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.



Playground Comparisons

304Yesterday the kiddos and I spent the afternoon at the local park with Gra’ma and my older sister.  Considering that this is our first week back in the States after our move from Milan, the title of this post might suggest that this entry will be a reflection on the differences between US and Italian playgrounds. Although such differences certainly exist, that is not the comparison that struck me during our afternoon. Rather, it was the theme of comparison itself that presented itself to my still-slightly-jetlagged brain as I interacted with and observed my children at play.

Actually, comparing is something I just started doing without any conscious thought at all. You see, there was this middle-aged man – I assumed he was a dad – who was coaching a boy of perhaps 7 or 8 years of age through various playground obstacles and activities. I use the term “coaching” advisedly, because he was setting tasks and providing guidance in an incredibly focused and intentional manner. The first comparison that sprung to mind was an insecure parenting reflex: Wow, that dad is REALLY engaged with his son. He’s giving the boy ALL of his attention. I’m just standing here watching the kids and chatting with my sister. I’m such a lazy parent! Maybe Italian playground disengagement has rubbed off on me?! (OK – there’s a little bit of Italy playground comparisons in here).

My shame-clouded eyes couldn’t turn away from the incredible spectacle of parental involvement. The intensity of the interaction was astounding. And then, as I stared, that intensity became more alarming than awe-inspiring. “Come on! Focus! Don’t look around. Listen to me. There’s the goal, OK. Jump over that. Oh, no. That was too easy. Here, I’ll move it farther out. Now jump!” Yikes, Fellow. Don’t you think that’s a bit much?!  He’s just a kid who wants to play. Play is supposed to be fun, not boot camp!

My momentary spasm of self-doubt eased off to be replaced by a self-congratulating condemnation of this other parent’s model. Good parenting doesn’t mean that I have to be in my kids’ faces every moment at the playground telling them what to do. Just because I’m letting them entertain themselves in a self-directed way doesn’t mean I’m ignoring them. It actually means I’m giving them room to explore and to discover their own capacity. Why, just look at the Gigglemonster! He’s made a new friend and they are creating new games together on the spot. That’s awesome.

Perhaps it was some lingering misplaced need to assert my success as a parent, or perhaps it as just a natural motherly instinct to rejoice in my child’s social skill, but I pointed out the happy twosome to my sister. “He’s amazing isn’t he? Everywhere we go, he just makes friends!”

The Gigglemonster and his new buddy.

The Gigglemonster and his new buddy.

It was a harmless enough comment in most contexts, but in that particular moment it was a rookie parenting move. That is because Princess Imagination happened to be about 5 feet away, well within ear shot. I hadn’t meant it as a comparison, just a celebration of my youngest child’s friendliness, but for a big sister who is often painfully shy, it triggered an episode of reclusive self-doubt. A few minutes later I noticed the backlash of my little boast. Princess Imagination had retreated from the play structure and was standing disconsolately near me, alternately staring at her feet and glancing longingly at her brother playing with his new playmate. Oops!

OK. Maybe I’d been a bit too quick to congratulate myself for my parenting skills, but I could fix this.

Honey, are you feeling sad about something?”

(mute nod)

“Is it because your brother is playing with that little girl, instead of you?”

(another nod, this time with a sniffle)

“I’m sure they would be happy for you to play with them.”

(head tucked in with a quick negative shake. This wasn’t going so well). My sister tactfully removed herself to supervise the oblivious youngsters and I kept trying. I offered advise about what to say to gain entry to the little play group. I regaled her with stories of my own shyness in childhood and the lessons that have helped me overcome it. I called the Gigglemonster over and extracted his invitation for Princess Imagination to join in the game. I talked for at least 10 minutes, but I don’t think I elicited more than 10 words from her in response. Eventually her painful silence defeated me and I just sat with her on the soft, blue rubber ground cover and ached. The pain of watching your child struggle with the same incapacitating shyness that stained your own childhood with lonely shadows is incredibly disempowering. I wanted desperately to make it all better, but all my ideas had met with that sad, stubborn silence.

Thankfully, that silence was my daughter’s own powerful way of communicating to me, once I stopped talking and just let the silence be. In the silence I began to watch her – watch how she was coping with the situation on her own terms, rather than in comparison to her brother – and what I saw was beautiful. In her silence and isolation she had observed the few square feet of her immediate surroundings and found inspiration for a work of art.  A discarded fragment of bright green foam (perhaps from a nerf ball or similar toy) could be easily torn by her nimble little fingers. A miniature pine cone was circled by small cavities just begging to be filled. Within a few short minutes she had constructed a little found-object masterpiece of contrasting colors and textures.

Princess Imaginations playground art work

Princess Imagination’s playground art work

It was beautiful and I told her so. I also finally told her the one thing that could actually help her when she was feeling shy, and excluded, and sad: I told her why she was so special. I didn’t compare her to her social little brother. I didn’t try to give her tips to master the skills that come so easily to him. I told her that she was amazingly good at observing the world, and seeing the things that no one else notices and then seeing how to make their beauty visible to others. She’s been like that since she was a baby and it is an amazing skill that makes it so very fun to spend time with her.

I watched her smile return as she proudly displayed her artwork to Gra’ma. Then, with new confidence, she joined the game of the Gigglemonster and his new friend.

Playing together

Playing together

With the crisis resolved I began to reflect on the problem of comparisons. Namely, they almost unavoidably carry value judgments along for the ride. I couldn’t just observe the dad/coach approach as different than my own and let that be, I felt the need to evaluate myself in comparison. Was I being too passive? Was he being too aggressive? The truth is, I have no idea at all about the motives and history controlling that interaction. Maybe there was a hidden disability that lay behind the routine they were practicing. Maybe he wasn’t the boy’s father at all, but rather an actual coach working with him on a set of skills. I don’t know and I don’t need to because it doesn’t concern me. There are as many different parenting techniques as there are parents, and making comparison for the sake for assigning superiority doesn’t usually teach me much of anything. It only feeds my insecurities or my pride – neither of which need any extra indulgence.

The same applies to my children. Comparisons don’t usually offer any useful life lesson, but the value judgments behind them spur the same shame/pride cycle in them. I know I can’t protect my children from feeling any insecurity. I also can’t (and don’t want to) interfere with their development of appropriate pride in their unique abilities and personalities. BUT, it is clear that this goal is best met by emphasizing what is unique and special about each of them, and they way that they can benefit those around them by using those gifts. How they compare to others should not be the foundation for self-understanding. It is much more important that I reflect for them all the positives I see in each child on her and his own terms, without judgment of others.

With that little lesson in mind I was again feeling satisfied. After all, parenting is nothing if not an exercise in trial and error. The important thing was to learn from the errors. Well, I had learned my lesson and the kids were playing happily so all was well…..

Of course, such a moralistic ending wouldn’t be real life. The happy play lasted maybe 10 minutes before I had a crying Princess on my hands again. The game had hit a snag and she was feeling excluded again. The little playmate was called away to go home then, and the Gigglemonster ran off to play with his Auntie, but Princess Imagination’s tears wouldn’t stop. There was clearly more going on here that a disagreement about which Princess she got to be in a game that was now over. After a little judicious use of silence (I had learned something from our earlier conversation), the heart of the pain came out between sobs.

Mommy, I don’t have any friends now!”

What could I say to that deep fear and pain? I could tell her the truth that I knew she would make new friends once we settle into our house and her new school. I could remind her that she is an amazing girl, and that’s why her friends back in Italy had wanted to be her friends, something that new kids would discover too. I could briefly rehearse for her the reasons that I trust God is directing our steps, based on 36 years of personal experience. I could and did say all these things, and they helped… a little bit.

The truth is, making friends is hard for her. It just is. It wouldn’t matter if I had never uttered the word “shy” around her or never once commented in her hearing about how easily her brother makes friends. As I had told her earlier – she is an observer. It doesn’t require my thoughtless evaluations for her to recognize that she and her brother interact differently with new children, and that she usually makes friends slowly. I probably haven’t been as careful as I should to model non-judgment and non-comparison, but I can’t eliminate that from her environment entirely. And with her seeing eyes and her analytical brain she can draw her own conclusions with no help from me.

So, where does that leave my sweet, sensitive, socially insecure daughter? And where does that leave me as her mother who desperately wants to protect her from pain? The fact is that we are moving back to a home she hasn’t visited since she was 3 1/2 years old, and there are only a few friends she even remembers. She will need to make new friends, and that has not always been so easy for her. Comparisons are irrelevant. It is the difficulty itself that has to be dealt with.

So, what can I do to help her? I can encourage her with reminders of all the friendships she has made in the past. I can build her up by noticing the wonderful, unique, amazing characteristics that are evident to anyone who really pays attention. I can expect great things from her, and from the God who is guiding our steps.

And when the inevitable comparisons come, I can remind her (and myself) not to get hung up on the judgments. She is not better or worse than her brother (or any other child) because of the way she makes friends. She makes friends that way because of who she is, and that “who” is a truly amazing person.

I wouldn't change her for the world!

I wouldn’t change her for the world!