When The Word "Beautiful" Really Means "Different"

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Beautiful_Is_Different_1Illustrated by Ly Ngo; Photo: Eric Audras/Colourbox.
UPDATE: This post was originally published on March 11.

“Who does her hair?” she asks me gruffly. I look up from the table where I am trying to manage my four young children and squint into the glare of the insanely fluorescent lighting of a local burger restaurant. I rarely take the kids out to eat alone, but day after day trapped in the house has driven us to this corner burger place. The freezing rain taps against the dark window. I try to block it out along with the difficult drive home.

“I’m sorry?” I reply as she registers over the chaos and the demands for fries. She is barely taller than my oldest child with a pretty face around a prominent nose. I notice first the red apron that she wears around her waist and blush at the french-fry explosion under our table. The red glow in my cheeks burns deeper when I finally understand her question.

“O-oh,” I stammer. ”I do. They’re only box braids.” I am immediately apologetic and defensive, explaining my short-comings to this stranger who has asked me a simple question. “I can’t corn row.” She touches one of my daughter’s thirty braids and feels it from root to tip with expert hands. ”They look good,” she answers me, “but they need more oil. They’re too dry. Our hair needs oil every day.”

I wince. I know. I have wonderful oils at home. Mango. Olive-infused. I have never been into hair. My own long, auburn locks can be gorgeous, if done by a hairdresser, but I have never learned to style them and I wear a perpetual ponytail with straggly, broken fly-away fringe. The foreign texture and baffling care of my daughter’s hair has sapped whatever energy and interest I ever had for primping. We consider our bi-weekly box braiding a mutually endured chore. The oil applications slip my mind sometimes, I am ashamed to admit.

I nod now, feeling like a failure in a fast food restaurant with my pale ketchup-smeared boys and my unoiled brown daughter. I know, I don’t stay up on it enough. “I used to do all of the kids’ hair in my neighborhood,” she tells me. I would give much to have been raised with this skill. To be deft and quick and not five-thumbed and fumbling with the tiny braids and miniature beads. She nods and I am dying to ask her if she would like to teach me, if she would be interested in giving me lessons in corn rows, but I don’t. I just revel in the fact that she thinks my box braids are good and vow to oil every single day. A vow that it takes me an entire week to break.

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It doesn’t strike me until later that she never said that Saige was beautiful. She touched her with matter-of-fact skill, not wonder or curiosity. It is one of the most honest and easy interactions that I’ve ever had in this town regarding Saige or her hair. The realization makes me sad and scared and unsure of our decision to parent our multi-racial family in this small Northern city.

Usually, it goes quite differently. Your daughter is gorgeous. She is so pretty. Oh, what a beautiful girl. May I touch her hair? Look at those beads! My daughter is a beautiful girl, inside and out. She has a captivating smile. She can infect a room with her effusive giggles. She is gentle and inclusive with her younger brothers. She is also miserably obstinate and she throws fake tantrums that send my blood pressure rocketing through the roof and into the heavens. In other words, she’s a five-year-old girl.

I think she is stunning, but I love her with all my heart. I rocked her as she screamed her fear and grief, new to our home. We weathered a difficult attachment period together. I’ve seen her be delightful and horrid and mean and joyful. She is my child. In the great scheme of children of the world, I don’t find her looks particularly remarkable or unremarkable. All children are beautiful. My little girl, the recipient of so much exuberant praise on her physical appearance, and in particularly her hair, draws attention in this part of this small city, I fear, for being something more akin to different.

I don’t think her well-meaning admirers intend that subtext when they lavish her with praise. I don’t think the kind strangers with whose compliments we contend almost daily understand why their comments engender my tense smile and deflective remarks. “They’re mine, so I think they are all beautiful,” I say. “Oh, but she’s gorgeous! Look at that hair.”
Beautiful_Is_Different_2Illustrated by Ly Ngo; Photo: Image Source/Rex USA.
Why fight it? After all, who doesn’t want to be beautiful? It’s a compliment, don’t be so sensitive. I hear these arguments, but I disagree intuitively, deep in my core. I don’t want the word “beautiful” to have a subtext for my daughter. I don’t want it to mean, "exotic” or “different” or “unique” or “black.” Most of all, I don’t want it to mean “noticed.” I would rather someone at the grocery store say, straight up, “I noticed your daughter because she is black and you are white and it made me curious about her and your family.” Sure. That makes sense and that is something that we can talk about on the way home in our own time. Our family is different and people notice, that fact is an easy one to address.

But, beautiful laced with different? Maybe Saige will grow feeling gorgeous and unique and maybe she will grow feeling like she sticks out in our family and in our community. Maybe it doesn’t matter and maybe it does. Most likely, like all things, it depends on the child. I am sure I am one of few Jews in this neighborhood. Strangers often remark on my sons’ bright red hair. Different certainly isn’t bad.

Beauty, though, I would prefer to let her define on her own with as few preconceived prejudices of others as possible. I consider it my job as her mother to be a safe haven for her. To speak words that she can hide behind if she wishes, even if it makes a friendly stranger feel a little uncomfortable. Our differences are ours to share or not as we please. She need not feel vulnerable to every passerby who hides curiosity in compliments.

And so, for now, I’ll stay on course. I will downplay over-the-top compliments even when it offends the speaker. I’ll continue to seek out every interaction that I can to make it clear to my daughter that the dynamics of this street do not equal the dynamics of this city or this state or this country. I’ll drive her to our African-American pediatrician and I’ll request the dental hygienist with ropes of tight blond and black braids tied on the top of her head in an intricate knot. I’ll follow the art classes of our beloved preschool teacher from Barbados around this whole city. And, I’ll take her back to that restaurant often, for the casual, unamazed discussion of braiding and hair. Okay, and maybe a little bit because she liked my box braids.

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It’s a strange no-man’s land I find myself in; I fear the judgment of black moms that I meet and dread the questions of white moms. I imagine with anxiety how Saige might feel about it in just a few years. “The kids laughed at my hair today,” Saige pipes up at the dinner table. "They said it sticks up funny.” My heart thumps painfully sideways in my chest. Her hair is done with two ponies on either side of the top of her head. We call the style Mickies, because the deep, thick black balls above her forehead look like Mickey Mouse ears. The back I left natural to give both Saige and me a break and to let her hair rest. It looks beautiful when she leaves in the morning, but no matter how much oil I put in it, no matter how carefully I brush it down behind the ponies, by the end of a long day of school it is matted, dry, and covered in every fuzz that her head encountered that day. It does stick up in the back. “Which kid laughed?” I ask her. “All of them. Carrie said it sticks up and they all laughed.” She states it matter-of-factly; she isn’t upset. “That’s not nice, all hair is different, what did your teacher say?” “She said she thinks my hair is beautiful.”

“I think your hair is beautiful too,” I tell her. I am caught in a mama bear rage, though I know it is an overreaction. Matt catches my eye at the other end of the table. "It’s okay,” he soothes, “Kids say whatever they’re thinking. It’s not mean-spirited.” It’s not intended to be racist, he means. I know that, but it doesn’t make it not about her differentness. “Would it be easier if she were in a predominantly black class?” he asks me. No. It would most likely be harder. From a hair perspective, anyway. Gone would be the innocent comments; those kids and their parents would know that someone at poor Saige’s house was stumbling around hair-blind.

“Tomorrow,” our little girl declares, “we should put the ponies all over my head. That way, it won’t be Mickies, it will be tofu hair!” She laughs uproariously, her head thrown back, her mouth open, not phased by the comments of others, unwilling to be cowed or unafraid, and confident. Her brothers join in and the screeching laughter approaches rainforest canopy levels. She giggles until even Matt and I laugh with her, though why that would be tofu hair escapes her confused parents. The way, I suspect, her peers will laugh with her as she grows. Because she demands it, because her poise leaves no room for ridicule. Because she is beautiful, inside and out.

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.