My 9-year-old daughter believes with all her little heart that looks don’t matter. This is something I know because she announces it. Daily. Embarrassingly. When I am in the salon. When I put on makeup. When she sees a woman applying lipstick. “Looks don’t matter,” she says again and again. I love her spunk. I love that she believes it. But I also know it’s not true.
The reality is that while she is right that what is on the inside matters more and that it is certainly possible to care too much about looks and not enough about other things, we live in a world and in a culture where looks do matter. Very much, in fact.
Of course in progressive, educated circles, that’s not the story line. “The only thing that matters is what’s on the inside,” my daughter is told in countless self-esteem building workshops and her all-girls camp and her various sports teams and activities. I love the message. I do. But I know I send a confusing message back to her when I spend at least three hours each week getting plucked, polished, waxed, and straightened at my salon. She knows where I am going and she knows how I look when I come back.
“I love your toe color,” she might tell me on a week where I got a particularly pink and sparkly pedicure and she’s come with me more than a few times. But the last time I was in the salon to get my hair blown out (something I do once a week), my 9-year-old walked around telling anyone who would listen that they were wasting their time and money. “Looks don’t matter,” she told us all.
One woman at the salon explained that actually, if it makes you feel good, it does matter. And that’s true. But there is also another, more insidious truth that all girls learn at one point or another: Looks do matter. They are the first thing people see about us and, like it or not, they are what people base their first impression on.
I don’t care how enlightened a person claims to be. It is impossible not to make some judgments based on appearance. The clothing we wear, our hair style (is it brushed and neat or unkempt?), our nails, our jewelry, our weight, our makeup. It’s all the stuff snap judgments are built on. Sure, those things can be wrong and it’s always vital to keep an open mind. But I also can’t pretend the world is something other than it is.
My daughter doesn’t want to brush her hair. Or wear matching socks. Or take a bath (much). I have forced her hand on the latter because good hygiene is a must. But it’s not just about hygiene. As her mother, I am well aware that her appearance reflects on me. That unkempt hair she loves so much? Might make other moms think I am neglecting her. Those mismatched socks bely the $100 worth of brand new, sparkling socks that line her sock drawer that I bought for her. It’s not easy to let these things go with her.
And it’s not easy to let them go with myself. I admit that looking good is a crutch for me. I feel best when I am waxed to perfection, my hair newly blown out, my nails and toes short and polished, and my eyebrows threaded to perfection. Is that really so bad?
Girls learn quickly that their worth in the world is related to how much they conform to the beauty standards of the day and while I don’t want that for my daughter, I also want her to understand those choices have consequences. We don’t live in a “looks don’t matter” society yet. That’s the reality.
For now, it is enough to tell her not to shame people in the salon. After all, we all have the right to make our own choices. As for me, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. It makes me feel good. But I won’t force her hand on conforming. Why burst her bubble? Society will do that soon enough for me.