I didn’t know my daughter had curly hair until I gave her a bath for the first time. She was almost 13 months old, and although I had held her a dozen times before that bath, I don’t think her hair was ever truly clean and in its natural state. She was an orphanage baby, and I can imagine that scrubbing and styling infants’ hair on a regular basis was low on the priorities for the overworked and underpaid caregivers.
When I pulled her from the tub in that tiny hotel room in Novokuznetsk, Russia, on Post-Adoption Day One, I marveled at the spirals that sprung from her freshly washed head. “You have curly hair,” I said in awe. Then I smiled into her innocent eyes and followed with, “Just like me.”
I knew in that moment I had something to teach this new girl in my life, and not too long after, I stopped straightening my hair with regularity. I had previously let my hair spiral naturally only during the summer months when the act of straightening proved counter productive in the heat and humidity. I wanted my daughter to have a role model, and I knew I would be sending an anti-curly girl message with a straightening iron as my styling tool of choice.
Little did I know that leading by example would be an uphill battle. Three years after that first curl broke free, I was once again kneeling tub-side and scrunching the Young One’s hair when she declared angrily, “I don’t want hair that goes like this, ” and she waved her little hand in circles.
I knew what she was trying to pantomime, but in my shock I asked for clarification, “You mean curly? You don’t want curly hair?”
“No!” she said with a splash of the water. “I want hair that goes like this,” she demonstrated, raising a flat palm in front of her face and bringing it straight down.
She’s FOUR, I thought, amazed that my positive self-image initiative had been thwarted on the preschool playground!
Who had told my daughter curly hair wasn’t good enough? And what else have they told her? Have they said she’s too fat, too skinny? Did they say she has too many freckles or that her teeth are too big? Please tell me they haven’t pointed out to her that her left eye sometimes wonders in a direction different from her right. (Even the optometrist couldn’t verify my suspicions of a lazy eye until she turned six.)
Some days I am terrified to be the mother of a girl. I’ve been a girl. I know how hard it is. That pressure to be perfect…and to be yourself…but not at the expense of being different. My heart aches for the fact that some day I may no longer be able to wrap my girl in a big fluffy towel and hug the insecurity away. I won’t be able to make a funny face and distract her from something so heavily on her mind that she had to gesticulate to find the word she hasn’t yet learned.
Suddenly I am aware that in my greatest attempts to be my daughter’s most influential role model, I am not the only person she interacts with on a daily basis. Her life is a constant rotation of teachers and coaches and bus drivers, and now that she has graduated to Kindergarten, she interacts with even more children than she did in preschool.
Some of them have most likely had the same experience as Kasey Edwards, who wrote in “When Your Mother Says She’s Fat” about hearing her mother talk about herself in a self-loathing way These words disillusioned her and helped to form her own poor body image. She writes:
Years later, I looked back on this conversation and the hundreds that followed and cursed you for feeling so unattractive, insecure and unworthy. Because, as my first and most influential role model, you taught me to believe the same thing about myself.
I hope my daughter doesn’t hear me say things like this. I like to think I don’t say them at all, but I’d be dishonest if I said I never felt fat or never looked in the mirror to see a face I didn’t like. I wouldn’t have a love hate relationship with a straightening iron if I never had a bad hair day. Overall though, I’d say I have a healthy body image, and I want that to come through in my conversations with my daughter.
The fellow WordPress blogger behind Laments and Lullabies has it right when she makes “A Plea to Women who Know Girls”….
“My plea is that even if you don’t yet believe it, show my daughter, and all daughters, that you think your self is a good self.
We are powerful and important in every body, and like all powerful and important people, we’re being watched.”
I still don’t know how my daughter came to the conclusion that straight hair is more desirable than curly. Even though today, her hair has grown to be more wavy than curly, I will continue to tell her it is beautiful, and I will continue to wear mine in its crazy curliness too. Sooner or later we’ll both learn we’re beautiful the way we were made, and if somewhere along the way another little girl hears us talk about how much we like ourselves, maybe she will start to like herself too.
***The two blog posts linked above are powerful statements about how body image is formed. I encourage you to click through to read them in their entirety.