Do I look pretty?
By Michelle Sweezey
“How do I look Mom?” my nine year old daughter asks me last week, “do I look pretty?”
“You always look pretty. . .” I immediately begin to say, and then stop, and look. She’s wearing indigo corduroy pants, a turquoise cami under a hot pink sweater (with a lace overlay, no less), and mismatched socks showing through her mary janes.
Given that I can safely assume that what is next to come is a side pony, she looks rather suspiciously like Kimmy from “Full House” and I’m silently dying inside, but do I tell her this?
That would be wrong. And judgmental. And totally allowing my own opinions to dominate her style. And it’s labeling. And most importantly— it would be making her feel like she’s not pretty if she doesn’t wear the right clothes.
But also, shit, I can’t let her go to school like that. She’s going to get made fun of in that hot neon mess of an outfit. For real. Kids are going to notice. She’s in fourth grade for God’s sake. Fourth graders are mean, I know, I was one.
Well now what the hell do I say?
I want to support her, to make her feel strong and confident no matter what she’s wearing, for her to know that her value, her strength, her intelligence, her identity, her beauty, has nothing to do with her clothes.
I want her to know that the threads with which she chooses to cloak herself need not be a metaphorical representation of her inner self.
We are not what we wear.
It doesn’t matter what she has on as long as it’s seasonally appropriate, right?
But then again, it kind of does, doesn’t it? In this society, it matters what we show up in.
Crap. Hi rock. Howdy hard place. Lovely spot I’ve found myself in here, stuck between you two.
You see, while I believe that our worth (and our happiness) come from within, while I know that who we are is characterized by the sum of our actions and not the total on our visa bill, and while I place more value on who I am and not what I have, I also live in a real world, with real people, with real firstworld problems that face our youth in a whole new very public, very tangible, and very cruel way.
I’m not preparing my daughter to live in a tribe in the middle of the jungle where she’s going to wear the same skirt and beaded necklace as every other nine year old girl there.
Neither does she live in a setting where whether by out of necessity, utility, or for cultural purposes, standardized clothing creates an environment free from the stigma of fashion.
No, I’m sending her off to a different jungle altogether, and one filled with animals just as dangerous to her well being as any jaguar she might face there.
It’s hard enough for me, as a 34 year old woman packing an arsenal of tools and experiences to carry me through the day, just to pick out an outfit to wear to a meeting— imagine what it must be like for a kid.
There’s social media, and advertising, and magazines everywhere telling her who to be, what to wear, and how to attract boys, already.
At home, I can keep that out of her sight, I can I shield her from some of it, and to help with what I can’t, I’m teaching her media literacy. I’m starting to talk to her about how to interpret those messages, what they mean, what it is to be “pretty,” and what it really means to “be a girl.”
As if I actually know anyway. I mean, let’s be real, do any of us really have this all figured out yet? Honestly? Always? Tell me the last time you didn’t judge yourself, pull away your crows feet, tug at your pants, frown at the way that shirt makes you look, and sigh with frustration as you plucked those newest gray hairs from your scalp. Tell me the last time you looked in the mirror and genuinely didn’t care what you saw there.
Yeah. That doesn’t happen. Like ever. We are trained not to think that way.
But where and when does it start? More interestingly, where and when does it stop?
Where’s the line between too much and not enough?
How do we get to a place where we allow fashion to enhance beauty, to let our outsides reflect our insides, and not the other way around?
When do we learn to to adorn ourselves in way that we, and not our clothes, are seen?
What the hell am I supposed to say to this kid?
For then, for that day, in that moment, I simply asked her, “do you feel pretty?”
“Yes, she said. I like these colors. They make me happy.”
“Well then,” I replied, “I think that’s great. But you know you’re a pretty girl, no matter what, because you’re beautiful inside. You’re strong and smart and kind and clever and funny and you have a lovely soul.”
“I know mom,” she said, with an eye roll, “but do I look cute?”
Well shit. Here we go again.