What We Mean when We Call Our Daughters Pretty
“You’re so pretty,” she says.
I am typing into my broken-down Android, letting my husband know I am still at the clinic with my mother. We are waiting for blood work, and then we need to schedule an appointment with a social worker to help us navigate the corruption at her assisted living facility. My mother has dropped more than 15 pounds in three weeks. It’s time to throw in our cards and get some new ones.
I look up, feeling as cracked and ancient as my Android. I laugh out loud. My mother’s casual comment about how I look strikes me as hilarious. I think about the toddler waiting for me at home, and the hours my husband needs to take off from work to watch her, and the hours he will be working into the night to make up for it, and how I feel I have aged about 20 years in the space of two from stress. I keep waiting for the gray hair. As yet, I have been spared this. Perhaps it is waiting for my forties.
“Mom, it doesn’t matter how people look.”
“It does matter.”
I look over at my bird-like mother. She has been through a lot in the last few years. She survived a massive brain bleed and got out of an I.C.U bed to perform a ballet barre class three days after the doctors told us she would never speak or walk again. She knows her social security number and the recipe for lentil soup that my great grandmother taught her when she was a teenager. She can’t tell you what happened a minute ago or where she is, but within that bird frame there is a glimmer. A light is on in at least one front window.
My mom learned early that pretty matters. Remember that lyric from A Chorus Line: “Different is nice but it sure isn’t pretty, pretty is what it’s about?” My grandmother etched this idea into my mother’s brain, and years of working in television wrote over those lines with a Sharpie. When my mother was on I, Spy, she played a seductress. Then they called her to play another one a year later. Her legs were voted the best on Broadway when she was the lead dancer in How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying.) My mother had a lot of boyfriends. I have many of the old love letters she saved, neatly spread in archived family materials. Letters from boyfriends at Princeton. Can you imagine? It’s straight out of A.R. Gurney.
My mother never felt pretty, though. She talked a good game. She told me how important it was to appreciate one’s sex appeal, how grateful one should be to have it, how much easier it made life. It doesn’t seem that it made my mother’s life any easier. Anyway, she never really believed she was attractive. She told me that whenever the camera moved in for a closeup she would try to widen her jaw to make it more photogenic. Her life was marred by a sense of inadequacy, both inside and out.
I spent a lot of years knowing two things with certainty. One, that my mother got the terrible idea that beauty is the most important tool a woman could have from her twisted mother, and two, that I had to shake off her obsession with guarding this highly subjective attribute above all else.
When I had a daughter, I became sure of a third thing: I would NEVER allow her to feel that her looks were something that were anything but an extension of all else that was gorgeous about a person, and about her, specifically. You cannot separate a person’s beauty from her charm and humor and grace and intelligence. It’s all a jumble, and one day, when someone falls in love with her and she with him (or her) that person will find her an exquisite beauty for all these reasons mixed up together.
I arrive home after seven. It is after eight by the time I step out of the shower. It takes many hours for my child to wind down. She has so much to tell me about her day, she wants to know why her grandmother took so much of her mother’s time today and why she couldn’t be with me for it. She is full of questions and longing and very much needing of extra cuddles.
I get her to sleep by eleven o’clock. We rock to one of the old tunes she used to relax to when she was a colicky newborn. I carry her from the couch to the bed and lay her down. A light from the alleyway shines onto her face, like artificial moonlight in a play, dancing past our curtains.
I whisper to my husband, who can hear me on the monitor. “Come here!” I say.
My tired husband leaves his writing desk to join me at the bedside. “What is it?” He whispers.
“She’s so beautiful. I don’t mean the whole package. I mean her face. She is so beautiful, isn’t she? She takes my breath away.”
I gave in. I think my child is beautiful and would be even if she weren’t remarkable in so many other ways.
And then I realize it: all mothers think so.
My mother told me I was pretty all my life because she never would have thought otherwise. She was my mother. She didn’t insist I was pretty because she was unhealthily obsessed with looks. She thought so because I was her daughter. And I am pretty sure parents of sons think the same about the faces of their offspring.
My sister and I were the most beautiful girls in the world to my mother. And so it has been since time began. Whether or not I think it is healthy to tell my daughter so, I will now recognize my right as a mother to think she is the most beautiful creature ever to have walked on two legs. I just might do it in private.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actor living in New York City. She was a nanny for a decade before having a child of her own, who is now nearly three. She writes (of course!) at her blog Hungry Little Animal.