His Little Girl Asks, “Do I Look Pretty?”
So, What Does He Say?
By: Dale Smith
“Do I look pretty now, Daddy?” my three-year-old daughter Penelope asked as she swiped a tube of toy lipstick across her darling face.
“You don’t need makeup to look pretty, baby girl. You’re always beautiful.”
“But do I look pretty now?” she demanded with the stomp of a foot.
I answered in the affirmative, without qualifying it this time. She accepted my response with a smile, then went back to playing dress-up, happy as ever. I reminded myself that children often need answers that are simple, even when their queries, unbeknownst to their developing minds, are not. And that one in particular—“Am I pretty?”—is among the most loaded of all. As satisfied as she may have been with my unambiguous “yes,” I was convinced I had gotten it all wrong.
Was “yes” enough?
I like to think of myself as a pretty contemporary dad, especially when it comes to raising a little girl. I want her to know she can do whatever she wants to do in life and be anything she wants to be. That there’s really no such thing as “boy’s” this or “girl’s” that. That she doesn’t have to define herself by anything society imposes on her, including—and especially—her looks.
But I still want her to feel pretty.
Because she is. She’s the most beautiful little girl in the world to me.
Okay, I’ll admit I’m a little biased. But it’s not just because she’s my daughter. It’s that my conception of beauty is a bit more complicated than she can probably handle right now. I want her to grow up feeling gorgeous—inside as well as out—but I also want her to know she’s so much more than just “pretty.” I just don’t know how to communicate such a nuanced point of view to a daughter so young she still pronounces “girl” as “dirl.”
How do I tell her it’s who she is, not how she looks, that makes her so stunning? How do I show her that it’s not how she dresses her body but how she expresses her heart that defines her? In a world that so often blurs the line, how do I teach her the difference between appearance and identity?
I haven’t found many answers, but I do have a few ideas about where to start looking.
Her mother, for starters.
My wife Jennifer is a sterling example of a modern woman—tough yet lenient, assertive yet deferential, strong yet tender. And yes, beautiful—from the deepest reaches of her soul to the designer dress she wears on one of our glorious date nights. She’s a woman who’s as comfortable ripping up and rebuilding a tile floor using techniques she taught herself on YouTube as she is getting gussied up and going to the ballet. She won’t call anyone for help changing a flat tire on the interstate, but she’ll let you hold the door for her on the way into a restaurant. Her favorite band is Metallica and her favorite color is pink. Some might call her a walking contradiction.
I say she’s complete.
She’s a woman who doesn’t need a man—or anyone else, for that matter—to navigate through life. Despite this, she still chooses to share the journey with me, and for that I am inexpressibly grateful.
I couldn’t find a more perfect role model for my daughter if I invented one.
Of course, my wife isn’t the only one sending a positive message to our daughter. The entire culture we foster in our home speaks the same language.
We don’t watch shows or movies that promote a gender-biased worldview or that glorify physical allure at the expense of personality, talent and character. That means no Honey Boo-Boo on our flatscreens, but plenty of Doc McStuffins and Kate & Mim-Mim, both cartoons with strong female leads. Our daughter’s bookshelves are stocked with girl-positive narratives, from adaptations of the film Frozen to the Pinkalicious series of books, in which the title character winds her way through a host of zany adventures only to come out on the other side wiser and more empowered. Even a lot of the artists whose music we love—Joan Jett, P!nk, Florence + The Machine, and Penelope’s two favorites, Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor—represent the very values I hope become instilled in my daughter as she grows up.
These media choices are not exactly intentional. They’re an extension of who we are and what we like (and don’t like). Maybe someday I’ll explain the social significance of “All About That Bass” and teach her about the horrors of body shaming, but not yet. I’ll let the message seep slowly into her consciousness and maybe by the time she hits adolescence she’ll be equipped for the inevitable teasing and taunting that blemish the teenage years.
The more I think about it, the more I feel like she must be on the right track, even if I’m not completely sure where it’s headed. But that’s good enough. Wanting to know where the future will take her might be asking too much anyway, especially when she’s only three.
I guess more than anything I hope the answer lies within Penelope herself. I hope her spirit guides her to where she needs to go, whether or not as her dad I get everything right (which I promise I won’t). As long as she feels good about herself, whether it’s her appearance, her intellect, her relationships or her achievements, then I’ll be happy too.
Maybe the best I can do then is just stay out of her way and not give her any hang-ups. Life hands you enough of those as it is.
Maybe all she needs is confirmation, just to know I’m on her side.
Maybe all she needs from me right now is to hear me say she’s pretty.
Dale Smith lives and writes in Louisville, Kentucky, where he fell in love with his astonishing wife Jennifer and formed a family, which includes his two genius stepsons, Christian and Cameron, and his preternaturally precocious daughter, Penelope, who is the subject of this essay. He holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently sweating his way through his first novel, The Miracle Hunter. He admits he might be a little biased about the people he loves.