My 13-year-old daughter is blessed with uncommon beauty. The first time I noticed my child standing out from the crowd was at her ballet recital. She came on stage and people around me began whispering, “Look at her. What a beauty.” I was shocked to see the beauty they were referring to, the tall girl with long, shiny, dark hair, olive skin and dancing black eyes, was mine.
Her beauty has side effects. She gets called on more in class and is perceived as “smarter” than some of her less attractive classmates. Salespeople give us extra attention. Adult friends speculate on what she will look like when she’s 16. Her father shakes his head with worry when teen-age boys turn and watch her walk. Total strangers come up to us in malls and grocery stores and say, “Your daughter is so beautiful.” We smile and try to be gracious. She is embarrassed, and I try to deal with my panic.
Panic? How on Earth could there be a single thing wrong with having a beautiful daughter? It’s what the magazines, books and movies all recommend for perfect happiness. It’s proven that good-looking job candidates get the position over less attractive ones. Beauty, complete with slender body type, is one’s ticket to anything.
But I fear for her. I fear that she will consider her beauty as something she has “accomplished” rather than something she has been born with. After all, she receives more compliments for her shiny hair than for her performance in academics. She is praised for her sparkling eyes more than her ability on the championship softball team. And she’s aware that boys are watching her. Aware, embarrassed and intrigued.
Meanwhile, I watch her too. Careful to pounce when she spends more time in front of the mirror than curled up with a book. Quick to put down her requests for clothes and accessories. Overboard with encouragement in sports and math. I am happy she perceives herself as attractive. So many of her friends are already mourning the gene-pool lottery. Most of her girlfriends are veterans of Sugar Busters and stare silently as my daughter opens a candy bar or crunches potato chips. I see it in their eyes. I can remember what it felt like to be the only one ordering mashed potatoes.
At 13 years old, her friends are figuring out that she’s getting a free ride and they have to ante up the admission price. She’s unaware of their envy, but I am not.
I am a realist, and I know that my daughter’s physical beauty will provide her with a foundation for lifelong self-esteem. It will also open doors, smooth paths and help win friends. But it carries its own price tag — one not everyone can see and that may not come due for years. Why feel angst over what appears to be a blessing?
The answer is due to the nature of physical beauty; the danger of relying on that beauty and the despair when physical beauty goes. She is so young. There is still the chance that puberty will kick her around. She may develop acne, put on weight, become awkward. She may be one people remember as that once beautiful child, shaking their head with pity for beauty lost. She may lose her beauty in other ways such as a car accident, disease, a change in society’s standard of beauty.
There are tragedies associated with putting all your eggs in one beauty basket. She may find so much gratification in merely being beautiful that she doesn’t develop into the fine person she should become. She may focus her young growing years on ways to become more attractive, more appealing, thinner. She may never get over being beautiful at 13.
“She should go into modeling,” said the sales woman as I completed my purchase. I stopped writing a check, my pen held midair. “She wants to be a teacher,” I replied, icy with anger, out of proportion to the kindly remark.
I want to tell strangers to stop commenting on my daughter’s looks. I want boys to notice her sweet spirit, and I want our society to start a beauty contest with criteria such as good nature, values, kindness and ability to achieve goals other than displaying beauty. But that is only a wistful dream. Beauty will always be valued, and the loss of beauty will always be mourned.
I know women who have devoted their lives to retaining beauty. They go from plastic surgeon to dermatologist to aerobics class. They define their existence by attempting to stay beautiful and young. Models in fashion magazines have bodies closer to my daughter’s than to the women who will buy the clothes. In a society that labels a 13-year-old as a perfect beauty, all others need not apply.
I was considered beautiful, once. Total strangers used to tell me I would be a great beauty when I grew up. In my deepest core, I believed them. It was a source of self-esteem and also one of insecurity. Did I get the job because I was attractive or because I was smart? Did the guy ask me out for me or to show me off?
I was always fearful of too-handsome men; they had it too easy and were too used to having attractive girl friends. While my girlfriends would pine for David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman, my fantasies evolved around the Hunchback of Notre Dame or the Phantom of the Opera. I would have been a sucker for an Internet romance, where someone would get to know me for me. I never knew for sure, and it was not the kind of question that would endear me to friends. When they were bonding with the grapefruit diet or Weight Watchers, I would be in the library, reading history and biographies, left out of the circle of chicks and looking for things to dream about.
Now, I can view the whole thing with a wry smile. It was fun while it lasted; it opened doors and closed some too. I may have missed out on a Phantom because he judged me by the cover. Now, as time marches through my body, bringing gray hair and laugh lines, I do know one thing for sure. There is one truth I want my young beautiful daughter to know, to spare her the pain of believing otherwise.