"Take my picture," my four-year-old daughter Violet demands. It's almost bedtime and she's gotten herself ready. It's quite a sight: footie pajamas, a headband with a sparkly blue bow that she calls her "everyday crown," a purple necklace, a bracelet, a pink heart-shaped ring, and a pair of sunglasses decorated with butterflies. She leans against the wall in the dining room and brings her knees together, turning her foot in slightly. It is an uncanny representation of an awkward model pose. "Take my picture with your phone," she says again. I do, and then let her see it. She smiles. "Put it on Facebook," she says. "Will you put it on Facebook so everyone can see my beautiful face?"
I tell her I will, but I don't -- feeling torn as I watch her scurry down the hall into her bedroom. I'm proud of that kid, enormously proud. And I do think she has a beautiful face. I'm charmed by this new expression of her individuality, the way she carefully picks out her accessories, the way she insists on that "everyday crown" every. single. day. I'm even charmed by her confidence, impressed with it even, because it's something I never had. Not even when I was a kid her age with no reason to believe the world was anything but a wide, welcoming place. Not even now, when I look at everything I am and everything I have accomplished. Why is it that 32 years into this thing called life "believe in yourself" is still the hardest thing I have to do?
I follow my daughter into her bedroom and she leans against the bed, a studied lounge pose, and she asks me to take her picture again. Then she pulls her glasses down around her mouth and asks me to take her picture again. Another pose, another picture. Again and again.
What I'm thinking of as I snap these pictures is humility, and being humble, and how it marks in my mind a delicate line between believing in yourself and not. It's the difference between feeling like you could conquer the world and feeling like the world is conquering you. I don't want to foster arrogance, which my daughter has in spades and then some, no matter how innocent it is, but I also don't want to damage that budding sense of pride she feels in herself, the way she can make decisions about her appearance, things that look good to her, and wear them with absolute confidence that she looks amazing.
And yet. How much of that confidence is already directly tied into what others think of her? "Do you think I look beautiful?" she wants to know, adjusting her headband. "Do you think you look beautiful?" I ask her, and she takes a moment to look at herself in the mirror. "Yes!" She decides. "Well, then, you are," I tell her.
My five-year-old, Madeleine, is still in the bath and I leave Violet to her preening so I can give Mad the five minute warning. "Hey, cutie," I say as I peer around the doorway in the bathroom. "You've got five minutes, and then we pull the plug." Mad beams up at me. "Okay," she says. She's gotten much better at receiving compliments lately. There was a time, not so long ago, that if you told her she is beautiful, she would balk. "I'm not pretty," she'd insist. "Yes, you are," I would tell her, and she'd firmly deny it. "No. I'm. Not."
And this worries me, too. She shies away from the camera, from looking at herself in the mirror, from compliments about her appearance. She's confident in other ways: her athleticism, her ability to catch lizards and snakes, her knowledge of reptiles and bugs. I love this, and I encourage it as much as I can. And I want that to be enough, to make her strong enough to withstand a world that tends to knock little girls down sooner or later. But I'm afraid it isn't, that one day she'll realize that the whole world is judging her based not on how well she can spot and catch a lizard that's 20 feet away, but on how she looks, how she stacks up to some collective image of beauty that none of us can escape.
All of this is mucked up by my own experiences, of course. How, when I was in middle school, a classmate noticed the ribbon trim on my socks didn't match and she spent a good while mocking me for it. "What, are you poor? Does your mother shop at Goodwill?" Angela asked in front of the whole class after lunch as we waited for our teacher to enter the room. I stared down at the pages of my book, face burning red, tears streaming down my face. I refused to look up at her. The next year I was walking down the hall during lunch, between rows of lockers, and I crossed paths with two popular jock boys. "Did you see her?" One boy asked the other in exaggerated horror, fake-shuddering. "She was UGLY." And I felt it like a punch in my chest as I sucked in my tears and refused to let them see me cry.
I never told anyone those stories, too embarrassed to say the words out loud. Because if I did, maybe it would be true. Maybe my ugliness was a secret my loved ones were keeping from me, because they loved me. This is the sad, stupid truth: sometimes I still believe that's true.
Of course I want to save my daughters from feeling like this. But how can I teach them to be confident on their own terms when I have never been that way, not a single day in my life?
It's inevitable that they'll turn outward, measure themselves up against the images of women they see elsewhere -- in school, in stores, in ads, on TV, on the Internet. This is the impossibility of raising daughters today, I'm afraid, because the beauty ideal is so mucked up a woman can never be just right how they are. And our girls are suffering for it. Example: I love the website Pinterest, which is kind of a dumb thing to say because pretty much everyone loves Pinterest. It's a place for people (and I would bet the large majority are women) to pin the things that interest them to inspiration boards. It's really a place to cultivate your ideal life, from making your home beautiful to being a better parent, to dressing better, to looking better, to getting your life organized. It is great inspiration, and yet lately it just feels icky and even dangerous because a lot of what you see there is body image focused, and none of it is consistent.
A picture of a woman's torso, hips thrust up, her hip bones jutting out. The comment: "Visible hipbones....one day." A picture of a woman's body with the tag: #thinspo and a thread of comments like "I wish I could have her body" and "I would give anything to look like that." A picture of a woman's body where a commenter chides the pinner: "Yuck, she's too skinny. That's not healthy; why would you want to look like that?" At worst: A 64-point list of "health" tips that promote anorexia. "Punch yourself in the stomach when you feel hungry." "Tell your parents you are eating dinner at a friend's house, then go for a walk instead of eating."
What is a mother to do?
As Madeleine gets out of the bath and gets dressed and Violet climbs into bed, everyday crown and all, I flip through the pictures on my phone. It's a snapshot of our life over the past year and I see everything: Violet somber, Violet silly, Violet posing, Violet doing her fake grimace-smile for the camera. Madeleine silly, Madeleine studiously avoiding the camera, Madeleine with reptiles she's found on our walks. Of course I think these girls are beautiful. They are the most beautiful things I have ever seen. But more than their beauty I see their life, and all their living, the moments that will stack up to form a sense of self that I hope gives them a clear eye toward what's really important in this world. That what you love is more important than how the world loves you -- that life is for living, for eating up, for savoring. And that this is the only beauty to worry about. Maybe it's not too late for me to figure that out, too.