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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Motherhood After Tenure: on beauty
September 16, 2010 - 4:29am

My six-year-old daughter likes to dance around the living room with a pink Barbie microphone pretending to be Sharpay from High School Musical. She leaps from one couch to another, gesturing wildly and imitating the teenage girls she watches in movies and videos. When she catches me looking at her from the other room, she imperiously orders me to leave; these personas are her private creations. I love her physical confidence, her swagger, and her joy in singing. But sometimes, in her heartfelt effort to replicate the singers she so admires, she moves in an unsettling parody of adult sexuality. As Peggy Ornstein’s recent column indicates, sexualized young girls do not gain confidence in their bodies, quite the opposite; their sense of self can become dangerously tied to how others’ view them. I know that we should censor the videos she watches more carefully (we don’t let her watch much television, but we let her google her favorite songs on my computer). But I challenge anyone to find many media images that do not contain sexualized women.

“This dress makes me look sexy,” she proclaimed the other day at breakfast. How does a parent respond to that? I know that what she really means is that she looks beautiful, which she does, to me, every day. I calmly explained that “sexy” was a grown-up word and that it doesn’t make sense for kids to use it. “It’s about making babies,” I told her, hoping to re-contextualize the word for her.

I find her in the bathroom putting on blush on her already rosy cheeks and pale pink eye shadow on her lids. I don’t mind her playing with my Clinique makeup, but I insist that she not wear it out. “But I want to be just like the mama!” she wails. She doesn’t want to be beautiful, she wants to be grown up, wants, perhaps, to have the power that an adult has. And already she equates being a woman with being a beautiful object. As much as she loves her other activities – soccer, reading, jumping on our trampoline – beauty seems very important to her, even at six.

My husband is a photographer and I treasure the breath-taking photos he has taken of our daughter. Her direct, confident gaze into the camera is startling, a product, no doubt, of their relationship: she knows that he sees who she is. And he’s not allowed to take her picture without her permission. Most of the time, she’s impatient, but sometimes she will voluntarily pose with her hands under her chin, head turned slightly to the side -- she’s seen the shots he’s taken for models’ portfolios, I suppose.

She asks me if she’s beautiful. “Of course you are, your face is the most beautiful thing in the world to me. And you are smart, and kind and strong and brave!” I add. Right now this satisfies her. My opinion still carries weight. Yet soon it won’t matter what her mother thinks; she will want the approval of her peers, and of people who don’t know her, who don’t cherish her imperfections, her voice, or her bravery. What will she do? I hope that she will stare back at them with the same indomitable self-possession, the same fierceness that is her true beauty, and order them from the room.


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