Twelve's kinda pretty. Quite lovely, actually. She's tall and slender, with long thick hair, blue eyes, minimal acne, orthodontically-enhanced smile, the whole bit. She even has a great sense of fashion, even if this does mean that straightening her hair occasionally counts as an activity.
As a reasonably privilege-aware person and a parent, this puts me in a weird position. Do I ensure high self-esteem for Twelve by assuring her that she's beautiful and encouraging her to love herself (ie, sell out), or maintain my principles by eschewing the false values of the dominant culture and ignoring her looks, running the risk that she won't feel good about herself?
This may sound like I'm setting up a false dichotomy, all strawpersonlike, but when your perfectly healthy child experiments with claiming that she's fat, making her calf wobble to show you her 'chub,' that's precisely your position. Rock to the left, impossibly hard place to the right.
Principles out the window: "You're beautiful and your body is perfect, honey, don't be ridiculous," I said in a tone of voice that attempted to balance sincerity with a refusal to legitimize the possibility that there's anything wrong with her body. Because this is impossible, I followed up with a fairly desperate soliloquy about the complete unreality of media imagery and the ubiquity of these unreal portrayals of women's bodies.
Using pretty much those terms. Shockingly, she quickly lost interest.
Orthodontia is another point of departure from my principled positions. On paper, I scoff at the overvaluation of physical attractiveness, and hold that people with crooked teeth are every bit as worthy as folks with straight teeth. In reality, when my girl turned out to have inherited my overbite and huge front teeth, off to the orthodontist we went. I came across a box of old photos the other day and I'll freely admit to experiencing a distinct feeling of relief that Twelve's teeth are en route to perfection.
All of this conflict between principle and reality boils down to one possibly sad truth: As a parent, I want the best for my child. I want her to be happy. I want Twelve to be successful, even though the current construction of success requires the failure of some. I want Twelve to think of herself as being attractive. Even though I'd like her to be able to see the beauty inherent to everyone and work to deconstruct the cult of feminine beauty, I'll settle for her feeling good about herself because she's one of the pretty ones. Call me selfish if you must - I don't care.
This doesn't mean I'm not a 'good' social justice advocate (whatever that means). It doesn't mean I don't understand the many harms done by privilege and oppression. It doesn't mean that I'm teaching Twelve that she's better than other people because she's good-looking.
It means that I understand that we social justice advocates do not live in the world we are trying to create. It means that I'm pragmatic about beauty and the role it plays in our culture. We live in a crappy world, and we have to deal with that somehow. If we have to play by the rules to a certain extent to make the best of it on an individual level, then so be it. I'm not going to make my daughter miserable in an attempt to change the world. It's just not worth it.
For awhile, I wore my hair cut short in a deliberate attempt to relinquish the social power of having long hair. When it started growing out, I realized that I liked the feeling of long hair on my shoulders and its movement while dancing, and pretty soon I had long hair again. I decided that my own individual experience of enjoying my hair was more important than making a statement by keeping it short.
I'm not going to overwhelm Twelve with gushing compliments about her appearance. I'm not going to steer her toward the latest beauty products (she does quite enough of that on her own, thank you very much). I'm not going to tell her to watch what she eats (except to insist on the occasional green vegetable).
I am going to teach her to see through society's false values. I'll try really hard to frame comments about appearance in contexts of hygiene or age-appropriateness instead of social class or femininity. I'm going to encourage her to identify and work against privilege and oppression.
But you know what, Twelve? You're beautiful and you're wonderful and don't let anyone make you believe otherwise.