Today you are six, and you are beautiful.
I don’t mean that in some metaphorical way, like your soul is beautiful, though it is. You are relentlessly cheerful and generous and always thinking of something you can do to make other people smile. You are kind to animals and strangers and homeless people on the train, patient with younger children, dedicated to your schoolwork and your chores. And physically, you are beautiful, to the very T of American beauty standards. You are slim and strong. You have long straight fair hair and wide blue eyes and perfect delicate features and every time you turn around someone is commenting on your looks.
Which you barely seem to notice. It happens to be true: You are lovely. But usually after someone says something like that, they add in something else. Something like, “I hope you’ve got a gun, dad, because the boys are coming.”
Or, “Don’t let her look too grown-up, too fast.”
Or, “You’re going to have trouble when she’s a teenager.”
I don’t even think we hear ourselves, half the time. Society, I mean. I don’t think we hear what we’re saying when we say that beautiful young girls require this kind of caution. That when you start wearing a bathing suit or shorts or a pretty dress, when your hair gets long or your smile gets sly, it’s not time to marvel at your coming into your own, it’s time to recoil with dread.
It’s part and parcel of what I talked about last year around this time, the idea that we should be in mourning for the past and always looking backward with longing for who you were, instead of ahead with excitement as you rush forward to the future. It’s such a reductive, shitty, joyless way to look at childhood and this is just another extension of it, the intonation of “here we go” that tells you we don’t approve of and don’t like and don’t enjoy you exactly as you are or want to support you in your becoming.
Our culture imposes on young girls as a rule; makes them the carriers of shadows and secrets, makes them guardians of virtue and the sacrifices of the same. We shrink them down to that, talk about them as if they’re not there, and as much as we all rail about objectification, that’s just as much of it as catcalling is. It’s still putting you in a box, and maybe it’s more insidious, that it’s meant to be some kind of protection.
Protection from whom? From what? We certainly don’t tell you. We don’t say that girls have to be careful because society gives men a pass, we don’t say that your dad needs a gun because some other dad never taught his children what love looks like and how power is used. We don’t talk about that.
No, we say, you are the danger, and you are the enemy, even unto yourself.
What I don’t want for you, as you grow up, is for you to be afraid of your body, to think that what you are is “trouble.” It makes it impossible to accept desired affection, makes you think there’s something bad about wanting or being wanted, adds so much weight to interactions with your peers.
Does your every new hairdo — curls! — or foray into lipstick — for a Halloween costume, fer chrissakes — or nail polish have to be an opportunity for fear and shame? Must we always withhold approval, admiration, out of terror that you might come to like being approved of, or being admired?
Can’t you enjoy it, being beautiful? Shouldn’t it be something to enjoy?
The whole “Dads Against Daughters Dating” t-shirt industrial complex has been constructed without a single thought as to what happens to those daughters. Who do they become, loaded up with the knowledge that their parents fear and resent their loveliness? What does that teach them about their qualities, their abilities, things they had no choices in?
A girl who is beautiful according to our — false, ridiculous, harmful — standards doesn’t choose it any more than one who isn’t.
It’s not possible to force you — strong-willed, wild, glorious you — into a box of childhood forever. So how best to help you? Shield you from a world that sees your beauty as a guarantee of future pain, guard you with a gun, bar the door with “jokes” that aren’t funny and pretend your parents are somehow obligated at a certain age to begrudge you?
Or show you that yes, this is one thing you can be, among a thousand, and not place too much importance on it, either by validating the focus on how you look, or denying the fact of it out of fear.
The other day, you called me over to the back door during breakfast to look at “the amazing sunrise” and as we stood there, I leaned down to kiss your head and asked you to promise to remember this moment when you grew up and we were driving each other crazy. I’m sure we will. I’m sure you’ll be infuriating and I’m sure I’m already infuriating with my insistence you let me brush your hair — you don’t get all the tangles out! — and check on your loose teeth and try to make sure you’re wearing warm clothes.
I’m sure the worries I have for you will grow and change as you grow and change, but I promise you I will try to remember which are my concerns for you, and what your obligation is to them.
Which is nothing, absolutely nothing, at all.
You are beautiful. I hope that, like all your other gifts, you can claim it as your own, glory in it, carry it as lightly as you do your impulse to help and heal, your need to follow rules, your love for LEGOs and Carmen Sandiego, your loathing of onions. There’s no part of you I want you to be afraid of. There’s nothing about you I want you to deny.
I want you to love everything about you as much as I do.