My daughter approaches me with her Lisa Frank coloring book in hand. She has opened it to a picture of a girl with dinner-plate-sized eyes, the hint of a pert nose, and sensually outlined lips.
“Do you like her?” she asks me.
It is a question I am hearing frequently from her in response to representations of girls and women that she sees in the media—in advertisements, magazines, storybooks, movies, and even coloring books. It is a question that tells me she is learning to link looks with likability.
I am bothered by this development, but I have not yet developed a better response than my noncommittal, “She’s fine.”
For my daughter though, appearance is a novel issue, and I can tell that it is important to her. She senses my evasion and presses me further. “Do you want to be like her?” she asks.
“Sure,” I say, worried that she’ll hear a dismissal of the coloring book as a dismissal of her as well. My voice is hesitant, but my daughter hears approval.
“Well,” she says in a tone that is uncomfortably authoritative, “you just have to wear flowers in your hair like this,” she points at the picture, “and grow your hair long.” It is the tone and mannerism of someone who will one day tell me that I am applying eye shadow all wrong.
I might be ready for her cosmetic advice by the time she’s a teenager. Today, though, she is only 4, and the intonation fits her like an too-large jacket taken from another woman’s closet.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, my mother never worried about my interest in appearances. In fact, she bought me a Barbie styling head and a Pretty Cut ‘N Grow doll, which became two of my favorite toys. My mother was indulgent when I would announce that, more than anything else, I wanted to be a hairdresser. I remember no disdain on her part, no distractions or alternative suggestions being offered. In fact, I remember her telling her stylist about my plans at one of her hair appointments. Her tone, if I remember correctly, was causal and accepting, delighted even, by my whims.
I envy my mother’s lack of concern. She spent her worries on other matters—getting us fed and bathed, reading us books, pushing science fair projects through to completion. She didn’t suffer that added layer of worry about me—whether I would work a job with fair pay or how my view of womanhood might eventually affect me. She didn’t worry that my childhood whims might demonstrate too keen an interest in appearance and too minimal an interest in character.
She just let me play.
In some ways, she got it right. My feminine fantasies didn’t ruin my body image or define me. I eventually earned a Ph.D., and I have somehow made it to midlife without having had a pedicure. Perhaps my concern is overstated. What’s changed, really? The Barbies I loved don’t look so different from the Barbies my daughter loves.
There are times when I want to take my mother’s approach and leave my daughter to enjoy pretending with her dollies and frothy gowns. The pretending itself isn’t the problem, though. The problem is my daughter’s budding anxiety about whether being pretty will help with being liked.
I wonder whether her concern is evidence of some other shift in the climate of girlhood. If Barbie herself hasn’t changed, there is certainly much more of her to be seen. In today’s girl culture, pretty is pervasive. On-demand streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon are saturated with heavily gendered shows, and our girls can binge-watch them (barring parental veto) whenever they want. More than a sampling of those heroines is one-dimensional and at least vaguely materialistic. When I try to steer my daughter away from Littlest Pet Shop, she just starts asking for Life in the Dreamhouse.
I know I can turn off the TV, and I do, but I think it’s too late. My daughter has already gotten the memo that it’s not too early to begin thinking about how best to be perceived as an object of beauty.
Figuring out how to talk with her about the relationship between beauty and likability is not easy, in part because I’m sending mixed messages myself. I dress her in outfits from Tea Collection, and I sometimes stockpile Boden dresses myself when they go on sale. I like to feel pretty too. I enjoy the experience of looking nice, and I enjoy seeing my daughter looking nice as well. But isn’t all this looking just a sort of objectification? Isn’t my pleasure merely the pleasure of being looked at, of being desirable—a process that has no relation to my character or my daughter’s?
I cannot answer these questions easily. No wonder I am stymied by that coloring book.
I don’t want my daughter to internalize standards of beauty that she cannot meet. I don’t want her to adopt the mindset that she is somehow failing or unlovable because she isn’t beautiful enough. I don’t want her to apply these same standards to others and learn to weigh their worth on a beauty scale that is fundamentally rooted in mismeasurement. I don’t want these habits of thinking to make her cruel to herself or to others. I don’t want her to learn how to be unkind.
In a few weeks, I will be taking my daughter to Disney World for the first time, and I have booked Fast Passes that will allow her to meet some of her favorite princesses. I have not, however, booked a princess makeover for her in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. While I don’t so much mind Ariel, bikini-clad as she is, giving my daughter a hug, I do bristle at the idea of strangers fussing over her, cooing about her pretty eyes or pretty face as they doll her up with glitter, hair extensions, and a princess sash. Ariel will hug her as she is. The makeover would offer an appreciation of her that’s far more conditional.
I am hopeful that my daughter will eventually learn to identify with heroines that are better suited to helping her develop a sense of grit, resilience, independence and innovativeness. Sometimes, I do see her making her way there.
Just the other day, in fact, she was pretending to be Rey, the formidable heroine of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I wish we could plan on seeing her at Disney World. I’d take a picture of that character encounter and hang it prominently in my daughter’s room.