I knew it would happen someday. Surely every parent must deal with a situation in which a child says something so dreadful that there is no appropriate response. My daughter Winnie, at nineteen months old, uttered the words that I had particularly dreaded:
“I look PRETTY!!”
I froze, my mind already in denial, already telling itself that I had misunderstood her squeal. But, no, the words were clear enough. And, if there was any question, there she was, twirling around the living room, admiring the ruffles on her new dress. The dress itself was a gift from a relative, and it was an adorably girly concoction of flounces and sparkles. The kind of thing that I, her mother, would never have bought for her.
No sooner was the dress over her head than Win began a series of spins that would have made any prima ballerina proud. “I LOOK PRETTY!!” she howled again.
I wondered, how should I respond? I considered something like, “Uh-huh” or “Yup,” but those seemed like empty responses that wouldn’t win me many points on the parenting scorecard in my mind. What I needed was an enthusiastic response that showed her that pretty was not the point, that pretty is a label that limits and oppresses. I wanted my daughter to see that being preoccupied with pretty was a slippery slope that would only lead to hours of primping and preening that would be better spent, you know, reading the Constitution or graduating from med school. This was a teachable moment, and I had to grasp it.
So, I looked her square in her glowing, expectant little face. I mustered all my maternal wisdom, and I said brightly, “You look… ready for adventure!”
Winnie faltered. Clearly, she didn’t understand my response, and now we were both confused. The truth is, on most days she is ready for adventure, dressed in tees, pants, and rugged little boots. On this day, though, she didn’t look ready for anything more adventurous than high tea. She looked, well, pretty.
I realized in that moment, that I have a pretty messed up relationship with “pretty.” We modern gals want to be pretty, but we don’t want to seem as though we’re putting much thought into it. We’d much rather be known for our smarts and our accomplishments (we’d rather by Elizabeth than Jane Bennet, but Elizabeth was no slouch in the looks department). When we become mothers, it becomes a stickier situation. I want my daughter to be attractive – because attractive matters, no matter how much I wish it wouldn’t – but I don’t want her to have to strive for it. I want her to be who she is, and to be immune to influences that distract her from the important stuff, insisting that skinny jeans or new lip gloss will help her measure up to the other girls. How can I stifle those influences when I fear that I myself am one, with the makeup-wearing example I set? And, if she tends toward ruffles, how do I know whether that’s who she is or who she has become as a result of advertising and social pressure?
Even on blogs like Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode, parents debate whether to allow their daughters to play with pink toys. Pink?! As if pink could make the difference between whether your daughter grows up to be a scientist or a cheerleader? A color doesn’t have that kind of power, but obviously pink signifies more than just a color.
Here are the facts as I know them. My daughter loves books and trucks. And she also has a keen eye for all things sparkly and ruffly. I know that I want her to feel she is pretty, and to deeply know that pretty is not everything she is. I want her to know that it’s OK to delight in ruffles, but that true prettiness comes from a big heart, laughter, wisdom, a bright mind. It’s a minefield of girliness out there, and I know it won’t stop coming just because I wish it would. How about you? How do you feel about the pressure (or assumption) that girls love dresses and fairy wings? Should we dissuade young girls from all things pink or feminine? How can we celebrate all the things that women can rightly be and enjoy, including pink, while also working against society’s limiting concept of girlhood?
This evening, as I was making dinner, Win wrestled with a package that had arrived in the mail. She was determined to open it, and she tore and pulled until it began to give. She was grunting and straining, but she didn’t ask me for help. Then, as the package opened, she yelled, “I’m strong!” I was so glad to be able to agree, unequivocally, with that.
This post also appears on my personal blog I’m thinking…
I have two young daughters who are fierce, independent and ferociously loving. And I can’t help but call them ‘gorgeous’ with the scruffiest clothes, hair in their eyes, and all kinds of things schmeared on their hands and faces. I delight in my children’s joy and sometimes, in their physical loveliness. I think it’s about seeing what is beautiful in the person in the moment and celebrating that.
But it doesn’t mean that she has no other responsibilities as a person. She still has to share with her sister, pick up things that get knocked over, and engage in all of the business of being a kid.
Doesn’t it feel nice to feel pretty? Especially if the people you admire and love the most agree with you?
Shannon Rigney Keane
Stacy and Alexandra, thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your sharing your experience mothering daughters who are older than my Win. You ladies have figured a couple of things out.
I agree with you, too, that it’s right for parents to help their kids feel joyful and loved. Mostly, I think that helping her feel pretty (AND smart AND strong) will give Winnie a core of self-esteem that can help her resist the pull of insecurity and pressure.
There are a couple of images that haunt me, and these are the memories that make me bite my tongue instead of telling her she’s pretty all the time. For instance, my niece receiving a toy purse for Christmas while her brothers both got activity toys. Or, my friends talking to a toddler in the park and exclaiming over and over, "Hi pretty girl," "what a pretty girl, "What a pretty dress." In ways that we adults don’t even realize, we are always giving children messages about how they ought to be.
Pink is not banned in my house, nor are ruffles or sparkles. But, there’s a definite limit. Winnie can assert her own style when she develops it, whatever it might be.
It’s a quaint old expression but so true. Pretty’s not about what’s on the outside; it’s about how you live your life.
I loved your post Shannon because I struggle with this too, especially as the mom of a pre-teenager. As one who falls more firmly in the girly-girl camp than the sporty-girl camp, I have a soft spot for pink and frills. My view on it has always been that all this girly stuff is ok as long as it is accompanied by the right kind of character building and, specifically, guided development of personal values.
It’s sad but true that "pretty" helps in this world. Pretty can also be fun. But pretty should never be a goal or a social tool.
I guess, to me, if ruffles or fairy wings make a little girl want to dance with glee and abandon, that’s her personal expression and it’s a beautiful thing I wouldn’t want to deny anyone of.
It’s a tough issue though; thanks for the thought-provoking post!