By Erin Ott
Gracie has been sneaking into my makeup collection. I’ll find lipsticks uncapped in my bedroom, or little specks of eyeshadow powder in the bathroom sink. Sometimes she’ll squirrel away one of my lipsticks until she emerges randomly from her room days later with plum lips decorating her crooked smile.
Since she’s clearly shown an interest in playing with makeup, I thought there would be no harm in providing my nine-year-old with a basic set of her own. I took her to the store and we picked out items that boasted price tags under $2: three shades of Wet n’ Wild lipsticks, a vibrant eyeshadow palette that could have been titled “Clown Face,” and some simple mascara. When we got home, she immediately opened her Caboodle and leaned into her reflection in the pop-up mirror, foam eyeshadow wand in hand.
When it came time to leave the house again, Gracie came downstairs in a cloud of some of my old perfume like a glamorous Pigpen. Her eyelids were little robins’ eggs; her lips, two streaks of neon pink. She smiled as she walked toward me. I cupped her face in my hands and noted her eyelashes fanning out in little clumps. Faint ghostly pink smudges colored the skin around her mouth, evidence of trying to correct errant lipstick lines. I debated whether I should take her out in public with her face so…vibrant, and ultimately settled on yes. She was happy with it, so I wouldn’t get in her way.
Then came some more formal occasions. A daddy/daughter dance. A wedding shower. Each time, Gracie could not wait to put on one of her favorite dresses and again paint her face like a little freckled canvas. I began to feel a little self-conscious as she posed for pictures next to her conspicuously natural-faced friends and cousins. I began worrying about what other people might think. I could easily see Isn’t she a little young? dancing around the tops of some other women’s heads. I had already engaged in conversations before with other parents about various milestones that girls encounter and how to regulate them. When should my daughter get a piercing? When is she old enough to wear makeup? When should she wear a true bikini versus a racerback two-piece? Shave her legs? When, when, when?
I remember distinctly that my father wouldn’t allow me to wear a two piece suit at all, and he definitely did not approve of makeup—even the Bonne Bell play kind. When I had playdates with kids of more “relaxed” parents, I can remember borrowing two-piece suits and putting on the makeup, only to return the suit or wipe off the lipstick long before Dad came to pick me up. If I asked him, he would say that little girls shouldn’t wear makeup, show their bodies, fill in the blank. I probably asked him a million times Why?? But now, I hear the same thoughts in my head that start with “little girls shouldn’t…”
On the way to a wedding shower, I stole glances at Gracie in the back of the van via the rearview mirror. She wore a blue tie-dye dress and her favorite hot pink lips and electric blue eyes. I said, “Gracie, maybe you should tone down the eye shadow a little bit. Wipe it with your finger so that it’s not so bright.”
She considered my suggestion and agreed, but understandably asked, “Why?”
The answer wasn’t on the tip of my tongue, so I settled on, “Because when you go to a daytime event, makeup should be lighter.”
When I next glanced back, she had produced a lipstick from the depths of the van seat and was beginning to reapply. I said, “Gracie, you really don’t need more makeup. You shouldn’t wear too much.”
“Well, you wear a lot of makeup.”
Hmm. That is relatively true. I wear makeup, and I like it.
I threw out the easier reasons to see if she would bite:
“It’s for grown ups.”
“…You don’t need makeup to be beautiful. You’re already beautiful.”
“So are you.”
She shot down each of my arguments quickly. Adeptly. So, I stopped and reconsidered. Though I wear makeup often, I like to pretend that it’s a completely unnecessary part of my daily existence, that I could go out one night for dinner without carefully adorning my face and still feel beautiful. That’s also what I want my daughter to believe about me, but it’s not true. Somewhere along the line, I bought into a narrative that told me women are happier with wine-colored lips and thick, black eyelashes.
And yet here I was trying to convince my daughter that it was a ridiculous idea, while my face, at that very same moment, revealed the darker truth. I wondered if I was naive in thinking that I could allow my daughter to joyfully experiment with make up without society’s ideals about a woman’s appearance tagging along. Without my own baggage tagging along.
I find myself torn between wanting to buck the narrative that women must look a certain way, and wanting to change it. I’m torn between ditching the makeup altogether and wearing it despite what society says. Perhaps by allowing my nine-year-old to experiment with her appearance and create her own reality, I can put the power back in her hands.
Don’t get me wrong. I still struggle with how the world looks at my daughter because I feel compelled to protect her. But I’d like to make decisions about her milestones independent of society’s rules. When she first shaves or wears a bikini should be about when she’s comfortable (in the case of bikinis) and/or responsible (in the case of razors in the bathroom), not about cultural norms. It’s a tall order, but it’s important.
I want my daughter to do things that make her feel confident, to not feel like she has to shrink into the background in case someone might disapprove. I want to be her supporter, and not her voice of judgment, when it comes to how she looks. As her mother, I refuse to feed the shouldn’ts. I’ll do all I can to empower her to redefine the shoulds.
Erin Ott is a writer, mother, and middle school teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. She can often be found debating life’s mysteries with her children during cruises in their mini van. More of Erin’s thoughts on the intersection of parenting and life can be found on her blog, Betty Zinkan’s House.
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