Monday, July 04, 2005


Notes towards something more cohesive someday:

I've been thinking about beauty. What it means, what it's good for, and particularly what it's not good for. Mermaid Girl's particular brand of blond-little-girl beauty, to be specific.

Maybe it's because I'm in Lost Angeles this weekend, Land of the Beautiful People (and yes, Aleeska Air did eventually find us two seats together so Mermaid Girl didn't have to sit by herself in a center row, though the woman at the gate was dopier about it than I would've imagined possible), or maybe it's because we've been spending time with my Uncle Sailorman, who has some old-fashioned "thank-heaven-for-little-girls" ideas about girls and women and can't stop talking about what a looker MG is.

Or maybe it's because I've just read two books--White Oleander and the third Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book--each of which features a strikingly beautiful blond character who is deeply flawed as a person, and whose flaws are bound up with her beauty in a sort of looks-ist version of the pathetic fallacy.

Or it could be the attention MG's been getting at all the parades and festivals we've been to lately: the Fremont Fair, then Pride, then the fireworks at Santa Monica College the other night. Mostly Mermaid Girl's life is made up of people she knows, in familiar places. But at these huge gatherings of strangers, MG gets the kind of attention I don't ever remember getting. People--total strangers--give her things--necklaces, flowers, garlands of ribbons--just because she's pretty and blond. I know it's not just because she's a cute kid, because Jessie is adorable, and we were with some family friends at the fireworks whose kids are as cute as you could wish--and no one was giving them stuff. It was weird and kind of embarrassing to RW and me.

I've been wanting to write about this for a while, and hesitated because I don't want to be kind of back-handed braggy. After all, who doesn't want people to think their kid is gorgeous? And it's not like I'm not captivated by her beauty, myself, and I'm conflicted about that too. If she was a funny-looking kid, would I love her less? Am I that shallow? I'm a feminist and a lesbian, for goddesss sake! This is not me! And yet I look at her little heart-shaped face and the wisps of cornsilk hair fallen out of her braids, and my heart swells with...pride? What's to be proud about? She didn't do anything to get this. It's a gift, freaky and random. I just hope it's not a poisoned one.

I've never felt like looks were that important. And I vaguely heard about studies where people who are considered conventionally attractive tend to earn more, etc...I just never understood how deep that advantage goes.

And of course the racist subtext of all the fawning over blondness.

Our moms might tell you different, but neither RW nor I was ever that kind of beautiful as a kid, so we don't know how to deal with it. And no one born into my Eastern-European-Jewish family has *ever* been blond, as you can imagine. RW has brown hair, and so does MG's biodad, the dashing Uncle Skaterboy. So when I first saw that shock of yellow-white hair on our newborn baby's head in the delivery room, I was...shocked. Both of us were. It was as if our child had pulled together all the genes she could find to make the strongest possible immediate statement that she was not like us, not a little miniature nerdy elswhere/Renaissance Woman meld, but her own person entirely. "I feel like we thought we're the parents of a baby tiger," RW said that night, and I knew just what she meant.

Looks are what we have, our calling card, our face is what people see first. (Except on the Internet. I guess that's why the Internet has that weird kind of intimacy--you see the core of someone before you see the surface, it's all backwards.) Mostly, people look just regular, you notice that, and then you find out what they're like. But when someone's looks are striking--if they're unusually beautiful, or if they have some other distinguishing feature that makes people more uncomfortable, like RW's cleft palate that looked worse when she was a kid--it's like they *become* their looks, their looks overwhelm anything else you might notice about who they are as a person.

(This has happened to me at times in my life when my psoriasis has been really bad. But I've always felt like because I didn't get it until I was 16, when my sense of myself was pretty well formed already, it didn't affect the way I felt about myself, even if it affected the way other people saw me.)

MG's getting old enough to notice some of this, now. I don't want her to: don't want her to use it, to take advantage of it, to think that she is how she looks. We try to downplay it, to emphasize other things like smart thinking and politeness and kindness and courage, but then we sabotage ourselves by going on about how she looks good in some outfit or other, or with her hair in braids.

It's made me think about other random gifts: intelligence, for one, which I've always been proud of. But maybe that's just as bad as someone giving MG a flower just because she's blond? Maybe she is her looks, after all, as much as I am my smarts? Or, conversely, I have as little to to with that as she does with her hair?

I always hated that line, I forget who wrote it, "Only God, my dear, could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair." But now I seem to be living it.


Blogger Jo said...

Wow, yes. It totally makes sense. I wonder how much she'll be aware of it, and when? I mean, it might be that she is so used to it that she doesn't even see it as she grows up. Or just the opposite. She sounds pretty outgoing, though, so she'll probably be kind of into it. How interesting!

8:32 PM  
Blogger That Girl said...

I know exactly what you mean - it is a very confusing conundrum. I have to make a concious decision to to fall into sterotypes and praise my nieces for their good points in all areas - the truth is that one of them is breathtakingly pretty and the other has traits I dislike in myself. I always hope the effort I make pays off.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Rosie Bonner said...

With weight gain and age, it's no longer an issue, but when I was a teenager, slender and with waist-length blond hair and regular features, I sometimes turned heads, and it felt really weird. Kind of powerful in a creepy way, and kind of just creepy. I remember thinking in high school that there were days when I felt ugly and hated it, and those were the worst days; there were days that I felt pretty and liked it, and those were good days; but the very best days were when I felt ugly and liked it.

7:44 PM  
Blogger PPB said...

I have two nieces, that are both very cute, but one is beautiful in a very conventional way. It's been wierd and a little hard to see how the two of them are treated in public. It actually scares me. Perfect strangers are drawn to my niece just because she looks a certain way, and that makes me feel really protective of her. Luckily both of them are oblivious of it so far, but I wonder how it will affect their teenage years.

This is a really interesting post.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


"Never shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-colored
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair."

"But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair."

"I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair."

--W.B. Yeats

So it seems to be a poem about the impossibility of women escaping their beauty. Or a poem about how yucky old men collude with yucky young men against haplessly blonde women.

I will add that no-one has ever, ever given me a flower based on my brains. Particularly not at a parade. But it might happen one day.


4:29 PM  
Blogger LilySea said...

If it's any comfort at all, I was quite blonde until I was around 12 or 14 (don't quite remember) and now I have brown hair. Many of my family members had the same pattern, so maybe that's what's up with MG's blonde in spite of bio-parents' traits.

My mother is always telling people about her blonde daughter, then they meet me and are confused. She seems to have frozen my looks in her mind to a younger age and a more conventional beauty.

Which annoys me. Because I'm not blonde and that's quite all right.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

It's a toughie, all right. My 6yo daughter has big blue eyes that even total strangers comment on -- and she also has HUGE and very prominent ears. Why should I, a total non-makeup-wearing doesn't-give-a-hoot-about-personal- appearances person, worry so much about those ears? And how come I can't stop myself from complimenting her when she chooses a nice outfit?

4:20 AM  
Anonymous Liza said...

I just stumbled upon your blog, and am enjoying it immensely. The lovely wife (Mrs Boo, actually) and I are pregnant for the first time, and love reading about families a little further along on this adventure.

I had that platinum blond adorable girl thing going on until I was around 8 or 9...which was the same time I got glasses and other kids realized that I was a huge nerd.

For the next 20 or 25 years, I really looked the way I thought of myself: geeky, offbeat, not conventionally girly.

Then a couple of years ago, I reclaimed being pretty and blond. I even pay for the blond. So far, no adverse impact on the inner geek, and I have to admit, it makes day to day life go a little bit more easily.

Don't worry too much about Mermaid Girl's blondness. As long as she knows that there are other important things in life, like being compassionate, working hard, whatever her Moms' value most, being a beautiful blond won't do any harm. IMO, the beautiful children who suffer are the ones whose families overvalue their looks to the exclusion of other attributes.

7:36 PM  

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