Sunday, June 30, 2013

talking to girls about beauty

I have been thinking a lot about how I have a daughter, and how she is bound to bring different challenges than having a son.  The one that is really interesting to me lately is how mothers, and women in general, think the issue of beauty should be handled with girls.

I read a lot of articles about how we need to praise girls for being smart.  Ignore the whole notion of looks.  The idea is, wouldn't the world be a better place if girls and women were not held to these current, almost unreal, painful standards of beauty?  If they were not obsessively objectified almost everywhere you look? I think the argument for this goes something like "be the change you want in the world."  Just act as if the world is different than it really is, and maybe, just maybe it will become a place where women's beauty or lack of it is a non-issue.  Or our daughters will be so secure in their intellectual prowess, so completely unaware that people value beauty, that there is not the slighted chink in their armor that could ever come from not being the next Victoria's Secret angel. (that's what they are, right?  Angels?)

But I just think this argument is kind of... not the smartest.  Because what if your daughter is... not the smartest?  What is she's instead a terrific athlete, or dancer, or very good at drawing, or really funny?  Or what if she's not particularly strong in any one "activity" that we could "praise", and yet she's, of course, just a worthy of feeling loved and respected and confident as a person in the world?
I read an article that suggested that instead of greeting a girl with a "oh, look at that cute dress!" (which I have been known to say if the dress is cute,and I'm pretty sure the girl I'm greeting picked it out herself), you would say, "so, what books are you enjoying now?".  Which is a great conversation starter... as long as the girl you're talking to likes to read.  But what if she's struggling with it?  What if she doesn't read for enjoyment?  Then you might be putting her on the spot and making her feel like she is supposed to be something that she's not.  Which is the whole argument around beauty and girls.  That  is so destructive that they think she should be pretty, even when they're not.

But in this world being smart and liking books... is praised by others.  Just as being beautiful is.  We're drawn towards beauty.  We love art, and flashy sunsets, and body adornment, and jewelry, and tasty food, and music and we're always craving these things that please out senses.  Beauty is something we are fortunate to love and be drawn to!  It makes us happy, it raises our existence.  And human beings find young, healthy humans with certain features beautiful.  It is part of what drives out species to reproduce and now look at how many multiples of billions of us there are.  I just don't think we can erase that from humanity.  That physical beauty is not pleasurable, is not noticed, and doesn't matter.
I think girls should have very open discussions with their parents about beauty, what they thin is beautiful, how they feel about things that are beautiful, and their own desires, if they exist, to be beautiful or be around beauty.

Because the thing is, we all have slightly different things about people that we find beautiful.  The more open we are in talking about beauty, the more we can turn it on it's side, flip it upside down, examine it, and our feelings, and allow those feelings to be OK.

I'm getting older.  There are things about me that I feel sad I've lost about whatever kind of beauty my youth had given me (well, and part of my youth was spent being pretty disappointed in my looks)- to be replaced with a wiry gray hair, varicose veins on my leg from 2 pregnancies, skin with sun damage that has little wrinkles around the eyes.  I try to cover these things up, because guess what?  I like beauty.  I want to look better.  And I don't think I can live one way, telling my daughter the opposite in a hope that she doesn't end up like me.  Caring about looks.  Because its not the worst thing- to care about looks.  The extremes of this are very upsetting to me, but extremes come, I think, with greater issues, greater wounds.

When I had read about depression in a great book The Noonday Demon, the author had gone around the world in a quest to explore all of the treatment options others cultures use to cure depression.  And it struck me that he had found, in Cambodia, a very successful program for women who had suffered the greatest atrocities from the Khmer Rouge.  It involved things like, getting a little manicure.  Having your hair brushed.  Simple acts of self care.  Having someone else care for you.  This helped greatly with feelings of despair and pain.  I like waking up in the morning, putting on an outfit I think I look nice in, and brushing my hair, doing it so it looks beautiful... (well, closer to that, what I can do in 5 minutes, anyways!) Saskia watches me do this, and she like to open my drawers and pull out things like a jar of face cream, a stick of deodorant.  She holds a comb or brush up to her few little strands and pretends to brush her hair.  These are all the simplest parts of looking good which, haha, didn't quite happen for a few months of newborn life, but which happen (somewhat) now.

There is joy in beauty.  There is joy in being smart (I'm told).  There is joy in pursuing your talents.  There is joy in loving and being loved.  Lots of these things are complicated and painful, too.  Lets be honest with our girls about how we feel about these things and encourage them to be honest, too.
When Akiva wanted to dress up with his friends as a princess, I thought I was so open an enlightened to allow him to do whatever he wanted without any gender judgements.  And seeing him frolic around in a sparkly tutu, I realized- kids like sparkly tutus because they are visually pretty stunning!  The sparkles are magical!  I hope that even though its the truth about humans that beauty will be more complicated and maybe even painful for Saskia, its not something I ever want to pretend to her is not a great gift to enjoy throughout her life- in others maybe, and possibly in her self.
So here's to watching her run around in a poufy sparkly princess dress and taking deep breaths of appreciation for the beauty I truly see in her.