I Tell My Daughters They’re Beautiful Every Chance I Get
We’re not supposed to praise girls for their looks. But as a mom raising two Black girls in a society that doesn’t readily recognize their beauty, I do it all day long.
When I announced my first pregnancy five years ago, friends routinely sent me links to parenting blogs and Facebook groups. “You can find tons of great info on here,” shared one, as she scrolled through her tablet. “Granted, when it comes to some of the advice, you can take it or leave it.”
One piece of advice that I often read on raising daughters (I now have two) is to not compliment their beauty for fear they’ll define their worth by their looks. I mulled this over, and decided to leave it. I get the concern, but I think it can be misguided. It’s no secret that most of the mommy-blogger world is white, and there’s a privilege in deciding not to tell your daughter she’s beautiful when the world will reinforce it for her anyway. But I’m raising two Black girls in a society that doesn’t readily recognize or uplift their beauty, so I’ll always do it for them. What I didn’t expect was that ignoring that advice also changed the way I saw myself.
My mother was my first model of femininity. I’d watch as she’d meticulously fix her hair and makeup before going out, and I’d swipe copies of her Essence magazines to soak up visions of Black beauty. My mom complimented me about everything — in her eyes, I was the smartest, kindest, most talented child. At school, I was routinely teased for my knobby knees and ugly glasses. But when kids told me that my skin was “the colour of poop” and when they laughed at the way my thick braids stuck up and out from the sides of my head, I knew that some of this teasing was more than just kids being kids. So my mother amped things up — she never let me leave the house without knowing she thought I was gorgeous. Those compliments weren’t meant to raise me above anyone else, but instead to serve as armour when the outside world tried to chip away at my self-esteem. My Blackness seemed at odds with the definition of beauty held by those around me, and while the outside world affirmed that, my mother’s words affirmed me. I truly felt protected by them.
When I’m washing and braiding my daughters’ hair, I speak loving words to remind them that their hair is beautiful, healthy, and versatile.
My girls are now ages five and two, and already they’re susceptible to a culture that promotes Eurocentric beauty standards and diminishes (or, more often, excludes) their own. They obsess over children’s white pop culture figures like Jojo Siwa and the characters from Frozen and Tangled. Even family members will comment on which of my girls has “good” hair (looser curls) versus “bad” hair (kinkier curls). So when I’m washing and braiding my daughters’ hair, I speak loving words to remind them that their hair is beautiful, healthy, and versatile. I admire their skin and let them marvel over the fact that even within our family, we come in different and equally beautiful shades of brown. I tell them I love their eyes, that I adore how their noses crinkle up when they laugh, that their fingernails are pretty — and I try my damndest to find books, art, and media that they can see themselves in. As their mother, I’m completely genuine in my delight over them, and I hope to teach them to feel that same delight when they think about themselves. And don’t worry: I talk up all their other incredible traits, too.
I want to give my daughters the same armour my mother gave me, to protect them when I’m not there to do it — but I forgot there was another important factor to consider: me. I remember when it hit me, and it was a moment like thousands of others. I was simply getting ready to go out, fixing my hair in the mirror. I frowned while trying to pin one unruly curl in place, then caught the reflection of my toddler on the bed behind me, mimicking me all the way down to my scowl. I realized in that moment that my girls would copy what they saw until they could contextualize it, and I wanted them to see self-love in action. Afterall, I’m their first model of womanhood.
I’m now way more cognizant of how I speak about myself, refraining from being negative about my body or my looks within their earshot. I started showing them the versatility of my natural hair, switching from style to style and always letting them know that anything Mommy’s hair can do, theirs can too. I show them that Mommy can look beautiful with makeup or without, and I can just be who I am when I step into a boardroom, a TV studio, the grocery store, a party, or anywhere else. I show them how I take care of myself and teach them about the products we need for our hair and skin, and now even my two-year-old knows which bottles to point to when I cheer, “It’s hair wash day!”
Am I confident all the time? Not at all. My children’s gift is that they force me to fake it till I make it on days when confidence feels out of reach. I’ve never not liked myself, but I wasted too much time wondering why I was excluded from society’s narrow standard of beauty. I want to help my daughters avoid the same pitfalls, to honour their beauty by being comfortable standing out instead of fitting in. I thank my babies for helping me to see myself more clearly while I help them to see — and love — themselves.