Saturday, August 12, 2006

Facing Frida

The always brilliant Her Bad Mother has posted another entry that will stay with me for a long time. She has an amazing way of thinking through tough issues.

As I said in my comment over there, I think this is one of the harder parts of raising a girl: helping her love herself and be proud of her achievements, no matter her physical appearance; helping her understand that "pretty is as pretty does" and "beauty is only skin-deep" and all those other platitudes. That, and navigating the tough shoals of teasing and scapegoating that can happen to almost any child for almost any reason (short/tall, fat/thin, straight hair/curly hair).

So far with Jo, I've mostly only dealt with this in the abstract. As Dawn described in her comment on HBM's post, I take pains to praise my daughter for her strong legs, caring words, and smart thinking, rather than her beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes. She has yet to be teased for her appearance; so far her classmates' worst insult is the reassuringly vague and short-lived "You're NOT my friend!"

But I've wondered what I would do if she were unattractive and I could do something about it. Would I? As another HBM commenter pointed out, pretty people do have a much easier time of it, no matter what we all want to believe about inner beauty being paramount.

Frida Kahlo self-portraitA few months ago on an airplane, we were seated next to a girl of about 7. She was an animated, friendly child. She also had eyebrows that were uncannily Frida Kahlo-esque. I've thought about the girl often since that chance meeting. What if she were my child? Would I notice, or would I just see her with a mother's uncritical, unconditionally loving eye? More likely, I'd notice--and then face an ethical dilemma.

I don't think it's acceptable for little girls to wear makeup, or three-quarters of the clothes marketed to them. I was horrified by a children's hair salon I used to pass often in New York City, which offered professional blowouts for kids. I think little girls should be children, not teens in training. But what about something like this, that's so noticeable, and considered so unattractive in our society?

I honestly think I'd be tempted to try to fix it for my child, to spare her from teasing, pity, and even behind-the-back comments that she might not be aware of. Even setting aside the issue of how I'd do it (I couldn't subject her to the pain of plucking, for example), this sparks a cascade of disturbing questions. Why couldn't I accept her the way she is? Why should I allow both of us to fall victim to a particular standard of beauty? Wouldn't it be more productive to help her learn to stand up to vicious comments, rather than ducking them? Wouldn't it be more powerful, in the end, to help her love herself just as she is, as HBM describes in her dream for her daughter?

But then again: Would she feel I'd failed her, if I didn't do everything in my power to protect her from cruelty?


Her Bad Mother said...

This is exactly the dilemma, the one that I struggle with. It seems so superficial to wish that my daughter be attractive enough (whatever that means) to escape childhood torment. It seems 'better' to wish - and to make every effort - that she be strong and resilient and confident regardless of her looks. And I *do* cling to this latter wish. It *is* what I truly want for her. But I do have my moments - moments when I'm having whatever issue with my own appearance, or flashing back to my own childhood torments - when I quietly retreat to the first wish. The moments when I just want it to be *easy* for her, when I just want to preserve her from the pain that I went through, and when it seems that all of the confidence in the world can't help with that kind of pain.

I'm so glad that you took this on. It's such a thorny set of questions.

mothergoosemouse said...


With respect to the particular example you gave, I'd be tempted to leave it alone until my child mentioned it.

But then, I'm not sure what I'd do. I don't think it's right to start altering physical appearances of children to conform to societal standards of beauty - whether those alterations are temporary or permanent. But that begs the question: Why is it right to begin doing so at puberty?

Not just grooming eyebrows and wearing makeup, but shaving legs and wearing contact lenses and highlighting hair and so forth. When does the switch flip from off-limits to acceptable, and more importantly, WHY?

Obviously I don't have any answers - just more questions. But I think it's a valuable discussion even if we never reach any ultimate conclusions.

bubandpie said...

Hmmm, facial hair is a tough one. As soon as I hit puberty, I developed a nice little moustache and I am SO VERY GLAD that I had a mother who knew what to do about it (just as she knew how to choose clothes that conceal the thighs and bum, colours that flatter our wintry complexions, and skin-care products that are good for our dry skin). I saw other teen girls who didn't discover the wonders of Jolen Creme Bleach until twelfth grade and there's just no need to go through that.

Tricky to navigate the balance between plastic surgery on the one hand and on the other hand an all-natural approach that is unnecessarily cruel and hypocritical (WE don't expect ourselves to feel totally confident without any help at all!).

Penelopeto posted a wonderful post about her nose a few weeks ago that examined a lot of the same issues - it would be worth checking out!

Piece of Work said...

That's such a good example of the dilemma. And like you, I don't know what I'd do. I like mothergoose's question too: why does it become acceptable in the teenage years.

My daughter is only 2; my son is just 3-1/2, so I have years to worry about this. But it's a lot. isn't it?

Jamie said...

I dread the awkward pre-teen and teenage years for my two girls. I agree with you that little girls should be little girls as long as possible and not teens in training at such a young age. There is an innocence lost type aspect to the marketing toward girls. It's a tough thing to balance...what society views as beautiful versus natural and inner beauty. I hope I am able to make my girls feel comfortable in their own skin and look beyond conventional beauty among their peers.

As far as the specific little girl you mentioned, I would be tempted to leave her brows alone unless she started being teased at school or she was self-conscious about them.

Lady M said...

Like others have said, when is it the "right" time to start altering oneself, if ever? There's also the ever tricky question of weight. Being overweight brings social and health challenges, but so many of my friends had eating disorders when they were teens. Sorry to not have any answers either!

I was always glad that my mom had nice taste in clothes and makeup advice when I wanted it - to this day, the clothes in which Iget compliments are the ones she's chosen for me.

Laural Dawn said...

I found you after reading your comments to HBM. Great blog.
I had to comment on what your wrote though. I struggle with this too - a lot. I think as a mom you do what you can. I have a son - but I am also really close to my nieces.
My sister and I made a promise to each other that we would hold each other accountable to teaching our kids to love themselves, but playing the bad guy for the other when need be. For instance, my niece will surely need to deal with her eyebrows early on - and I'll be the one taking her.
As for the Frida - I would do something. I feel so strongly that you help your kids as much as you can, but when they want to be different allow it.

nonlineargirl said...

You can "fix" eyebrows, but what about the child who wears glasses? Giving a 5 year old contacts isn't really an option. This is totally self-referential, as I wore glasses from age 5 - really heavy coke bottle ones - until high school. I was certainly teased, but no more so than for the fact that I got tall early, was geeky, etc. How we teach girls to be happy with who they are is such a big issue and I am so not sure how to make that happen for my daughter. Nice post.

Tree said...

Like Bubandpie, I had a similar problem when I was in 4th grade. My mother did something about it because I was told I had a mustache from boys 1-2 yr older and I went home from school one day in tears. She took me to weekly electrolysis appts for years.

I have a little boy now, but am pregnant with a daughter and am trying to formulate how I will show her and teach her to be strong and confident and to like herself. Leading by example is important, but there has to be more. I look forward to understanding more some of the topics you and Julie have covered in the past.

lildb said...

so far, I'm relieved that I've got a boy-child, b/c I would like to believe I won't be facing some of the heavier issues entailed within the cosmetic aspect of our appearances.

I have a feeling I'll still be facing it, albeit in a slightly different manner. but still the same, in the end, b/c it's about insecurity relating to appearance, and learning how to take (or leave, or disregard altogether) criticism that is/isn't worthy of being taken. etc.

toughie, this one. (just like most of this parenting gig - it requires thought. a lot of thought. argh.)

mamatulip said...

There are little 'flaws' that I see in myself -- deep pores, hair where there shouldn't hair, etc. -- that I worry my daughter will inherit from me and curse me for. I keep telling myself I'll cross that bridge when, and if, I get to's such a difficult thing to tackle.

Mother said...

Growing up, I hated my ears and my birthmark (middle of my forehead). Oh I HATED it.

But then I got to an age where it was like "oh well" - and I just go on my merry way and barely think about it.

My daughter has a few birthmarks and some skin discolorations on her arm (it was weird, first time in the sun with sunscreen and she got some weird tan lines that have never gone away) that I imagine she will hate later - and sadly, I imagine she'll hear it from the other kids.

I just hope I can instill confidence in her so that even if other people say something about it(which knowing people, I'm sure they will...) she'll roll her eyes and move on.

Kari said...

My mother sort of split the difference:

She didn't want me to shave my legs for a LONG time. She gave me a razor for my sixteenth birthday only for me to explain that I had already been shaving my legs since around thirteen. I was on a home-building trip with my church when the other girls asked with horror why my legs were hairy. Thank goodness I could simply say that I was paying more attention to helping the orphans and building homes, but as soon as I got home I bought some razors!

But then around the same time, my mother made me get my teeth bleached. That made me uneasy.

I was probably in my mid-twenties before I got my first eyebrow wax, though I tweezed well before that... otherwise, I'd definitely be a Frida!