Two years ago, my daughter was figuring out opposites for her homework in kindergarten (as if that is a thing that needs to exist). Up/down. Old/new. Biggie/smalls. That sort of stuff. Then she gets to the word “pretty.” After I scanned the page for “ugly”- which wasn’t on there- I realize the correct answer is “plain.” I didn’t know which word my daughter was searching for on the page, nor did I think she knew what plain meant. So I asked her, “What is the opposite of pretty?” She looked up at me, raised one arm in the air, and said enthusiastically, “Smart!!!”
Okay, this may have been my fault. I have a tendency to try to deemphasize appearances when it comes to my daughter because there are more important aspects of her life that I wish for her to focus on. So whenever my daughter would ask, “Do I look pretty, mommy?” I would answer, “Yes, but what is more important than being pretty? Being smart.” I guess that lesson worked too well as she was now making the point that you can only be one or the other. Then I immediately wondered: if these concepts where mutually exclusive to my little girl, which one did she think I was?
I have since found out a better way to handle the “Do I look pretty?” question. I now answer, “Well, kitten, do you feel pretty?” And she usually says yes, and I tell her that it’s always nice to take pride in one’s appearance, if only for the sense of comfort that comes with not leaving the house looking like a total idiot. This is a girl who hasn’t let me pick out her clothes for her since she was four years old. Every time I would try to bring something cute home, she put her empress thumb down and I have to strangle a gladiator with whatever I just bought. I have never been one to criticize her sense of style, instead I like to take the happy and lazy parent view that as long as she wants to dress herself I don’t have to. How individual is her style? Her first grade teacher once told me, “You know, sometimes I look at Maggie and think: hmmm, that shouldn’t work. But somehow she pulls it off!”
And I am happy for her sense of individuality, as it was not something I embraced as a child.
No, I wanted to look like everyone else in school and I failed at it (see above). The problem I had was that my family moved around fairly often so just when I thought I was learning the customs of dress for the locale, we would move. Then I would need to do a Jane Goodall meets Seventeen Magazine study of the new school to see what was popular. I would ask my mom to take me shopping which provided her with the opportunity to tell me to not to dwell too much on my appearance. And in a way she was right. By not paying attention to how I looked through high school I was able to focus more on my studies. This helped me to become two things (one of which I still am): a bibliophile and a virgin. I was a nerd back when that word meant something.
And then I went to college. Well, my first college. I was a non-social nerd dropped into a wild and lawless place known as Las Vegas. And if there is a city that prides itself on the importance of looks, I think it is the flashy city of sin. And all of a sudden at age 18, I decided that I wanted the attention of boys for something more than just for them to copy off my test. So I upgraded my appearance, got hair and make-up advice, and thanks to a job at Banana Republic, I employee discounted my way to a better wardrobe. This was the beginning of two decades of transformation. And it was only through this gradual renovation that has allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin.
But even with the upgrades that being close to 40 brings, such as an amazing hair stylist and a more robust clothing allowance, I still think that the most important accessories a woman can have is a sharp mind and a personality with a gravitational pull. Those are what I want to impart on my daughter. She will come to know that she doesn’t have to look at herself in the mirror all day but she does need to tolerate her thoughts and why shouldn’t her ideas be more impressive than her appearance? If she holds onto this creativity- dressing and otherwise- she will catch someone’s eye (Tim Burton’s child, perhaps) and she will figure out that there is no opposite of pretty when it comes to her looks- just different definitions of the word.