girls are pretty flowers
CW: Jean Claude Van Damme Gifs
I’ve got a bone to pick.
Today I volunteered in my son’s kindergarten class. I sat on the carpet with rotating groups of kiddos and helped them sound out and write simple three-letter words.
"Cat. Cuh-cuh-cuh. Ah-ah-ah. Tuh-tuh-tuh.” #EnglishMajorsAtWork #WhoRunTheWorld #Moms
The kids kept interrupting me to tell me stories about whatever word we were trying to spell. When it came time to do “Rat,” let me tell you, SHIT GOT REAL.
“My dad goes out to the barn to kill rats sometimes.”
“One time rats pooped in my mom’s car and she sat in it and screamed.”
“We had rats in my house when I was a baby so we lived at grandma’s for a year while my daddy fixed it.”
That last one was extra distressing because holy fucking tuck-your-pants-into-your-socks nightmares, what kind of rat problem takes A YEAR to solve? ALSO, step with me through the dark mirror for a second, because what if there was no rat problem and mommy just made up a plausible cover story for why daddy wasn’t in any pictures for a year when you were a baby? OH I BET HE HAD SOME SHIT TO FIX. OH I BET THERE WAS A RAT IN THE HOUSE.
At one point, one of the girls asked me, “Do you like my necklace?”
I said, “Yes, I do.”
Then another girl asked, “Do you like my dress?”
I said, “Yes, I do.”
Then another girl asked, “Do you like my hair?”
I said, “Yes, I do.”
I was torn.
Personally, I love wearing special things! I love when people notice that I’m wearing special things! Also, when my hair looks good, you better believe everyone on my phone is going to hear about it. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your appearance. There’s not a damn thing wrong with feeling pretty. Who doesn’t love to look at a field of wildflowers, right?
ON THE OTHER HAND.
These girls are bright, funny, kind, helpful, curious, motivated, and occasionally mischievous, sly, and petty. They’re KIDS. They’re GREAT kids. I want them to be proud of their appearances and the choices they make around those appearances, but I also want them to recognize that they’re packing some fierce firepower under the surface.
The conversation about pretty feels like a lose-lose, doesn’t it?
Girls know they have to be pretty in order to matter, but then you tell them they’re shallow if they care about being pretty. You tell them not to care if they’re pretty so that they can really matter, but then if they stop caring about being pretty, you don’t see them anymore. Because they’re not pretty.
It feels like there’s only one way to exist as a woman while avoiding scorn and it’s to be GORGEOUS, EFFORTLESSLY, with your kind permission, if you please sir, as you wish, and with warm regards. The alternative is to exist while enduring scorn, which is legit what every single one of us does, even the effortlessly gorgeous ones, and which most of us believe that we’ve brought on ourselves for caring too much or not enough, or for being born wrong.
Explain THAT to your five-year-olds, why don’t ya.
I remember this girl, I’ll call her Meg, who was in Chicken’s co-op preschool. She was the strangest, most gloriously lovable kid. She could whistle like a cartoon wolf and often came to school with chosen pseudonyms: “Today, I am not Meg. Today, I am Luke Skywalker.” Then she would only answer to Luke Skywalker, or Maleficent, or Gandalf the Grey, all day. She often wandered alone on the playground, long-legged and prematurely tall, completely content inside her own wonderful, weird mind. I adored her. All the parents did.
Like most of the girls in the class, she often wore ballet flats. I thought of them as “Alice” shoes because they were the simple black flat that Alice wore in Wonderland. Please keep in mind, I know Meg’s mom and dad and they are awesome, funny, smart, thoughtful people who are in no way grooming their child to become a servant of the patriarchy, okay? She picked these shoes. She loved these shoes. And listen, all you judgey fuckers, ain’t nobody got time to die on the hill of footwear at 8:55 am. AIN’T. NOBODY. GOT TIME. FOR THAT. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been like “FINE, flip-flops, whatever, I’m sure you won’t regret that IN DECEMBER.” I just tossed another pair of shoes in the back of the car and waited for the chance to savor the taste of an un-said “I told you so,” when the child stepped out of the car and into the snow. (I say “unsaid” because I don’t tell my kids “I told you so,” but BELIEVE THIS: Every night I tell Ryan all about every time I DIDN’T say “I told you so” to the kids.)
One day I saw Meg trying to climb a big tree on the playground after a bunch of the boys in class climbed it. She was strong, tall, and there was no reason she wouldn’t have been able to climb that tree. But those shoes… they kept slipping off her heels, and the bottoms of the little flats were as smooth as library books. The lug-soled boys on the branches of the tree above her just watched as she scrabbled away, completely hampered by those fucking shoes.
I walked up. “Can I give you a boost?”
She looked at me and smiled apologetically, an expression far too mature for her little 5-year-old face. “I guess I need one because I’m a girl.”
I MEAN, RIGHT?!?!?!?
I kept my shit together. I was like, “I don’t think you need a boost because you’re a girl. You’re just as strong and fast and brave as anyone else in this class. I think you need a boost because these are dancing shoes, not climbing shoes. Put on a pair of boots and you’ll be climbing circles around these guys.”
That moment has stuck with me. How often do you hear someone say, so simply and without any question, that the problem must be her?
The problem was not her. The problem was the shoes. The problem was, she was just wearing dancing shoes, trying to climb a tree.
I do not envy mothers of kids who have to help their kids understand that pull toward pretty. What a minefield, right? How do you encourage your child to love their full selves, including their appearance, without falling into the trap of affirming that appearance is the same as character? You know that the world is hitting that message NON-STOP out there, so you want to counter-program by saying, “Your pretty dress matters less than your bright mind.” But your child used their bright mind to pick that pretty dress, so what does your well-intentioned advice tell them? That maybe there’s something wrong with them for wanting a pretty dress? That the problem must be them?
We’re right back at the bottom of that tree.
“I guess it’s because I’m a girl.”
I mean. It kind of is. Sorry, kid.
That’s why I struggled to come up with the right thing to say in my son’s Kinder class today.
The problem isn’t Meg who struggled to climb a tree one time, or these girls who want to know if a woman likes their girlish things.
The problem is that girls want to be pretty because all their heroes are either pretty themselves, or they love someone pretty. As a result, “pretty” becomes the password to the lives we want to live, a taken-for-granted quality shared by all the people who matter and whose stories we are likely to know by heart: A pretty secretary with high heels and a manicure, a pretty treasure hunter with sleek hair and a button nose, a pretty veterinarian with sparkling eyes and a heart locket, a pretty mom with eyelashes and small feet.
It’s okay to like pretty! It’s okay to love feeling pretty!
It’s okay to like that field of wildflowers, right?
The problem is that we’ve told our girls that a flower is only as good as its petals. Petals are pretty. Petals are good. But that wild flower is a whole lot more than its petals.
That flower is a gnarly, wiry stem that you can bend down to the ground under your boot, and will stand up again.
That flower is a deep green leaf that feeds itself, literally makes its own food from the sun.
That flower holds its own future, in the tiny seeds that it will learn to let go, so more like it can grow.
That flower stands on roots that dig into the side of the mountain for the dear life of both the flower AND that fucking mountain.
That flower digs in, through thin air and bruising winds and droughts and snowfalls.
Simply put, that wild flower is a fucking bad ass.
I hadn’t fully articulated that idea when I sat on the rug in Chicken’s Kinder classroom this morning. I had the impulse to yell “YES, BABY QUEENS” and the impulse to moan, “No, sweetie, no,” and the foresight to recognize that any time I want to yell and/or keen at a child I barely know, that shit is about ME and needs to be worked out in THERAPY slash THE BLOG, not at the child.
So what I didn’t have on hand today, and what I wish I’d said to the girls was,
“Yes, I like those things. I like all of the choices you made when you got dressed today. You picked things that were special for you, and were good for the weather and the hard work and fun you were going to be doing at school. I also like the way you’re all working hard to learn these letter sounds, and the way you’re sharing stories with me and your friends.”
A Note About Excruciating Sincerity:
When I became a parent, I had a crisis of purpose. I was a writer and an actress. I lived on coffee and positive reinforcement, and for a long, long time the dream was fame. When I had Chicken, I Matrixed myself and would wander the streets with a baby strapped to my chest, staring at other humans while a ghost version of myself walked next to me saying things like, “You thought this was real? You thought people with babies just DID things? I bet you think people with babies still go on vacations, too. Interesting.”
But anyway, at some point I came to this realization: I do not need to live a big life. It is okay with me if my entire purpose on this earth is to teach a few kids what love looks like. It is okay with me if everything that ever happened to me — the pain, the joy, the weird gross things and the picture-perfect things — happened so that I could teach a few kids what love looks like after pain, joy, weird gross days and picture-perfect moments.
So if you’re scoffing at the amount of thought that goes into how parents talk to not only their kids, but all the kids around their kids, listen, that’s okay. I’m gonna keep giving 100 shits and writing about it and trying to bring each and every shit with me when I go to talk to kids. You keep scoffing, because you just gave me the chance to show my kids what love looks like after a turd scoffs on the Internet.
And it is GLORIOUS.