Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.

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Made-up Freedom: On Why Both I and My Daughter Need Me to Break the Chains of Beauty Ideals

At church this morning our adult sunday school was discussing various approaches to the Lenten fast (the practice of either “giving something up” or committing to some new discipline for the 40 days of Lent). I won’t rehearse the whole rich discussion here, but one particular idea struck a chord with me.

It was the story of a mother with two young daughters who gave up looking in the mirror.

I think some of our group members found this idea a bit strange as a way of preparing one’s heart for Holy Week, but I immediately knew this was a profound thing to do, as both a woman and as a mother.

First, as a woman:

One of the major implications of this decision immediately struck even the men in the group. “How would she put on her make-up?” I think all the women probably knew the answer to that question: she couldn’t. To say nothing of the likelihood of serious eye injuries from wildly waving mascara wands, there would be no point in the effort. Without a mirror, any make-up application would be virtually guaranteed to be disastrous. Better to go bare than to risk lopsided cheekbones, wobbly lip color, and the dreaded poorly blended foundation line along the jawbone. Obviously, the woman in question is going without make-up for these seven weeks.

This drew my mind to the no-make-up internet trend of the past few months. It’s a theme that suddenly started popping up in my Facebook feed around early February. First there was the cancer awareness challenge. The idea was to invite (i.e. challenge) friends to post a no-make-up selfie to their own FB wall and then make a donation to help fund cancer fighting research. Unfortunately, the donation part got a bit scrambled (I had to do a bit of research off of Facebook about the point of the whole thing to even hear about the donation element), but there were sure a lot of bare faces in the newsfeed. I supposed that even with the missed opportunity, the effort was still positive since it came with a general celebration of embracing one’s inner beauty without the façade.

Then, there was the frighteningly powerful Sacred Scared series on Momastery, which hosted 10 guest bloggers sharing, in short but compelling confessions, the deepest fears that they had to face in doing work they feel called to do. As if the stories weren’t exposing enough, they also had to post a make-up free picture of themselves. The idea was the kind of vulnerability that strips fear and self-doubt of its power and encourages us all to be real and carry on even when we are a mess. I’ll be real and admit that many of the posts had me in tears (even in awkward public places like restaurants).

Finally, I clicked on a link to a hysterical Tedx talk by Tracey Spicer, who catalogued all the crazy things women do to enhance our appearance, cited statistics on the thousands of hours this steals from our lives, and then proceeded to “strip-off” the make-up, the bouffant hair, the figure-flattering dress, and the three-inch heels to encourage a new wave of feminism that will reject society’s unfair expectations for women’s appearances.

I nodded my head, and laughed at the absurdity, and for about a day and a half I was feeling pretty proud of myself for the simple reason that I’m not addicted to make-up. I spend far less than the reported average of 27 minutes a day on personal grooming, and at least half the pictures taken of me in recent years have been make-up free since most days I never put any on. Time for a little gentle pat on the back, Serena. Wow – You’re so liberated from societal pressures! You avoid so much wasted time! You’re so much more honest about how you really look than the average Western woman

Then, I realized two things:

  1. The fact that I wear make-up only infrequently has not been an intentional moral decision, nor has it marked an effort to reject repressive social pressures. Instead, it has resulted from a combination of historical forces and competing priorities. Historically, I never developed the make-up habit because a) I like my sleep, and b) I had good enough genes (at least through my 20s) that I could get away with leaving with house with the same face I rolled out of bed with. Then, with my thirties came motherhood, and while that took care of the roll-out-of-bed-looking-decent condition it also sapped any motivation or time I might have had to suddenly introduce a beauty regime. What woman in her right mind is going to suddenly start devoting 27 minutes a day to moisturizing/exfoliating/ manicuring/straightening/applying/etc., when her sleep is suddenly cut by 30% and is coming in 2-3 hour chunks if she’s lucky, and her days offer the glamorous merry-go-round of diapers, and temper tantrums, and mealtime arbitration, and sometimes precious cuddle time reading Frog and Toad is the fort made of couch pillows and dubiously clean sheets? Sorry – the chances are that my sweater will have child-snot stains and my hair will have pudgy (and, very likely, sticky) fingers tangled in it before we leave the house, so fancy make-up all seems a bit pointless to me.
  2. I went ahead and took the Facebook selfie… and was horrified! Toward the end of the campaign, a friend challenged “all her friends” to post their all natural photo and I figured why not? It won’t be that different from all my other photos, but for that very reason there’s no reason to avoid it, right? Wrong! I thought I’d take the picture under the bathroom mirror light, since so many of these “no make-up” photos seem to be so poorly lit….I quickly realized why. By the seventh take I also realized that my eyebrows are bizarrely unbalanced (i.e. call for professional help IMMEDIATELY), that my skin is BOTH dry and shiny, that those laugh lines I’ve been glimpsing are actually deep canyons running from the edges of my nose to my jaw line, and that I REALLY CANNOT GO OUT OF THE HOUSE ONE MORE TIME WITHOUT MAKE-UP!!!!!
I really didn't want to, but here is the photo - I deleted all the no-smile ones. Couldn't handle them!

I really didn’t want to, but here is the seventh photo – I deleted all the no-smile ones. Couldn’t handle them!

In other words, my self-satisfaction is completely unearned. My blasé attitude toward make-up is not a reflection of my acceptance about how I look or my deliberate decision to reject societal expectations. It’s just a reflection of laziness and inattentiveness to just how far I have drifted from those expectations in the last 10 years or so.

Which gets to the real point behind all this clamor for exposure of make-up free selves, doesn’t it? The point is not just to get real, but to accept real. To not require BB creme perfection and thick eyelashes and sleekly styled hair as the minimum standard of beauty. To know that we do not look like the movie stars and supermodels, and that we never will, and to be OK with that. To reject the fear that we will be found deficient by society, or friends, or even ourselves. To look in the mirror and see not every little imperfection, but rather the perfect capacity to be the child of God we were created to be.

If that is really the goal, then giving up the mirror would not actually be very helpful for me, at least not at the moment. Giving up the mirror while still trapped by my desire for physical beauty would just be a way of hiding from my fears about how far I fall short. I need to deal with this demon of expectation because it is eating up my self-worth. It is obsessing about every pound of “moving weight” that I am not shedding. It is dragging down the corners of my mouth as my eyes follow the so-called laugh lines. It is pondering what wastes of time and money might help me reverse the clock. It is a dark, heavy, weight that is pulling me down. If I am going to be the woman I want to be, I desperately need to deal with my own fear of unpretty.

I also need to deal with it as a mother:

Perhaps the most poignant moment in Tracey Spicer’s Ted Talk is her recollection of a question her seven-year old daughter frequently asks her: “Why do women wear make-up, but men don’t?”

Reportedly, her daughter asks her this as she is standing watching Spicer don the required mask for televised appearances. It’s an inevitable question, because daughters watch their mothers. They watch them when they are going through their beauty regimes. They also watch them when they just frown at the reflection, or give their face a momentary lift with a finger tugging up beside the eyes. They watch and they learn that a woman’s appearance matters.

I have an amazing and beautiful daughter. She is six years old and most of the time she is blissfully unaware of how she looks and how other people react to this.

When Princess Imagination smiles, her eyes just shine.

When Princess Imagination smiles, her eyes just shine.

But, even at six, this is starting to change. She has begun to stand in front of the bathroom mirror, posing and trying out different hairstyles. She has begun to anxiously ask me for fashion advice, although she has always had a fiercely independent sense of style. A friend gave her a cheap set of make-up and she has begun experimenting with enthusiastic, if unappealing, results. She wants to make herself pretty.

What kills me about this is not just that she feels like any intervention is needed in order to be more pretty, and it is not even that she is starting to waste all those thousands of hours that American women throw away on beautifying efforts. What gets to me, what terrifies me, is the suspicion that she has already accepted the lie that being pretty is what makes her valuable.

I don’t want to be an anti-society shrew who prohibits my daughter from playing with make-up or sentences her to hair cuts at the Mommy Salon until she’s old enough to pay for them herself. I know that all the pretty-play is part of the fun of being a little girl, and I’m OK with that. Really, I am.

I just want her to know that her value has absolutely nothing to do with what she looks like. I want her to know that it is the sweetness of her soul that draws people to her and that it is her identity as God’s beloved, chosen creation that gives her all the worth she will ever need.

And I’m worried that I am teaching her that with my words only, but not by my example. Because, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who cares far too much about the image looking back at me.

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this, but I know I must do something. And I know that this something will need to last a whole lot longer than the 40 days of lent. But I have a hunch that lent might still have something to offer me in this challenge.

One of the most important realizations our group came to this morning was that “giving up” was pretty meaningless on its own. Simply removing something from our lives for the requisite 40 days is not transformative in and of itself, unless it that vacuum is replaced with something else. I have tried this before in other contexts. I have “given up” chocolate, or Facebook, or complaining, and instead committed to replacing the time I would have given to those things to prayer.

Prayer actually sounds like a pretty good place to remember the source of my worth and identity.

Lord, have mercy.



Hair and Vanity

Princess Imagination and I have an ongoing battle about her hair. I want it brushed regularly. She resists contact between her hair and any kind of brush or comb. I want it arranged in some way that looks relatively neat and keeps it from covering up half her face. She prefers it wild and free, which invariably means it is ends up in her mouth and eyes and makes it hard to see her pretty little face.

At the beginning of the week I thought I had finally landed on a solution: headbands. After refusing a ponytail, braids, or clips, Princess Imagination enthusiastically embraced my desperate proposal that she at least hold her hair off her face with a headband. She allowed me to settle it in place just behind her bangs, with the wispy curls she still has framing her face from her baby days securely tucked behind the band. Suddenly she looked neat and well-kept and her sweet little face was fully visible. Victory! We were both happy, and since she has a large selection of these hair-taming accessories, I had a lovely fantasy of future mornings unmarred by mother-daughter hair battles.

The fantasy lasted until I picked her up from school that afternoon. In the intervening hours her sparkly pink headband had somehow been transformed from a hair-taming implement into a co-conspirator in operation birds nest. Rather than neatly holding back her hair from its proper position atop her head, it had gone vertical and was smashing her bangs flat on her forehead while the escaped front locks were running free, with several section plastered across her cheeks as the result of time spent bathing in her mouth. Argh! What is wrong with my child?! She is a beautiful little girl, but no one can see that because she seems determined to turn her hair into a frizzy, knotted, veil!

With the distance of a few days I can recognize that my response to this very unusual styling was probably an over-reaction. I don’t think Princess Imagination is deliberately covering her face with her hair. She simply finds it uncomfortable to have her hair pulled back, and also finds it convenient to suck on her hair to satisfy her oral fixation (which is probably my fault for nursing her so long). The resulting follicle foibles do not worry her because she is just oblivious to what she looks like.

And there’s the source of discomfort in this little domestic squabble. The problem is that appearance is not a matter of oblivion for me. In contrast to my daughter’s indifference, I care a little too much about appearance – both hers and mine. This concern about how I and those associated with me look goes back a long way. I can vividly remember my own screaming temper tantrum at the age of 8 or 9 in reaction to a rather unusual wardrobe selection by my older sister. Granted, choosing to wear a wrap-around ballet skirt as a shawl was eccentric on the part of my sister, but my reaction was also a bit excessive. And the extremity of my reactions, from the mid-80s to now, makes it clear that the issue  is really with me, not with the creative accessorizers in my family. I just care too much about appearance.

Now, this is not to say that I am a fashion plate by any stretch of the imagination. I do not have dozens of handbags. I do not buy shoes to match specific outfits. I cannot justify spending three or four times as much for designer labels. And I do not spend an hour coiffing my hair every morning (or any time of day, ever). BUT… I have to admit, that there is a very dissatisfied little corner of my mind that turns an unattractive shade of green when it spies the glamourously styled moms doing drop-off at school. I am ashamed of it, but it is there. A part of me desperately wants to be the one who draws admiring, or even envious looks.

Of course, more than a year and a half of residence in one of the capitals of the fashion world has exacerbated this tendency. Two years ago I could not have even attempted to tell you what the fashion trends of the season were. I bought clothes that suited my style and figure and did not worry too much about what was trendy. Now, just taking my kids to school or walking past the shop windows in the neighborhood of my Italian class gives me an education in the current colors, cuts, and must-have accessories. This knowledge is anything but helpful. It focuses my awareness on all the things I don’t have and makes me self-conscious about the functional clothes and shoes dictated by my role as a stay-at-home mom. In more basic terms, it both increases the value I place on appearance, and amplifies my dissatisfaction with my own achievement relative to that standard.

Naturally, this evolution has not made for a happier me. However, I realized something as a result of my headband confrontation with Princess Imagination. My feelings of fashion-inadequacy are not really the matter of greatest importance. What matters is how much I have allowed my appearance, and my daughter’s, to impact my emotional state. I do not want to be that mother. I do not want to be that woman.

What I do want is to teach my daughter that what matters is the kind of person we are, not the way we look. What I do want is to teach her is to be concerned about what her behavior and her speech (rather than her clothes and her hair) tell other people about who she is. What I do want is to live the kind of life that teaches these lessons more effectively than my words ever could. These desires are not easy to achieve. It might actually be a more attainable ambition to be the fashion-plate mom that draws the envious gaze of others at school drop-off. But that achievement would not be worth the effort.

And so, I will continue to fight this life-long battle to stop caring so much about appearance. I will remind myself that the time I have while Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster are in school is not best used for shopping. I will pull my hair-back into the ubiquitous pony-tail and use the time I saved to spend to prepare myself in pray a bit longer each morning. I will continue to wear my sweaters and boots from last winter (or five winters ago) and thank God that I have more than enough clothes to keep me warm as the temperature drops. And, when I brush my daughter’s wild hair out of her face so that I can look into her eyes, I will tell her that she is beautiful because of who she is, not how she wears her hair.

The headband-across-the-forehead has been a favorite look of Princess Imagination’s for years. Maybe she wants a crown?

Her smile shines even through her hair.