My daughter always wants me to look my best, and I want her to be proud of me, but I don’t want to teach her that looks matter most.
My 8-year-old daughter often goes through my closet and tries on some of my fancier clothes and shoes. A silver-beaded tank, a cashmere halter, a sheer lace V-neck. Strappy silk heels, pink suede slingbacks, shiny boots. I love watching her do this. When I was little, I played dress-up with my mother’s clothes. She once even let me play with a pair of pantyhose until there was little left but runs.
Gigi almost always holds up something and asks, “Why don’t you ever wear this, Mommy?” I tell her that lace and heels hardly seem appropriate for school pick-up. She wonders why I don’t wear my fancy clothes other times, and I tell her that I do, that she just doesn’t see me in them. Every now and then, we go out to dinner at a casual restaurant, overdressed. Sort of like Fancy Nancy, but without the slip-and-fall.
I don’t tell her that I used to go out in those clothes all the time before she was born. I don’t admit that I stopped going out so I could be home to put her to bed because she likes that and I’m nervous about babysitters. I tell her I go out on the nights she’s with her father. I exaggerate the frequency, because she likes to think of me as pretty, sophisticated, social. On the rare occasions she sees me on my way out or on my way in, dressed for a party, she says, “You look beautiful, Mommy.” I thank her, but in an offhand way so she won’t think beauty is too important.
Since kindergarten, Gigi has preferred that I pick her up from school clean and dressed in real clothes, something other than torn jeans and a ratty T-shirt. If I’m wearing glasses, she knows I haven’t showered because I usually put in my contacts afterward. During winter months, I can fool her by wearing contacts and covering my dirty hair with a hat. I love the winter.
Gigi is most recently concerned about my hair. She wants me to have it cut and she has a very specific style in mind. On my nightstand, and in her room at her father’s house, is a picture of the two of us at the beach in San Diego when she was almost 2. We both love that picture, but for different reasons. I love it because it’s a mirror image of a similar photo of my mother and me when I was 2. Gigi loves it because I look “so young,” and she believes the length of my hair is key—that if I cut it I will magically look the way I did six years ago.
There are pictures of a younger me, lots of them, but I seem to be aging in dog years recently. I don’t take care of my appearance as enthusiastically as I used to. Although I wouldn’t object to jumping into a hairstyle-powered time machine, I’m not as preoccupied with it as Gigi is. So I’m left to wonder where she has picked up the idea that I should look any different than I look now.
Gigi might be comparing me to her friends’ moms, particularly those who show up for school drop-offs and pick-ups nicely put together because maybe they have a job that requires them to be washed and groomed. Since most of the little girls at Gigi’s school dress more fashionably than I do, I stand little chance of keeping up with their mothers.
If I wore similar clothes and kept my hair clean and styled, I might still look different to Gigi, because I am different. At 46, I’m an older mom and I am no longer married to Gigi’s father. Her father, stepfather, and I provide loving homes, but our lives, while not unique, seem less pretty to Gigi than her friends’ lives, with their younger, still-married parents. Kids like to fit in, and maybe she thinks it would be easier to blend if her mother (and fathers) tried to do the same. We talk about this often, the disruption of splitting her time between two families.
Gigi may also have already been affected by a society in which girls’ and women’s characters are judged based on their appearances. She doesn’t spend hours watching TV or movies, but much of what she sees represents women and girls in predictable roles: the evil stepmothers and school principals are physically frightening as well as emotionally wicked; the sympathetic aunts and teachers are fragile, beautiful flowers. Both Gigi and I love the movie Matilda, but the visual stereotypes are impossible to ignore.
I was concerned when I realized Gigi’s school included grades two through eight. I wonder what she hears about what makes women and girls “hot or not,” not just from friends her own age, but from older girls and boys. Gigi has always been a tomboy. (The teacher conducting auditions for the school musical asked her if she was a girl or a boy. Apparently the name wasn’t enough of a hint.) She seems confident in her choice to dress boyishly most of the time, but less so in mine. Does she want me to be hot, or just more feminine?
I suspect what she really wants is for me to make an effort. A few weeks ago, I went to a monthly “parents in the classroom” lunch. I showered, put on makeup, dried my hair. I tucked my torn jeans into nice boots and slipped on her favorite pieces of my jewelry. I wore a shiny coat and a pretty scarf. When I walked into her classroom and sat down with her, she beamed. I kissed her and said, “Now you’re wearing a little lip gloss, too.”
She was so beside herself, she hardly ate any lunch. After recess, her class lined up to go inside. I stayed on the playground, my heart cracking every time she turned to wave at me. It took so little to make her proud of me, or at least not embarrassed. I’m still ambivalent about that day, because I was minutes away from covering my dirty hair with a hat and not caring what anyone thought. I decided to care about what my child thought, and I don’t know what message, if any, she took from that.
When Gigi tells me I would look prettier if I wore fancy clothes, cut my hair, and put on makeup, she doesn’t hurt my feelings, but I wrestle with how to respond. In these situations I’m always torn between being honest about my own feelings and taking advantage of a teachable moment. I want to look younger and prettier, and I don’t care who knows that—except my daughter. I want better for her. I don’t want her to spend her life believing she needs to look a certain way to be a valuable human being.
When Gigi watches me tuck my dirty hair into a ponytail and insists I would look beautiful if I washed and cut it to the length in that six-year-old picture, I tuck away all of my feelings, too. I tell her what I want her to learn: “I feel beautiful right now. So, do you still want to go to the library?”
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. Her essays have appeared in online magazines including Daily Life, Everyday Feminism, Jaded Ibis Press, and Ravenous Butterflies. She blogs occasionally at disgrace under pressure. Follow her on Twitter.