By Barbara Falconer Newhall
My daughter is beautiful. She was born beautiful. But I sometimes wonder if she really wants to be.
If she liked being beautiful, then why the heck would she dress up as a skeleton for Halloween when she was 6 years old? As a warlock at age 8? As a heap of trash at 11?
Christina was just minutes old when she was pronounced beautiful for the first time.
“She’s gorgeous,” said the nurse anesthetist as she suctioned out our new baby’s throat.
“You probably say that about every newborn,” my husband said.
“No. This is for real.”
Christina had the usual puffy newborn eyes and neckless body. She also had a wide, generous mouth.
Jon thought she looked like a frog. I thought she looked like a duck.
But it wasn’t long before the puffy eyes opened and it became apparent that, indeed, little Christina was in danger of growing up beautiful.
That worried me. Mightn’t Christina turn into one of those vain females who depend on their looks to get ahead? What if she decided she didn’t want to be a smart professional woman like her mother and grandmother before her? What if she decided to go with arm candy and be done with it?
In my family and in Jon’s, smart is everything. We go to college. We read the New York Times. We play chess. We love a good debate. We edit newspapers, do science and write things.
What if our daughter turned out to be none of the above? What if she decided to just sit there, looking beautiful for the rest of her life?
And that is why, when Christina was little, I made sure I did all the recommended mom things to build up her self-esteem. I told her she was good at math. I complimented her cooking. I went to all her soccer games and cheered when she blocked a pass with her long legs and gangly body.
But I was careful not to mention beautiful in the same sentence with “you are.”
Nonetheless, despite my careful mothering, Christina figured it out. She had a face to launch a thousand ships, and she knew it.
I learned this to my dismay one evening over a Chinese restaurant dinner when Dolly, an old family friend, put down her chopsticks, looked at my daughter and declared, “You’re a beautiful girl, Christina.”
Christina was unperturbed. Clearly she’d come to terms with this state of affairs on her own, possibly while looking in a mirror.
Instead of blushing and thanking Dolly for the compliment, Christina was matter-of-fact. “I know,” she said demurely.
Christina went through the usual girlish pink phase when she was four or five. For a while, everything she owned from jammies to lunch pail to ballet leotard was pink.
When Halloween rolled around, however, Christina wanted nothing to do with pink – or pretty.
At the toy store, the two of us checked out the Halloween possibilities. We strolled the girly costume aisle sparkling with princess robes, angel wings, magic fairy wands and bride get-ups.
But Christina wasn’t interested. She wanted to be a witch. An astronaut. A skeleton. One year – in a departure necessitated by her love of the Disney movie – Christina opted for a Little Mermaid costume. But in no time she was back on track – as a mud monster.
As the Black Mage from Final Fantasy.
As a clown.
As an off-duty medieval knight, inspired by the Tamora Pierce novels.
As a vampire.
And so, all these years later, I have to wonder, did I overdo it? Does my daughter think she’s not allowed to be pretty? Does she think she must always choose interesting, creative, ambitious or shocking over pretty on Halloween?
Even more worrisome, does she believe she has to play the off-putting pile of trash or the in-your-face vampire – in real life?
When I was about sixteen, my father noticed that I was enjoying a lively social life with lots of dates with lots of boys. I was into clothes, make-up, haircuts. An experiment with peroxide had turned my bangs orange.
My father’s mother and grandmother had been starchy church women, schoolteachers both, and my father had decided it was time to set me straight.
“Barb, you need to develop your mind as well as your beauty,” he told me one day. “Your beauty won’t last your whole life, but your education and your mind will.”
I took that as a double-edged compliment: My father thought I had beauty and that I was potentially smart.
At age 28, Christina is now safely out of the woods. I think I can relax. She is beautiful, sexy and graceful – but nobody’s arm candy.
And she’s smart, smart, smart. She doesn’t play chess, and she doesn’t read the New York Times. She’d rather bake you a birthday cake than suck you into a debate.
But she did make it through college nicely, and – like her mother and father before her – Christina is a devoted editor and writer. If she’s going to dazzle the world, she’d rather do it with a good story than a gorgeous face.
And Christina knows a good story when she sees one. A pretty girl in an angel costume does not make a story; she’ll tell you that. There’s no tension there. Pretty is just pretty, and that story is going nowhere.
A pretty girl dressed up as a pile of trash, on the other hand – now that’s a story.
If you enjoyed this post, consider getting my regular updates with an email subscription. Just fill in the box at the top of the right-hand column. You can also get updates via Facebook , Twitter or RSS by clicking on the appropriate icon at the top of the right-hand column.
Read more about Christina at “How to Overmother a Twenty-Something.”