“Ima,” said my 3-year-old daughter the other day. “My hair isn’t very long. Not like Maya’s.”
“That’s right, sweetheart,” I answered, slowly working through a particularly knotted patch on the back of her head. “Your hair is curly, while your friend’s hair is straight. Curls don’t grow as long.” She sat in silence for a while, uncharacteristically still on my lap. I breathed in the scent of conditioner, looked at the stripe of light that fell across the two of us, and could feel my whole body relaxing into this rare moment of peace.
But that peace was shattered when a very quiet, very weary sigh escaped my daughter’s lips. “Maya’s hair is more beautiful,” she whispered wistfully. “I wish I had long hair, like her.”
My hands stilled, and in the next few minutes, it was as if I split into two different people. Externally, I was the responsible, calm mother who kept the conversation going and found the right words to ease her daughter’s pain. But inside, I was the 12-year-old girl I used to be.
I was that awkward girl who watched her friends gliding into womanhood, and wondered if there was some memo that I missed. Because there those friends were, graceful and confident, handling body hair and bra sizes without a hitch. And there I was, womanhood written on my body in new curves and burgeoning discomfort, wondering in growing desperation how to handle this new stage.
“This isn’t my style,” my friend once said about a blouse in a store. I picked up the discarded garment and stared at it, looking for answers in the fabric. What was it about this particular combination of softness and whiteness and trims that constituted “style”? Where was its inadequacy for my friend encoded? How did she simply, and effortlessly, know?
And why, I wondered later, starring into my pained eyes in the mirror, couldn’t I have my own style?
“I want to be beautiful, like Maya,” my daughter said, and the little girl who once couldn’t get her hair to stay put, or her shirts to match her skirts, resurfaced within me, that old familiar taste of failure on her lips. Four years ago, when my daughter was little more than cells and kicks inside my body, I promised myself that she will never feel as inadequate as I did in my youth. I wanted my daughter to know that there is more than one way to “do Womanhood,” that she doesn’t have to be pretty-a-la-Disney to be wonderful.
Before she could even understand my words, I told my daughter stories about strong, capable women..Now I let her wear her older brother’s clothes and experiment with building blocks and mud and climbing, and have bitten my tongue whenever a, “but be careful with your dress –” threatened to escape. I have encouraged, empowered, and challenged her, and yet here she sat, her face forlorn, pining to be pretty–like her friend.
While my daughter forgot all about our conversation soon after, I couldn’t follow suit. The memories that reared their head within me lingered, as did the worry that I’m somehow doing something wrong. How can I protect my daughter from measuring herself by some silly standard of femininity when she craves everything that’s pink and cute and girly? How can I spare her that bitter taste of falling short?
And so it was that I was particularly raw and vulnerable a few days later, when my daughter happily announced that she wants to be a princess for Purim.
“No,” I said right away, rather too forcefully, slamming on the brakes. A gallery of narrow-waisted, superficially-pretty role models filled my vision, gleefully crowding out all the women scientists and authors I want my daughter to admire.
“Why not be something different, like a witch? Or an animal. You like animals, right?”
But my daughter simply shook her head, curls bouncing. “No, I will be a princess,” she declared. “I will have a puffy skirt and clicky shoes and a pretty, shiny crown.”
I turned around and looked at her. I looked into her eyes, and the confidence within them. I looked at the way her face shone as she imagined her costume and planned out the future. And it suddenly hit me that this self-confidence is exactly what I’ve been trying so hard to instill in her.
Sure, I’d like my daughter to choose a different costume (and better role models). But more than anything, I want her to have the confidence to choose and strive and set her goals. This is exactly what I promised myself four years ago when I was pregnant with her.
I grew up to be a happy, confident woman despite my failure to rise to the girly-girl standard of femininity as a teenager, because no matter how inadequate I felt back then, my family always encouraged me to be myself. My parents appreciated my accomplishments and lauded my experiments and always made it clear that I was wonderful just as I was. Whenever I huffed at my inability to match colors, my mother would say, “You have great traits. You have imagination, and talents, and common sense. These will help you so much later on.” And her words stayed with me, and consoled me when I couldn’t understand what was this thing called “style.”
My daughter will encounter difficulties regardless of the models she will choose to follow. And yes, the girly-girl way of “doing Womanhood” can hurt her, badly, down the line: Commercials and movies will try to lure her through it, and subject her to standards no one can meet. But if I want her to have the fortitude to overcome such difficulties—if I want her to be able to fail, and rise, and remain the confident little woman starring at me from the back sit—I must empower her to follow her own path, and her imagination.
“Sure sweetheart, let’s make you a princess costume,” I said, and resumed driving. We spent the rest of the ride discussing color schemes and fabrics. In a few days, when she will wear the completed ensemble and twirl around the house, short curls flying underneath her crown, I will tell her that she’s beautiful. I will cheer as she carves out her own way to be a woman in the world.