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“But Mom, you said looks don’t matter…”

Posted by on Nov 5, 2012 in Blog Posts | 8 comments

Children are smart. They are master negotiators. My husband recently attended a lecture on negotiation, and the instructor used children as the example of the most fearless, ruthless negotiators, with their single-minded focus on the goal. For any of you stuck in the dinner-time “hostage negotiations,” as one workshops attendee put it, you know what I mean. (“OK, so if I have two bites of potato, can I then just have one bite of fish so I can get my dessert?”) But allow me to digress from food and feeding for a moment.

As a mother of a young girl, I have tried to impart the message that looks aren’t important. As a physician who has treated deadly eating disorders in young women, I strive to instill a positive body image. As a woman in our society, I know how near impossible it is to hang on to that positive self-image, with the onslaught of messages telling us we are never, ever good enough.

In my own home, with my daughter, I’ve let her go with uncombed hair for days, wear the same shirt three days in a row, and even wear uneven goofy ponytails to school picture day, because most of the time I do believe that how she looks is just not important. Beyond getting her teeth brushed twice a day, and tending to basic hygiene, I am choosing to let a lot of the rest slide. Soon enough she will be fretting over her looks, bombarded by our culture where she will be told that how her hair looks, how big her hips or breasts are, or how clear her skin is, is the measure of her worth. I want to push off that day as long as I can. That’s some background…

So, this weekend for my Book Party, a celebration and thank you to the friends and family who supported me as I wrote and published  Love Me, Feed Me,  I asked M to put on a different shirt, and maybe brush her hair for the special event. (As a child myself on such an occasion, I would have been presented in a lovely black velvet dress with my brushed hair in a clip. And, to be honest, I liked dressing up back then, and occasionally still do. See this stuff is complicated!)

However, to my new shirt request, my M replied, “Mom, I’m comfortable in this shirt, I love this shirt. You always say looks don’t matter, do you not believe that anymore, because I believe it in my heart…” I was about to launch into a speech about making a special effort sometimes, when I just stopped.


Well played little one. You get to wear your crinkly peace-sign hand-me-down shirt and pink leggings. You get to avoid wrangling the knots from your hair, and you are beautiful, and really, really smart. And thank you for reminding me again about what is important and what isn’t.

P.S. We had a great time at the party. M spent thirty minutes getting ready for an event the next day, combing her own hair, requesting poofy ponytails in various places on her head, and wore a dress too. I’m picking my battles, and this battle was one I was happy to lose. Oh, and the photo is of M at the Minnesota State Fair, with “fair hair.”  So I’ve also chosen not to fight the plastic pink heels (only for home) or the princess dresses.

How about you? Has mothering and thinking about how your daughter looks surprised you at all?


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  1. Fat Grad

    What a great story! It’s really fun to read about kids as killer negotiators, and it sounds like M hit you right where it hurt, haha! It’s interesting to think about mothering and choices sometimes. As a feminist I admire you allowing M to go out of the house looking how she WANTS to look instead of how society believes she should look. That is phenomenal and it sounds like you are giving her a solid foundation of her own self-worth. Kudos to you, Katja! At the same time, as I consider your story I have to be honest that I could NEVER imagine doing that with my own daughter. I think that we are all judged as women and as mothers, but as an African-American woman who is fat, and a step-daughter who at least matches me for race and body size, I feel that she is dealing with enough without the additional stigma that having uncombed hair would add or clothes that were not quite neat. ESPECIALLY the hair thing! African-American women are constantly being judged for our hair in a way that women of other races do not experience, so I am always very careful to make sure that her hair is neatly groomed. I do, however, give her a lot of latitude in choosing her own clothing and asserting herself in her sense of style. That having been said, I do think you are brave and an awesome mom for allowing M to choose how she wants to present herself. I think this is one of the best ways we can encourage our daughters to find their worth in places other than their looks.

    • katja

      Thank you for this. I toyed with acknowledging “the hair thing” in the original post, but I tend to write fast and furious with little editing, and addressing this issue would take a lot of thought and care, and you and Dawn Friedman did it much better than I could. I realize I have a certain privilege that I can let my child go out with a nest of ratty hair and am judged differently, and my child is judged differently. I remember reading Dawn’s essay a few years ago, that opened my eyes as a white woman. Have you seen it? What are your thoughts? I sound a lot like those moms smiling easily as their princesses run around with ratty hair 🙂 On another note, M was scootering around our new neighborhood in a fuscia princess dress, with hoop skirt no less, and helmet. I only wished I had a camera. (Oh, and it was 25 degrees, no coat, hat or gloves!) Thanks for the kind words and the comment, and for thinking of your daughter’s self-worth and doing what you need to do to give her the best shot of growing up feeling good about herself in this crazy, crazy world!

      • Fat Grad

        I had not seen Friedman’s article, and I thank you for sharing it with me. I plan to use it next semester when I teach Women and Health again! It was a sensitive acknowledgement of both the difficulty that African American women face in being perceived as both good women and good mothers, and an acknowledgement of the difficulty European American women face in trying to mother children of other races. Thank you for pointing me towards it. There is a significant literature regarding AA women and hair, but I think that my undergrads will appreciate this and find it more accessible. I’m glad to hear that you recognize the complexity of privilege, but then you generally do in your blog and in our correspondence. That’s why I keep reading you! 🙂 I would have loved to have seen M outside playing and looking a hot mess, heehee. I’m sure there was all kinds of judgement flying around, especially since it was a new neighborhood, but I’m sure she was as happy as can be. We run into that sometimes in our neighborhood because we let our five year old run around outside without us. We live in apartments in the country and our rules are clear, but we ALWAYS hear from other parents about how they CANNOT imagine letting their kid outside unsupervised. Well, good for them, keep parenting how they want to. Ha!

  2. Brita

    Love this – a great reminder to let kids be kids – really be kids – for as long as possible. As the mother if a young daughter, I really appreciate this.

    • katja

      Thanks. Like I said, “most” of the time I’m good with it, but we all think our kids are so darn cute! I’ve saved all these traditional German dresses from when I was a kid, and she has outgrown several without wearing them once. A little sad for me, but again, not worth the battle 🙂

  3. Lindsay

    Wow, good for M (SMART!) and good for you for letting her wear what made her happy! 🙂

    My mom was always very insistent on things like this – well past when I was a little girl she would still tell me she wanted me to wear my hair a certain way, pick more “flattering” clothes, etc. On the day I left to move to college, I wanted to wear my hair in a ponytail because it was very hot and I knew having my hair down would make me even more uncomfortable during the moving process. She INSISTED I put it down because it looked ‘So much prettier” and I needed to “make a good first impression.” And I actually cried when I went to go put it down because it’s just really humiliating being 18 and not allowed to do what you want with your hair…

  4. E

    I LOVE that story! Good for M!