parents

If you meet my daughter, please don't tell her she is "beautiful".

When I was at university, many years ago now, I did a Gender Studies unit. I read one particular thing that I never forgot, and it was about children and gender.

A group of Australian children – aged 4-5 – were shown photographs of women who didn’t fit the typical stereotypes for femininity. Some of them were bodybuilders and weightlifters, or had short hair. Some were simply wearing clothing that could be considered masculine. And some of the children refused to believe that these were women. Even after it had been explained that these were women who just looked different to most, certain kids wouldn’t budge and continued to insist that these were not women.

They had already decided that femininity and being female had certain factors. Their markers for femaleness were very limited and exactly matched social norms of femininity and beauty. The fact that the kids refused to reconsider their stance spoke very strongly to me about what must have been happening in homes to burden our children with such limited views of womanhood.

This surprised me.

When I had my daughter, I started to observe many things that caused me to be uncomfortable. These things seemed to be flying under the radar of everyone else.

The plethora of pink clothing we were gifted. The gushing “oh my, she is beautiful“, “such a little lady”“so pretty”, “she’s gonna have the boys lining up”. Dorothy the Dinosaur donning her pink tutu and giggling, whilst being revered as “absolutely beautiful” in a program aimed at under-fives. Play School’s princesses always being referred to as“beautiful”. Parents selling toys because they were the “wrong” colour for the gender of their new child.

I don’t think that I noticed a little girl anywhere without someone telling her that she was “beautiful” or that something or other (be it a fairy dress, a plastic tiara, her mother’s lipstick, a headband, a necklace, or sparkly shoes) was “beautiful”, or made her “look beautiful”. I often heard (and still do hear) the opinion that we should be regularly telling our daughters that they are beautiful.

Ally’s daughter.

I carefully chose what I said to my daughter and about my daughter. I paid attention to what others said to her and about her, and I became intensely aware of the messages she was receiving – not the messages people thought she was receiving, `or that people wanted her to receive, but the messages she actually was receiving.

I soon realised that beauty or, more accurately, whether someone thought you were beautiful, was being put on a pedestal by the adults in our children’s lives.

This was an ‘everywhere issue’.

One night when my daughter was two, I heard her sobbing in her bed. “What’s the matter baby?” I enquired. “I’m not beautiful” she whimpered. It came out that she believed that if she were not wearing a dress, then she would not be beautiful. Since she was wearing her pyjamas, she thought that she was not beautiful.

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I resisted the urge to assure her that she was.

I knew that I instead needed to take away the power of this word with my reaction.

I talked about what “beautiful” means, how flowers or butterflies or birds in the garden, or a sunset or the city covered in the orange of dawn, or the ocean with life teeming beneath the surface, and all manner of other things, get called “beautiful”; but that it was not a word for describing people’s appearance. And, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. I vowed right then that in our home it would not be used to describe a person’s appearance, ever. I managed to trace back the steps leading to this incident – to my mother and my sisters. I knew from my own childhood that the importance my mother placed upon “beauty” was questionable.

Although she refused to listen to my concerns or discuss this with me (she claimed that her specific attentions on “beautiful” was intended to mean “the beauty inside”), I was able to dull the exposure by limiting time spent with them, and I decided to no longer leave my daughter alone with any of them.

It took time, a lot of mindful responses, and many deliberate silences, but I detoxed my precious girl. Soon, she was back to being her carefree, perfectly imperfect self. Pyjamas and all. Today, that is all a long way in the past. Today, I am better at keeping my daughter safe of the “beautiful” attitude. Of the attitude that our bodies and our looks and our hair and our jewellery and our clothing, are all up for judgement.

One day, she will end up in that world, but she will already have the immunity of it not having been there all along, invisible and unquestioned and normal. She will have the immunity of seeing it all from the outside, rather than of being immersed in it with that awful feeling that she must always make herself good enough. She will see it for what it is, and in that, I hope that she will have protection.

Right now, I am seeing her capabilities in all of their ungendered glory. She is a happy and lanky 5-year-old. Her days are mostly spent riding her bike on the cul-de-sac in her undies and wellington boots; digging in piles of mud and painting herself with it; dragging her old digger truck around the garden scooping up leaves and rocks; grabbing handfuls of blueberries and getting purple juice all over face; watching Octonauts; climbing her tree and swinging from the branches gleefully; cuddling her dolls and scribbling chalk over the porch; drawing increasingly detailed pictures of her family; swinging on the Hills Hoist and drinking from the outdoor tap; and running soft toys all about the place enacting elaborate play scenes of adventure and daring.

And she has a recently shaven head.

Ally’s daughter rocking a shaved head.

My daughter didn’t have her head shaved because she is trying to say “fuck you” to gender roles. She didn’t do it because she thinks it is “badass” or different or unique or trendy. She didn’t do it because we are trying to “redefine” beauty. She didn’t do it because I wanted that for her, in an attempt to separate her from gender norms or beauty constraints. She doesn’t even know that it is controversial, or that some people think little girls look “ugly” and “unfeminine” with such a hair style. She knows that most girls don’t have shaved heads, but that difference has no stigma to her. She knows that we are all different and that this fact simply is.

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The awesome thing about my daughter shaving her head is that it was simply a choice to her. This choice wasn’t carrying weight. It was as straight forward to her as whether to wear her wellington boots or her runners, as whether to play with her digger or her dolls, as whether to dress up as a ballerina or a king, as whether to go to the park or to the library, as whether to play in the mud or build a tower with bricks, as whether to somersault all over the couch or jump on the trampoline.

Sadly, the reaction to her shaven head mostly everywhere we go, reminds me of the world that most of our little girls still have to live in.

The first time she had her head shaved was when she was three years old. She wanted to be like her dad. With her shaven head, numerous people asked me if I had “forced” her to shave it. Some people asked her, quietly, if I had forced her to shave it. The hairdresser had refused to shave it at the time and I had to get the manager to approve it (the hairdresser then erupted into peals of laughter every few moments, whilst constantly asking my daughter “Are you sure? All of it off?!“).

A relative assumed I had done it because she has eczema and proceeded to tell people this when in public with us. Most people assumed instantly that she was a boy (whilst my son with a pink hat was assumed a girl). Most mothers were confused and plenty were horrified. They could not fathom, when considering their own daughters, that a little girl would choose something like that for herself.

I wondered, Why wouldn’t they?

Nowadays, those comments don’t bother me as much on a personal level, but it does bother me that the thought of a little girl shaving her head is so bizarre. (It’s only hair people, come on!) And it bothers me that most little girls would not consider this an option for their own hair.

What I find noteworthy about this whole thing is not that I “let” my daughter shave her head. It is that she asked to do it at all.

If you happen to meet my daughter, feel free to speak to her, be kind to her, converse with her and spark her interest.

But please refrain from telling her that she is “beautiful”. We don’t want your judgement.

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