Balancing feminism with caring about what I look like

make up brushes on a vanity table

By Rebecca Knight

It was late evening, just after dinner, and I had stolen away to my bedroom for some moments of solitude. Around me, I could hear the familiar, muffled sounds of my family going about its nighttime business. Downstairs in the kitchen, my husband clanked pots and pans in the sink; across the hallway, my two daughters chatted blithely as they put on their pajamas and laid out their uniforms for school the next morning.

I slipped into my bathroom, ready to begin my nightly ritual. I opened the medicine cabinet and removed my cotton balls, my jade roller, and my assortment of miracle serums, creams, and hope-in-a-jar remedies. Methodically, I laid them on the countertop like a line cook preparing her mise-en-place. I pulled my terry cloth headband over my hairline and studied my reflection: the crescent moons that encircle my mouth, the crinkles around my eyes, and the beige spots that dot my forehead.

As I peered into the mirror, I noticed the shadow of my older daughter standing behind me in the doorway. She looked at me quizzically.

“Why are you making that face?” she asked.

“What face?” I said, locking eyes with her in the mirror.

She slid open the pocket door. “The one you always make.”

At 12, my daughter is still mostly sweet. She has not yet adopted what my father—during my own teenage years—used to half-jokingly call “the air of utter contempt” when she speaks to me. But lately I find myself approaching her like I would a neighbor’s elderly German Shepherd. I am pretty confident it won’t bite, but I am wary, nonetheless.

“I am not making a face,” I said, trying to sound playful, not defensive.

“Yes, you are. Like this.” She tilted her head, half closed her eyes, and puffed out her mouth like a cartoon Kardashian.

I let out an amused sigh and turned toward her. I took in her unlined, supple skin, her uncommonly gray-green eyes and rosy lips, and her lush brown hair, still faintly sun-streaked from summer. I was struck by the realization that she is coming into her beauty precisely at the time when mine is fading.

“You’re so beautiful,” I said.

She twitched and rolled her eyes.

“Don’t you think so?” I asked plaintively.

She looked down and fiddled with the latch on the door. “I don’t really think about it,” she mumbled.

I take some credit for this: I have taught her not to think about it—or at least that thinking about it is unworthy of her time and energy. Throughout her young life, I’ve worked to shapeshift her image of womanhood so that she wouldn’t fall prey to society’s vision of what being a woman means. When she was little, I eschewed Barbies and Disney princess costumes in favor of kiddie engineering kits and Women of NASA Legos. I filled her bookshelves with literature dedicated to female ingenuity, bravery, and smarts. Together with her sister, we made poster board signs and went to the Women’s March on Boston Common.

True to her firstborn nature, she’s been an excellent student. Now that she’s in middle school, we’ve talked about the #MeToo movement, about misogyny and sexism and the injustices that women endure every day—how women’s bodies are objectified, how their accomplishments are held to a higher standard, and how they are paid less than men for doing the same work. Some of my proudest moments as a parent have been the times when I saw her display, unbidden by me, flashes of budding feminism.

“Good girl,” I said, turning toward the mirror. I spritzed a cotton pad with one of my potions. “You shouldn’t think about it.”

“There are better things to think about,” she said slowly. “I agree,” I answered, as I buffed my cheeks in a circular motion.

“But you do,” she said, a tinge of accusation in her voice. “Think about it.”

“Well, when you get to be my age,” I began, but my voice trailed off.

A stab of shame spread through me. I’ve raised my daughter to believe that a preoccupation with one’s appearance is at best trivial, at worst an affront to womankind. But I am a traitor to the cause.

Is this, I wonder, the central shock of adolescence? This moment when children see their parents for the flawed, hypocritical humans they are. When the authority figures—the people they’ve loved and admired—are revealed as phonies and frauds. My daughter is seeing me for who I am: a middle-aged mom with an outward ideology that doesn’t quite match her arsenal of beauty products.

She seemed to sense my inner anguish. “It’s okay to care,” she said. “Everyone should care a little. I care, too—just not that much.” She looked at me thoughtfully. “I don’t think you care too much, Mom.”

My head was full of questions. Was she saying this purely for my benefit? Was she trying salve my emotional wounds—“There, there, Mommy, you’re not that shallow?” Was she giving me permission to care about my vanity? Was she telling me that I’d done a good enough job transposing my feminist values onto her, and that she knew the limits of tending to one’s looks versus obsessing over them?

It’s too late for me. At this point, I’ve already fallen prey to the immense pressure that society puts on women to try to look a certain way. I may be a liberated, modern woman, but I am also more than a little bit skin-deep.

It’s not too late for my daughter, however. The idea of self-acceptance—even in the in the face of the all-powerful beauty industrial complex—needn’t feel like a scam for her. She doesn’t need abide by impossible standards.

I put my arm around her shoulders. She felt slight but strong. I vowed to try to set a better example. “You’re right,” I said.

I took off my terrycloth headband and turned to leave. But as I went to switch off the light, I caught my reflection in the mirror. Was that a gray hair?

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist and feminist mom, whose writing has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, and Harvard Business Review among others. She lives in the Boston’s South End with her husband and two daughters.

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