Saturday, September 9, 2006

Pretty Is as Pretty Does

Pretty Is as Pretty Does
Stephanie Friedman

I was in the park with my daughter, enabling her baby swing addiction. An older woman was doing the same for what I assume was her grandchild. I could see her watching my daughter with a soft smile, tilted head, and tender gaze. I knew what was coming.

“What a beautiful little girl,” she said.

“Thank you,” I replied, as I do in these situations. I don’t feel I should take credit for the genetic lotto drawing that produced my daughter’s looks, but I don’t really know what else to say, and this seems to be the most socially acceptable option.

Then she said, “Her father must be a very good-looking man.”

I could have replied, “I’ve never laid eyes on Donor 506, so I couldn’t say.” I could have pointed out the facial features that my daughter and I share. I could have commented on our culture’s suspect beauty standards and its desire to value girls according to their appearance. Instead, I just shrugged, said she looks like herself, and let the conversation die of neglect.

Even if I had launched into a lesbian feminist tirade about heterosexism or lookism or both, I would have been harder on her but easier on myself. The whole situation is far more complicated than a simple swingside response could capture, and I am as implicated as anybody else.

* * *

I have a beautiful child. I say this not just as a biased parent, but as someone who hears this opinion stated every day, multiple times a day, from just about everyone who lays eyes on her, strangers, friends, and family alike.

Am I bragging to tell you this? Yes, I suppose. You should know, however, that I feel as uncomfortable as I feel pleased, usually even more so, when people exclaim over my daughter’s good looks. I don’t want her typecast as a “princess,” as my mother likes to call her, and as it says on the black velour hoodie given to her by our comrades in lesbian motherhood, a soft butch couple who like to tell their own daughter that she is “smart and pretty and strong.” I don’t want her to grow up thinking that she can and should get by on her looks. I don’t want anyone to define her by her looks, and I don’t want her to define herself by them.

Beneath these acceptably feminist sentiments, however, seethes a murk of conflicting and confused concerns that makes me cringe when I peer into it. What I see is not just what I dislike in our culture, but what I dislike in myself, and in my past. Issues that I had shoved aside force their way back into my consciousness, demanding that I address them, for my daughter’s sake and for my own.

* * *

Being a mother means you worry, as the saying goes. I worry about things I never thought I would. I worry about things I know I shouldn’t, from a rational or an ideological standpoint, but the worries come bubbling up anyway, unbidden and undeniable.

I worry when people notice my daughter’s physical attractiveness. I worry because I think she’s getting used to them noticing, and she expects and likes it. I worry because I think I’m getting used to people noticing, and I expect and like it.

I worry that people will resent her for being pretty. I worry that she will scorn people who aren’t. I worry that someday I will be embarrassed by her sense of entitlement. I worry that someday she will be embarrassed by my appearance.

I worry that she is growing up in a country hellbent on turning itself into Margaret Atwood’s Gideon, in which the politics of appearance are only the tip of the misogynist iceberg. I worry that I will not be able to protect her well enough, to teach her how to resist well enough. I worry that she will reject the notion that she needs to resist, because as a pretty, blonde, blue-eyed girl, a gilded cage is already being built for her, and she may welcome the chance to sit in it, because it will look and feel like power. And it will be, of a sort.

I worry that I sound ridiculous, worrying about having a beautiful and therefore privileged child. I worry that my concerns mark me as the middle-class white woman I am. I worry that I am not looking into the implications of the situation in which I find myself, in which my daughter finds herself, deeply and stringently enough.

* * *

When I saw the pictures of the rallies of well-adjusted teens holding signs saying things like, “Columbine will survive,” I was reminded of the pep rallies I was forced to attend in high school in order to celebrate a place I hated and to cheer on people who ignored me at best and reviled me at worst. I was reminded of how I spent years of my life trying to succeed without drawing too much attention to myself, for to be noticed was to draw the worst possible kind of attention. I looked at the pictures of healthy teenage boys, the kind who even have muscular necks, and saw the boys who sneered at me, told me I was an ugly bitch, and made walking to class feel like running a gauntlet. I saw well-dressed girls with perfect blonde ponytails held by white scrunchies, standing in clusters with their arms around each other, like the girls who would insult my weight, my clothes, my hair, and then titter and turn as one, sauntering off in little victory.

I looked at the pictures of these children, comforting each other after living through a horror I could not imagine, and – God help me – I hated them.

I am not looking for pity. I did not want it then, and I do not want it now. I am merely trying to be honest about a situation which no amount of teen flicks and well-meaning articles on bullying have addressed to my satisfaction. I have found that many people believe on some level that children who are social outcasts have done something to provoke it, or at least did not do enough to stop it. Even my very dear friend, the World’s Most Sensitive Straight Guy, could not understand why I was so frustrated that Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse descended into farce rather than reveal the complex truths illustrated by a life like Dawn’s. The film gestured toward an exploration of gender enforcement, early adolescent sexuality, and adult collusion in adolescent social power, but it never really got there. Even though Solondz had wanted to call the film Retards and Fags, and had resented the fact that reviewers referred to the actor who played his heroine as ugly, he still couldn’t resist making the film a joke and Dawn the butt of it. To my disappointment, my feminist friend kept insisting, “Why didn’t someone just fix her? I mean, couldn’t someone at least tell her not to walk around with her mouth open all the time?” His disgust was palpable. I could not get him to appreciate fully the political implications of Dawn’s story.

I do not blame the “mean girls,” as the bestselling book called them. They are reflecting the culture of which they are a part, and pointing a finger at them is like blaming the pustule for causing the pox. They are the symptom, not the agent.

Despite my own rational understanding of where the blame lies, however, whenever I have to wade through a gaggle of teenyboppers, flexing their power by feeding off each other and what they can accomplish when no adults are attempting to control them, yelling, posing, outsized in all but body, my initial, visceral response is to hope that I can slip by unnoticed. I hope that I can pass along the edge of the group without inspiring any comments, giggles, or glances. I reassure myself that I am an adult now, invisible to them except as “ma’am” or “lady,” and press on. Stop being ridiculous, I tell myself as I suppress the prickles of fear.

* * *

Pregnancy makes one’s thoughts run to what ifs, both good and bad. One night (assisted perhaps by hormonal shifts), I imagined the future of my outcast offspring – with me as the parent, how could it be otherwise? – and I wept, knowing that I had no answers, no advice to give, no solutions that would work. I couldn’t offer up the worthless platitudes I was told:

“They’re just jealous.” (Of what?)

“Wait until college. Then you’ll meet people more like you.” (So what do I do in the meantime?)

“Maybe if you wore a little blusher and fixed your hair…” (Fuck you.)

How could I forget that God loves irony? Just to teach me a lesson, I got a beauty. Not the oppressed, but a potential oppressor.

* * *

Of course, my child does not exist to teach me a lesson. She exists for herself, for her own dreams and destiny. I try to give her room to become who she will be, but, at the same time, I give in to the temptation to project onto her my own fear and fury. The same knowledge and experience that inspire me to protect her from the oppressive elements of our culture can engender strains of thought that are more about me than her.

I look for myself in my daughter’s face, particularly in photographs. The occasional picture echoes one of my own childhood photos, in the expression around the eyes and mouth, or in the tilt of the head and the set of the shoulders. These glimpsed reflections give me both pleasure and dread.

If my beauty looks like me, then I am reassured. Those are my genes, my chin and cheekbones. I was right when I would look in the mirror all those years ago, searching for what it was that others called ugly, and would decide that I couldn’t find it, and that I really was okay-looking. My child is proof. Something outside of me was fucked up, not me.

If my beauty looks like me, then I am warned to be on my guard. Perhaps one day my swan will turn into an ugly duckling, as awkward an adolescent as her mother. As my cousin once said to me when we were looking at pictures of our toddler selves as teens, “You were such a cute little kid. What happened?” I live in fear that blood will tell, or, at the very least, that my inability to do hair and understand fashion will damage the goods.

* * *

I have never been the sort to get up at 5 am to do my hair and makeup. I would rather sleep until 6:45 and then throw some clothes on. I hope my daughter will make similar choices, even though I know they come at a cost that can seem very high when you are a teenager and the adolescent world is all you know.

In this culture, girlhood is a battleground. To be smart or not, pretty or not, pleasing or not, determines not if but how you will get slapped around, pushed and pulled by cultural demands. I worry, and the situation is complicated, and I am as implicated as anyone else.

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