens in two braids.  Always.

I made her take her braids down for her class picture.  It was an epic battle and I played dirty.  I used psychoanalysis, telling her I was afraid her braids were like a security blanket (which I am) and that I wanted her to be comfortable in every Hair Iteration and that I didn’t want her to fall prey to bullies who might socially ostracize her (which is true) and to that end I was willing to bribe her with an Obi Wan Kenobe FX lightsaber that could have paid for a month’s worth of groceries.  But underlying my bid for her emotional well-being was the down-and-dirty truth: I wanted her to look pretty in her school pictures, her cascading hair framing her face, so I could show her off to friends and relatives.

What message is this sending to a young girl?  Is “beauty” as defined by runway models and movie stars such an idol that mothers will trade her daughter’s character for a glimpse of it?  When did mothers start wanting to hold a celebrity in their arms instead of the daughter whom they helped create?  Kids aren’t dumb.  Naive, maybe.  But definitely not dumb.  They understand that when anyone–particularly a mother–“tries to make her daughter be pretty”, she is really saying, “You’re not pretty enough the way you are.”  Whether she’s intending to say that or not.  What a travesty when a mother looks upon her daughter and thinks she’s lacking something that would make her more beautiful.  Sure, the child might lack femininity or grace, but should that retract from her beauty?   It simply adds another dimension to who that girl is.  It doesn’t make her any less of a girl and it certainly shouldn’t define her as less beautiful.

Many times I think adults can learn from children.  Sometimes, I also think, adults misunderstand the lesson:

I’m over it.  I’m letting it go.  Clare doesn’t need to fulfill my vision of how she would look most beautiful.  She doesn’t need to care about being beautiful…These kids, man, they teach you how to live.

It seems as though the mother has finally reached a point in her life where she is relieved to throw up a white flag in surrender to her ten-year-old.  But what is she truly surrendering?  From the looks of things, she isn’t letting go of her false image of beauty, simply her desire to fight for it.  I wonder what would happen if she finally saw the real beauty is Clare being Clare.  Maybe she’d say to her young daughter, “You should care about being beautiful because you are beautiful, and I want you to value yourself exactly for who you are.”

Perhaps my perspective will change when I’m a mother.  After all, I did experience the ostracizing that Bradley-Colleary foresaw in her daughter’s future.  And, like many women, I struggle with my own body image and what it means to be beautiful.  But, if I’m going to be honest, I look forward to the “someday” my mom predicted–the day I would have a little girl of my own.  I will teach her to be strong.  To be confident in her quirks.  And, most of all, I will show her that she is beautiful.  Regardless of what she looks like.  Regardless of what she wears.  Regardless of what she likes and dislikes.  And then I’ll smile upon her little face, knowing all the things I told her were the truest words I had ever spoken.

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