I cringe a little every time someone tells my four-year-old daughter she’s pretty. Only because it’s true — and because it happens a lot, and because I’m painfully aware of the sexist and racist body politics that can leave young girls feeling unfinished and unworthy.
It’s not that I don’t like for her to hear that she’s pretty. I just have this urge to flesh out the sentence a little more, like, “You’re so pretty…but more importantly, you’re smart and kind, and you have the type of stubborn determination that’ll take you places. And, you take care of your younger brother like you birthed him yourself. And, that twist out, it’s everything!”
Now, I know random strangers could never know those things, but I can dream, can’t I? When it comes to raising this curly-headed girl of mine, I promise it feels like I’m walking a tight rope. I make it a point to assert her physical beauty so she’ll never have to wonder, but then I follow up with a confirmation of all her other parts that have nothing to do with looks.
I stress loving her hair and the importance of building intellect, loving her color, and the importance of compassion. I stress strong bodies and honesty, powerful minds, and integrity. I stress the wholeness of her beauty, and the holes in our society. All this into a 4-year-old mind. I pray it all fits.
Because I’ve seen the road girls walk, the path so beaten it could swallow you whole if you let it, steal your sight if you let it, hush your voice if you let it. I’ve seen these dark roads. I don’t want my child there. I don’t want any child there. There are brilliant, young girls who have been forced flat, had their value squeezed out of them (or at least that’s what they think). So, they skip and frolic and pop and twerk to a tune that reassures them they are nothing more than cute.
And, there are beautiful young girls who feverishly pour themselves into academia, almost as a type of punishment. On the outside they seem fine, but on the inside they feel desperately low, convinced at an early age that beauty just wasn’t for them. Because their skin is too dark, or their hair is too short, or their weight is too high — so their everything amounts to nothing. But, at least they are smart.
Never mind the cuts on their wrists, the toxic recordings in their minds, and the foolish men they’ve allowed to use them because they thought they had no choice. Never mind the pretty they don’t see, the pretty they don’t let others acknowledge. These girls exist, and their ranks are growing.
This is what I fight — for my daughter, my nieces, and every other girl that does and doesn’t look like the world says they should. But still, I’m optimistic. I’ve seen it done. I have a mother who kept me balanced and I aim to do the same. Because of her, I know it’s very possible to raise a well-rounded child who understands that she can look nothing like the people on TV and be okay with that. Why? Because no one represents my daughter but her, and no one defines her but her — not even her well-intentioned mother.
And, that’s a scary thought: to know that, in the end, she alone will have to decide how to make sense of the body she’s been given and the lopsided world she experiences it in.
I tell her, “Yes, you’re a cutie, but really that means nothing in comparison to the beauty of character. That’s what will carry you through life with grace. That’s what will help you make lasting relationships and wise decisions. That’s what will help you realize how truly full of beauty you are. Not because of your smile, but because of the way it radiates warmth. Not because of your eyes, but because of how they see good in others. Not because of your hair, but because of how it reflects your bursting personality. Your beauty is ever-present. You don’t need eyes to see it.”
These are the seeds I sprinkle. In a color struck, body-obsessed, white-washed world, these are the seeds I sprinkle.
Denene Millner, founder of My Brown Baby, is dedicated to lifting the voices of every mom & dad, no matter if you're looking for parenting advice or just a high-five. MyBrownBaby offers a district perspective that's wickedly funny, often irreverent, and always thought-provoking — all filtered through a smart, colorful lens.