Dear Lily June,
This letter starts with a truth and a video. The truth is this: You, my darling dear, are indeed beautiful. I adore your physical appearance, but I also think of beauty as so much more than a physical trait.
While you are, objectively, the cutest child in the history of existence (take me on, other parents, I dare you), I think of the beauty of your doe eyes widening in curiosity and wonder at the window and the weather. I think of the beauty of your glistening drool pooling at your perfectly symmetrical chin as you gracefully cram a rubber giraffe’s butt or a plush stroller owl into your mouth, that mouth being the microscope by which you examine each microbe of the world right now. I think of the beauty of your pre-verbal babbling as you try out a full vocal range starting at human and working its way up through operatic gibbon.
But the video from Verizon’s ad campaign (below) which I first saw on feelingblind’s blog, and which is called “Inspire Her Mind,” reminds me of the additional complications involved in parenting a daughter as beautiful and brilliant (brilltiful? beauliant? ebullient?) as you. Namely, I have no idea how to compliment you without giving you a complex.
If you’re unable to watch the video for some reason, here’s a brief summary: A young girl, named Samantha, is talked to by, presumably, her parents at different ages of her life. As a toddler, she’s called a “pretty girl,” but as a young child exploring, she’s told not to get her dress dirty; not to pick up messy starfish; not to let her styrofoam planet project get “out of control” and not to play with major power tools that her older brother would be more “careful” operating (in all fairness, the sparkles on her nail-polished fingers might blind her enough to drill a hole through her male sibling’s rosy cheeks).
The moral of the video is made explicit at the end. As a teenaged Samantha uses the reflective surface of a science fair poster encased in glass to apply lip gloss instead of her mind, a voice-over says that it’s time we told her she’s “pretty brilliant, too.” And text appears over the “broken” Samantha (clearly her parent’s social experiment in how to obliterate the self-esteem of a maturing human female) that explains “66% of 4th grade girls say they like science and math. But only 18% of all college engineering majors are female.” Support STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) education so that your daughter can be the underpaid, underappreciated designer of a new Verizon Wireless device. And Scene.
In theory, I don’t disagree with the video at all. After all, the kinds of comments made about, and to, girls would never “fly” if we made them to boys. Despite the fact that we try to “drill” home, for instance, the concept of beauty being on the inside, I’ve never heard a boy referred to as “beautiful” or even be called a “pretty boy.” Some might argue that a male’s cuteness is commented on but with corresponding “masculine” compliments (like “handsome” or “sharp” or what-have-you), but there are other comments to consider. Would any of the following sound as “natural” if delivered about a son?
- He’s “all that” with brains, too!
- A son? You’ll need a shotgun to keep the girls away.
- He shouldn’t be allowed to date. Ever.
- Uh-oh! He got his slacks dirty!
- Your son is an absolute Ken doll.
- He’d look so handsome if you pulled his hair back from his face.
This double-standard has been hashed out to death, but what hasn’t necessarily been talked about in an open, vulnerable way, is what mothers are to do when they encounter the problem of complimenting their daughters. Because while I’m smart enough to know that complimenting only your looks would be disparaging to your sense of self-worth, I also know that not commenting on your looks in any capacity could create a similar issue.
For one thing, Lily, I hastened to qualify what “beautiful” meant to me in the opening paragraphs of this letter, because I never want you to define yourself by your looks alone. Does that mean I want you to completely disregard them? Yes, and no.
On the one (unmanicured) hand, ideally, we’d live in a less shallow world where you’d be chosen for a job–or a promotion–based solely on your mental capacities and job performance and never on your looks. But part of a “product” is its “packaging,” and even men in the business world can get an upper-hand if they wear the right kind of suit or accessorize with the right kind of tie, or, if I’m to believe American Psycho is an accurate documentary on the state of Wall Street, select the correct color and texture of business card. I don’t want to set you up with unrealistic expectations, telling you to eschew physical standards of attractiveness only to find that puts you at a competitive disadvantage in the “real world.”
On the other hand, I don’t want you to become so obsessed with your appearance that you become blinded to all other aspects of your humanity. You’re more than the size of your body or the style of your hair. You’re more than the shape of your thighs, the bounce of your breasts, the waggle and swish of your derriere. I want you to reject a society that would give you an edge if you apply the right lip-liner and bat your eyes in the right manner. I want you to fight to be taken seriously above and beyond your beauty, while at the same time, I don’t want you to have to fight this fight at all.
On the other other hand (Oh hi, third hand. Didn’t see you there), I also don’t want you to develop some kind of a deep-seated belief that you’re hideously deformed because I never comment on your appearance at all. Nor do I want you to think I’m just blowing smoke up your diaper when I tell you that you are my adorable baby. Then again, if you were in a horribly disfiguring accident, I wouldn’t want you think you were loved any less. And again again, if you were to really focus on your appearance for the sake of your career–if you desperately wanted to become a model or something–I also wouldn’t want you to think you were loved any less.
And on a final hand (all mothers are direct descendents of Durga, after all), I’m also concerned with the idea that only STEM fields require intelligence on the part of female students.
I get that the math and science fields are drastically understaffed by females, in part due to societal pressures, and in part due to Tim Hunt, but that’s no reason to undervalue other roles that encourage creativity and intelligence–the fields of education and the arts come to mind. And would I find you any less “smart” or “beautiful” if you find that geometry is “all Greek” to you? Hell, no. Although you may want to go for a degree in Genetics so you can prove exactly why that’s your parents’ faults (and I assure you, kid, your dad + your mom = math problem problems).
So what do I tell you, Lily, without sounding patronizing or pathetic? Even Verizon’s suggestion of “pretty brilliant” sounds diminutive to me, though that may have been the point. I think you’re extraordinarily loveable. I know you’re extremely intelligent and talented (you have, after all, trained two human adults to remove your body’s waste products and provide continued sustenance only through the genius linguistic deployment of vowel sounds). I believe that your beauty is otherworldly.
But if there’s an exact proportion of one kind of compliment to the next that I’m supposed to deploy, I can only hope you’ll have the good sense to calculate it for me. Or at least to help me balance my checkbook well enough to afford your future therapy when I almost assuredly get it wrong. Just know, to me, Lily, you are everything. You make me smile and laugh. You make me think. You make me want to learn how to love you better. And in the meantime, I love you in all the flawed ways that I have. Now come into my many arms and let me hold you.
- “1543,AndreasVesalius’Fabrica,BaseOfTheBrain” by Ancheta Wis on en.wikipedia – Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1543,AndreasVesalius%27Fabrica,BaseOfTheBrain.jpg#/media/File:1543,AndreasVesalius%27Fabrica,BaseOfTheBrain.jpg
- “Symphalangus syndactylus, Chiba Zoo, Japan” by suneko – http://www.flickr.com/photos/suneko/373310729/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Symphalangus_syndactylus,_Chiba_Zoo,_Japan.jpg#/media/File:Symphalangus_syndactylus,_Chiba_Zoo,_Japan.jpg
- “Meishi-example” by Sakurambo. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meishi-example.svg#/media/File:Meishi-example.svg
- “Durga at Rewalsar Lake. 2010” by John Hill – Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Durga_at_Rewalsar_Lake._2010.jpg#/media/File:Durga_at_Rewalsar_Lake._2010.jpg