All That and Beauty, Too–In Which I Think You Are Ebullient

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.

Symphalangus_syndactylus,_Chiba_Zoo,_Japan
Lily Hungry. Lily HUN-GRY. Lily HUUUUUUNGRRRIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEE!

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.”

Meishi-example
Check out the set on that guy. Sweet cards.

***

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.

Durga_at_Rewalsar_Lake._2010
Mothers need this many hands so they can wring them all.

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.

***

Picture Credit:

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18 thoughts on “All That and Beauty, Too–In Which I Think You Are Ebullient

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      I agree entirely; it’s finding the right proportion of one to the other, though, that I’m worried about. (I can’t imagine keeping track of everytime I call her beautiful only to then make sure I call her smart an exactly equal amount of times. And vice versa.)

      Too much emphasis on appearance could put stock in a quality she may lose or not value in the first place. Not enough emphasis on appearance might cause her to fixate on it, wondering why I don’t comment enough.

      I understand finding the balance is important, but I’m terrified about doing it right!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Allie P. says:

    I am a female engineer by education, and mother of boys. As a result I tend to be hypersensitive regarding female focused STEM campaigns. In my opinion we should be promoting these programs equally across genders. I want my boys (who by the way are incredibly handsome and who I am concerned will attract female attention way before I am ready) not to be surprised to see females in their STEM classes, nor do I want them to think they can get away with working any less hard than those same females.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Allie, absolutely agreed. I respect your position entirely. As a creative writer by education, I also don’t want work in the art fields to be diminished or disparaged as non-academic or unimportant. A culture is built as much on its books as on its bridges.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. originaltitle says:

    The biggest problem I saw with the parents in the video, was not the choice of their compliments, but rather the fact that they denied her, again and again, the opportunity to pursue the things she wanted to. In fact, they kind of stopped complimenting her after the toddler stage and just told her to stop doing stuff she was enjoying. I think they could have only told her she was beautiful her whole life, but as long as they let her do what she was interested, she could have very easily kept pursuing STEM having had the confidence because her parents complemented her (in anyway at all) and had let her experiment and explore without stopping her for fear of ruining her dress (Hello? We have washers, dryers and drycleaners now). This leads me to my second problem with the video which was that they depicted the girl as just silently accepting her parents authoritative rule over her. I’m not sure about you, but I haven’t seen many kids just accept it when someone tells them no. I would hope, in real life, that this girl might have talked back and continued to do whatever she was doing until they physically stopped her, like most toddler-age kids would do. Maybe I over-analyzed this, but I think the main thing we need to do is not stop girls from, for example, taking a computer science class if they want to or buying them a science kit for a gift instead of or in addition to dolls. When a parent (mom or dad) changes a tire, or fixes an appliance, instead of doing this in silence, treat it as a learning opportunity and invite son or daughter to watch and explain what you are doing. If daughter wants to pick salamanders out of a stream all day and build homemade vivariums, let her. Speaking from personal experience, my parents mainly complimented me on things like my manners, my following the rules and my looks-but, they did let me wander and explore outside. They didn’t tell me not to ruin my dress and when I wanted to take AP Computer Science, they said OK. They didn’t overtly encourage me in STEM (in fact, I was pretty bad at math and science, though I was really, really interested in science and computers) they just didn’t stop me. I ended up going to one of the top science and engineering universities in the US. I didn’t major in science or engineering (because I didn’t want to) but I could have. I took the required science and math classes everyone that went to the school had to and my major required statistical analysis. I could talk about and was familiar with all of the engineering fields and never felt like a dunce when boys or girls who were in STEM were talking about concepts. So I guess what I’m saying is that it doesn’t take much. Girls are interested in STEM, let’s just not stop them from doing it, because that’s what’s stopping them from doing it. Great post. Got me thinking a lot since I have some experience in the STEM world.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Your point is incredibly well-taken, and I feel stupid for not having analyzed that video closer. You’re right; it’s not the compliments, it’s the complete and utter discouragement for any interest the daughter expresses. Math is a language I don’t speak, but if my daughter is fluent, I certainly wouldn’t discourage her from engaging in that conversation. Thanks for lessening my anxiety a bit and opening my perspective. It seems what you *don’t* discourage is as important as what you *do* encourage!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Patricia says:

    All of our grandchildren are truly beautiful no thanks to me as I am not included in their genetic make-up. Every time I look at them I am struck by their beauty and I catch myself telling them how beautiful they are, boys and girls alike. Once I catch myself, I then add that they are smart, sweet, etc. Chances are they don’t hear the second part because of the short attention spans of children. The second part may come off as an afterthought. Danny never saw gender in his children. The girls had to cut the grass just like the boy, the boy had to help clean house just like the girls and when he worked on automobile or home repair projects, he was just as likely to include a girl as a boy and does the same with his grandchildren. He taught his daughters to be self sufficient but is always there to help them solve a problem or to encourage and support them.

    One of our daughters has “borrowed” Danny’s tools often because she likes doing her own repairs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      It sounds like you’re a kind grandmother and that Danny raised his kids in an awesomely equal way. I hope to learn from the lessons of you both! I don’t think it’s a problem to note the beauty of boys and girls equally. I just don’t think either should be underestimated intellectually (which doesn’t sound like it was a problem in your home).

      Liked by 1 person

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