Renfro with her daughter.
As a teenager I—like countless others—spent too much time staring critically into mirrors and wishing myself into someone else. I was too tall, too big, my face too broad. My shortcomings seemed so severe that no amount of dieting or plastic surgery could have ever transformed me into the petite, thin-faced waif I most desired to be. I would have given anything, even IQ points, to be shrunk down to a five-foot, ninety-pound beauty with dark, haunted eyes in a gaunt, hollow-cheeked face.
My teenage self would hardly recognize me now, two decades and a whole mindset removed from those tortured years.
I’m too busy to think about my appearance. I put on makeup about once a year. I wear glasses because I don’t like the way contact lenses feel. I rarely get on a scale or put on jewelry. I don’t wear high heels because they’re uncomfortable. I don’t do my nails because I’d rather be doing something else. I don’t blow dry my hair because the air will dry it just fine and with less effort. On most days I do manage to run a brush through my hair. I might glance quickly in the mirror. I put on whatever pair of shoes I happen to find nearby. I tend to wear whatever is on top in the drawer. Shopping for clothes is a bore. Going to a mall feels like punishment.
I have two young kids and about a dozen writing projects going. I have a lot of walks and hikes I’d like to take, a lot of trees and gardens I’d like to see, a lot of books I’d like to read, a lot of meals I’d like to cook, and a lot of living I’d like to do. I just don’t have time to look in a mirror and wish I was someone else.
I am past all that.
Except that I’m not because I have a daughter.
Since the day she was born, we’ve been praising her for her intelligence. “What a smart girl!” we’d exclaim every time she uttered a new word, every time she solved a problem.
She is a smart girl. At eighteen months she could say three hundred words. She was speaking long, complex sentences by two. Now at six, she can speak in paragraphs, in veritable soliloquies, expressing herself in ways that make adults raise their eyebrows, blithely uttering words like precariously, disintegrate, simultaneously, unfortunately, diabolical, vice versa, clandestine, askew, peculiar, unreliable, absent-mindedly. I could go on and on.
And yet, I knew it was bound to come—the exact nature of the “it” unspecified—though I wasn’t expecting it to come so soon, in kindergarten, when she was only five. The “it” turned out to be simply this: a boy in her class called her fat. She reported this to me after school one day.
Outwardly, I tried not to make a big deal of it. I don’t even remember my response verbatim, something along the lines of: what a rude thing to say; it’s a reflection of him and not you; it isn’t true. But inwardly, I was thrown into turmoil: Did he even know what he was saying? Or was it merely a generic insult? Was it just a mean thing to say to a girl, on par with calling her stupid? But if he had called her stupid, I would have scoffed and blown it off: ha, you know that’s not true! Why am I so sensitive to this? Because this offhand insult reduces me to that self-conscious schoolgirl again? Because I don’t want my daughter to go through what I went through?
“She’s your little mini-me!” exclaimed an acquaintance upon seeing us together recently. And it’s true: my daughter resembles me. People comment on it all the time. “She looks just like you,” they say. “I can’t believe how much you two look alike.”
She’s a big girl, one of the tallest in her class. I was a big girl, and I hated it. I hated being taller than everyone else. I was mortified when a boy told me, with undisguised repulsion, that I was “huge.” It implied meatiness, solidness, as well as great stature. It implied unattractiveness.
Boys who are “huge” can be linebackers, they can win fights, and they can serve as models for smaller boys, but girls who are “huge” might as well do their best to blend into the wallpaper until high school is over. Or so was my experience.
After being in the world and meeting many people, I learned that I am not, in fact, “huge.” I am 5’8” with a weight within the “normal” range. Yet after reaching my full adult size by thirteen, for a great many years I felt like a hulking giant. And now, I can’t believe I wasted nearly a decade of my life hating my so-called hugeness. And I don’t want my daughter to expend her energies on self-loathing when there is so much more to think about and do.
Shortly after the incident at school, I caught her studying herself in the mirror. “I don’t like my face,” she told me. “It’s too wide.”
On another mirror-gazing occasion, she announced, “I want to change something about myself.”
“What do you want to change?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Something about the way I look.”
My husband and I believed that if we praised her appearance, we would make her feel that we valued physical beauty over other traits. And yet now, I fear that by not praising her appearance, we undermine her confidence.
My daughter does not watch television with advertising. She’s never had a Barbie doll. She never wore the “Daddy’s Little Princess” pink-and-frilly style of clothes. She’s gone to dinosaur camp and taken a class about trains. We tell her she can be anything she wants to be: a bricklayer or a paleontologist, an artist or a writer, a teacher or a dancer, a doctor or an engineer, a dendrochronologist or an ichthyologist. (Yes, she knows these words.)
And yet, often it feels as though we’re engaged in a losing battle, fighting the images of anorexic women that my daughter sees on magazine covers at the supermarket, fighting the armies of Barbies that infiltrate kindergarten classrooms, fighting the thoughtless comments of five-year-old boys, fighting the inappropriate wardrobes of some grammar school girls, fighting the tyranny of conformity that holds so many of us locked in private grief over issues that are, at heart, ludicrously petty.
In “How to Talk to Little Girls,” Lisa Bloom suggests that when engaging a young girl in conversation, we should begin not by commenting on her physical features or dress but rather by asking about her intellectual pursuits, such as reading. She writes:
nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat…fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers…
Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.
I came to terms with the fact that the mainstream media’s preoccupations do not align with my own interests years ago. Most often I handle this by simply ignoring the mainstream. Adults have this option. Children and adolescents, however, often do not—or they feel they do not—because they find themselves trapped within the insular, toxic world of peer pressure.
“I’m not into princesses,” my daughter announces. If you ask her, she’ll tell you she much prefers witches and skeletons and trains. And though her friends have Barbies and she plays with them at their houses, she hasn’t—so far—asked for one herself. Her favorite dolls are two handmade rag dolls in native dress from Uganda. They are suitably lumpy and misshapen, as all good ragdolls are. Cradling them, she tells me that today, she just wants to be a mom. When she grows up, she’ll decide the rest.
And there’s this: A man at a Christmas party, trying to be friendly, told my daughter she was “bella,” which, he explained, meant she was beautiful.
She fumed all the way home: “That man called me bella! That means beautiful. That made me so angry! I don’t want to be called beautiful. I want to be called smart. Because to be smart you have to work hard, you have to study and you have to learn how to read and write and you have to use your brain. But to be beautiful you don’t have to do anything. Some people just are that way, and they didn’t do anything to get that way. So I never want to be called bella again. If anyone ever says that to me again, I’m going to yell at them.”
I bit my tongue and suppressed a smile.
I catch my daughter looking in the mirror again. “You’re a beautiful girl,” I tell her. She looks at me dubiously. And I don’t know if she doubts the truth of my statement or if she’s questioning its relevance to who she is. Either way, she is a beautiful girl. And I’ll tell her again—but only after I’ve told her that she’s smart, a hundred times, or a thousand, or as many as it takes.
Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World (Black Lawrence Press, 2010). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader’s Digest, Blue Mesa Review, Fourth River, Bayou Magazine, Untamed Ink, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.