Okay, time for some serious conversation.
Let’s start with this question: How do you define beauty?
Now take that definition of beauty and tell me whether this is what you apply to yourself (or, if you’re a guy, tell me whether this is what you apply to your wife/girlfriend/partner).
And now take it one step further and tell me whether this is the definition of beauty that you would like to pass along to your daughter, real or hypothetical.
I thought I knew my answers to these questions. A progressive feminist understanding of beauty was pretty much a prerequisite for owning my old artsy tomboy identity, and that’s what I thought I still had. Beauty is born of the natural essence that comes from a woman’s warm heart and strong intellect. Beauty is the woman who wears her natural shapes, sizes and textures with pride. Beauty is the woman who knows her beauty comes from what’s on the inside, so doesn’t get caught trying too hard with what’s on the outside.
Then I stumbled onto this post a couple of weeks ago and it made me question whether I really am still as authentically evolved as I’d like to believe. Right away my brain went flying to think up a comment, but all I ended up with was a bunch of false starts. For the most part, they went something like, “Before I had my daughter, I was strident about not wearing makeup,” or “Before I had my daughter, I thought diets were stupid,” or “Before I had my daughter, I never used to brush my hair.” These are all (semi) true statements, or at least they were true in the past tense.
But what of the present tense? Now that I have a daughter, do I still think diets are stupid? Do I still think makeup is silly? Yes and no. Notice how I end my definition of beauty: she doesn’t get caught trying too hard. This is very different from saying she knows she doesn’t have to try. While it’s true that I didn’t used to wear makeup and I didn’t used to go searching for pushup bras or bottom shaping undies, it’s also true that I chose not to do these things because I felt like I was skinny enough and young enough to get away with it. I wanted to be beautiful, but I didn’t want anyone think that I was trying to be beautiful.
Now, though, things have changed. Now I’m getting the first dustings of gray in my hair and the first streaks of wrinkles around my eyes. Now my body has grown and given birth to another human being and my sleep schedule has gone from a happy nine hours a night to five or six if I’m lucky. Now that natural beauty I once had just doesn’t come so naturally. I have to try harder.
It’s not just getting older that’s making me feel this way – I feel this way because all of the women around me are trying harder. We keep getting older and keep moving the same bar to a higher and higher standard, instead of getting out a new bar more appropriate to our age and lifestyle. There is no such thing as the frumpy mom anymore. Mom jeans have morphed to MILF jeggings, weekend tennies to fuck me Uggs. I’m all for taking care of yourself, for wanting to look nice every now and then, but aging with grace has become as outdated a concept as sewing your own petticoat. Settling comfortably into your gray hair and your childbearing hips just isn’t done anymore – at least not in my neighborhood. At 35 and at 55, we are held to the same standard of beauty that we faced when we were 15 or 20.
Though I can’t help but ask how much of this beauty oppression has more to do with where I live than with the way of the world (please tell it’s not like this where you live!). I spent most of my childhood and the majority of my adult years in and around Los Angeles, an industry town where the main export is beauty. It’s difficult to live in this epicenter of mainstream culture and not be impacted by it – imagine leaving your house everyday and walking into a city populated by actors and models, personal trainers and plastic surgeons, aestheticians and agents.
The result is that even us normal folks – those of us not involved in the film industry in any way shape or form – even us normal folks hold ourselves to the same standard as that actress headed to an open call. Add to this the increasingly pervasive (and perverted) influence of the porn industry (also, of course, based in LA), and you end up living in a town where it is NORMAL to go to a business lunch in the suburbs and see NORMAL middle-aged women teetering down the street on six inch platform heels, top-heavy with platinum hair, puffed up lips and cleavage up to their chins. How is it possible that this has become our normal?
My daughter now is at an age where she memorizes everything I say and mimics everything I do. I’m hyper-aware that the images she sees now will influence how she views herself as she grows into a young woman, and I’m hyper-conscious of how damaging these images of overtly sexual and unrealistically perfect women can be. But these images are inescapable. I can limit her access to television and movies, I can throw away every issue of Vanity Fair that shows up in our mailbox with a cover photo of a half-dressed woman, but I can’t control the billboards she sees when we drive around town or the advertisements she sees at the grocery store. I can’t control whether her classmate at preschool will bring a Barbie lunchbag, or whether the nurse will offer her a Disney Princess sticker after her shot.
And I can’t, it seems, even control the messages she gets from me.
I still stand by my definition of beauty as being something deeper than big lips and little hips, as being something far more complex and fascinating that what the culture I grew up in would have me believe, and it is this multi-layered definition that I hope to pass along to my little girl. But despite all my best intentions, I can’t help but worry that I will pass along instead that version of beauty that I continue to apply so ruthlessly to myself – beauty comes from the inside, but only if the outside looks beautiful too.
My husband and I used to laugh when my daughter would grab my makeup brushes and fluff up her hair while I got dressed for work, but suddenly it doesn’t seem so funny. I feel compelled now to keep her out of the mirror when I put on mascara, feel guilty when she takes notice of my painted nails, feel conflicted when she sees me dressed up and says, Mama Pretty.
Now when my daughter comes into the bathroom and comments on Mama putting on makeup I stop what I’m doing, look at her and say, “Yes, Mama’s putting on makeup. But by the time you’re grown up the world will be a free and equal place, and women won’t be pressured to do silly things like putting on makeup anymore.”