The past few months, my 5 year old daughter has spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about her appearance. Worrying about how to style her hair. Painstakingly picking out her outfits, trying to make them look as “girly” and as “dainty” as possible. This usually amounts to huge amounts of pink. Ruffles. It looks like Barbie puked on her when she tries to dress herself. She pushes her limits too, constantly asking to wear lipstick. Or hoping she can get a pair of shoes with heels.
I am not sure where Shaila gets it from. I certainly may have been a fashion plate at one point in my life (briefly. VERY briefly), but now I find myself dressed in something I can kick around in all day. Yoga pants. Sweats. Comfy hoodies. Working from home has removed the desire to spend a lot of time styling my hair or putting on makeup. I do clean up pretty well when I want to, but it hasn’t been a focus of mine since she was born.
“I’m not pretty, mommy,” she will say sometimes.
A few weeks ago, she said it again.
“You are beautiful. Inside and out,” I told her, holding her close.
Kneeling on the floor to look her in the eyes, I asked, “Do you know what pretty means?” We have been through this before.
“Being beautiful?” she asks. I can see why she might think that. It’s kind of a circular question. It’s one that I think most grown women and men haven’t yet figured out either, including myself. Especially when I question what I see in the mirror.
“Pretty comes from inside. It’s how you love and how you open your heart and mind to other people. Pretty is being kind and compassionate. Pretty is about helping people when they are hurting.“
She looked at me, not saying anything.
“You ARE pretty, baby,” I said, kissing her on her forehead. “Remember those things and you will always be beautiful.“
Still, I know the question and the insecurity will come again. I was proud of her when last week, she decided during a routine haircut that she wanted to cut her hair for Locks of Love, an organization that accepts hair (unprocessed) donations of a minimum of ten inches, to make wigs for children who have lost their hair to cancer or other diseases.
I almost hesitated when she said it. Shaila’s hair? Well, it’s the hair I had always wanted growing up. Heck, it’s the hair I wish I had now. She’s got the glossy, shiny locks that shampoo commercials are made of. She looked so certain though.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Yes, mommy,” she answered, resolutely. “My hair grows fast, mommy. Don’t worry.“
I knew a few things that helped make up her mind:
1) Like any girl knows, change is sometimes fun. And necessary. Puts a little pep in your step.
2) I had explained the program to her a few times, asking her if she might want to donate. She never seemed to have the attention span to actually hear me out before running off to do something else, so I never thought she heard me.
I guess she did.
3) At the age of 5, she has already been exposed to cancer. She often still speaks about the little boy on our street, Declan, who died of cancer when he was shy of a year old. We have been to several fundraisers and she has seen children going through chemo and has asked questions about why they are bald.
I don’t remember if I knew what cancer was when I was 5. She does.
4) Last year, two days before the start of 2012, her beautiful cousin and our niece, Amanda, committed suicide. This year was the first anniversary of her death on December 30th. The days leading up to New Years felt heavy, almost suffocating as I tried to keep a flood of memories of the pain last year at bay. This year, New Year’s was not a time to celebrate. It was a time to cry and remember and to say her name and honor her memory.
I must have spoken about her more than I realized. One thing I had told Shaila was how Amanda had donated her hair to Locks of Love – three separate times. And how she probably would have done it more had we still been blessed to have her.
I know that Shaila still thinks about Declan and Amanda a lot. At night as she says a prayer, she will often stop in the middle and say, “Mommy, can I pray for Declan and Amanda too, in Heaven?”
It makes me proud that she had them in her mind when she made her decision. Perhaps that’s a bit selfish of me, but her actions comforted and soothed a part of me that was aching that day.
Is it weird to say I felt like she knew that?
In the end, when it came to the actual cut, the stylist did a real hack job. I would have been better off cutting it myself. I wish I had stepped in more during the haircut, but I didn’t realize the woman was going to shape my child’s hair in the shape of a giant mushroom. But Shaila hasn’t complained or said anything. There are times where I have seen her look in the mirror and try to settle down her too short layers. But her hands drop away and she says, “That’s ok. My hair grows so fast. Right, mommy?“
Yes, Shaila. And so are you.
I feel like we are making strides with explaining what the words “pretty” and “beauty” mean to our daughter. But I know it’s not just what we teach her at home, but the constant messages and images that she will be exposed to through mainstream culture and the things she will hear at school.
With the value our society places on physical beauty, it’s a challenge to help steer your children in the right direction. We all know the pull and the draw of external beauty, but it’s a fleeting and superficial thing. I kind of go back to that famous saying by Audrey Hepburn when I DO need to be inspired on how to explain beauty to Shaila.
For beautiful eyes, look for the goodness in others;
For beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness;
And for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.
I hope she continues to be as beautiful as she is proving to be.