When my daughter, Vivvi, turned 2, she started to look like a girl version of her dad, and with that she turned so incredibly beautiful. She has hair that naturally flows perfectly in a gorgeous crooked part. Her roots are coming in her darker natural color and the ends still feature her perfect baby curls. And possibly because she’s my own, every time I look at her face I want to bite it off, which apparently is an actual natural instinct that can be scientifically explained. But I withhold from the biting, since you know the saying, you can’t have your kids and eat them too etc., etc.
I am sure that almost all moms feel this way about their little ones, because the little ones are designed to be the cutest, aren’t they? So that when they are crying for three months straight, or when they are throwing their angry little selves face first to the ground because you gave them the Kristoff Gogurt and they wanted the Elsa one, or when they [insert your child’s most recent violation that made you want to pluck your arm hair out one at a time] … when they do these things, we want to protect them. We want to preserve these beautiful creatures. We do not want to drop kick them out to the street to find a new mommy who knows instinctually which Frozen Gogurt is currently acceptable.
So knowing that all of our little ones are the most beautiful creatures we have ever wanted to behead through biting, how do we handle talking about this beauty? For some reason, with my son, I found this less baffling. He is a handsome little guy. I wanted to bite his head off all the time. But I never remember making a conscious decision about how much to talk about how handsome he was. I occasionally called him my handsome little man, and that was the end of the story. But with my daughter, I stumble. I say, “You are so beautiful!” But then I feel like I have to follow it up with, “And funny … and smart! You are those things too!”
This is an area where I waffle specifically with my girl. And I believe this is because of our culture’s tendency to objectify women, even from birth: consider bows, Bratz dolls, and our obsessions with the beautiful princess. It starts young. At all ages, men objectify women, women objectify women, and women go through their lives wondering if they are beautiful and feeling like it matters. The more I think about it, the more “beauty” becomes an ugly thing. So I hesitate when it comes to talking about beauty by itself with my beautiful daughter.
Part of the reason I want to package her beauty compliments with other qualities is that beauty alone is pretty boring. I’d like to be beautiful, but I’d rather be interesting. And I’d much rather spend time with someone who is interesting. Not to mention, the standard definition of beauty is something that you have or you don’t (or you spend hours painting on in the mirror). But humor, creativity, smarts — the things that offer depth of character and make someone enjoyable to be around — those things can be acquired. Yes, there is a natural aspect to each, but when glimmers of these qualities show, we can encourage them. By pointing out which behaviors are funny, smart, or creative, we can be like oxygen to a flame. Pointing out natural beauty just reinforces something we can’t do anything about, something that shouldn’t matter as much as it does.
And part of my waffling about how much to say about beauty, and how much to say about other qualities with it, can be blamed on how we perceive beauty. I rush to build Vivvi up in other ways because her beauty — in terms of the standard definition of beauty — won’t last. She will always have her smarts and her funny, but her youth will one day fade. I see these celebrities with their sad injections and this cultural obsession with getting rid of wrinkles and looking younger. And it makes me wonder — why do people go to such great lengths to not age? We are aging. Every second, we are one second closer to dying, and I say that not to be dark, but more to state a fact. And I have considered: who are the most beautiful people I know or have known? And most of them are very, very wrinkly because most of them are in their 80s and 90s and they have lived good lives, and they are wise, and they are full of joy and love. Wrinkles should be considered beauty marks.
And then I think of the other beautiful people I know, and they are kind. They are my friends who listen, who care what I am saying, who are extremely slow to judge me or anyone else in their proximity. They are the building-up kind of people. And where “beauty” is natural, kindness is not. To be kind takes extraordinary effort, and it’s a choice we make every day of our lives. And no matter how kind we are, we can always be more kind. Our kindness potential has no ceiling. And the good news is, not everyone can be “beautiful,” but anyone can be kind. I agree with Roald Dahl, who said, “I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage or bravery or generosity or anything else.”
And if the beautiful people I know are not old and wise, or kind, then they are confident. When I was growing up, I had a crush on one of my brother’s friends, and when I consider his looks now without factoring in personality, they are not of the swoon-worthy variety. But he had confidence for days, which clouded up the space around him with an incredible attractiveness.
Which brings me back to talking about how we talk about beauty. I want Vivvi to be confident, because confidence makes a lot of life easier. When I was growing up, every time we’d visit my Grandpa, he’d squeeze my arm and say, “Hey, Beautiful!” And he did this building up so often that I believed it to my core and I was able to keep believing it, even through that one year in middle school when my one-time perm that was supposed to solve all of my problems had grown out, so my hair was half straight and half curly, and my solution was to slick it back half-up after I showered every day, so my forehead zits were on full display and I looked like a huge greaseball (what with the zits and the grease and the wet hair and all). I even felt beautiful then.
So I suppose my solution, for now, is simple. Vivvi gets a lot of “pretty girl” and “she’s so beautiful” from strangers now, so I will let them cover that arena. (And like my own Grandpa story, Vivvi has been blessed with her own Poppy, and he reminds her every time he sees her that she is the most beautiful girl in the world.) We’ve got beauty covered.
So I will set to fanning the character flames. I will point out her smartness, creativity, or funniness. I will shout to the world when she is kind. I will make her proud of the things that are harder to come by. And I’ll hope that one day she sees beauty the way I do.