“Ohhhh, no,” my friend said knowingly, looking on as she bounced her own baby on her knee. “Don’t ehhhh-ver look at your face next to her face up close in a mirror. Goes for your hands, too.”
But it was too late for me. I stared up at the cheap plastic mirror hanging over me as I lay on a play mat with you, two months old or so. I stared the way people stare at a car wreck. “My God, it’s horrible!” I said. “Since when do I look like this?”
I have thought a little more than usual about beauty since you were born – but not because of the effects of pregnancy on my body. It’s more because of the sudden awareness of age and imperfection that comes with producing a tiny, utterly perfect being. Next to your smooth toffee skin, I suddenly notice the years and beach trips painted on my own. I’d grown accustomed to my rough, perpetually cracked feet, but when I look at yours, with not a line, not a callus, I am awed. I don’t sit around contemplating this; I’m too busy working and cleaning and playing with Legos and enjoying myself and getting things done. It’s just been a shift in the background of my self-perception, so to speak.
The other day, I saw a video from Dove, designed to make us appreciate the beauty within each of us (and buy Dove products, an objective the company’s Real Beauty campaign has achieved remarkably well). In the video, Dove chooses busy areas of cities around the world and labels two doors at the entrance to a building: one Beautiful, one Average. They then record how women react, which door they choose, and what they had to say about it afterwards. One moment in the video brought me to tears: when a mother sees that her daughter is about to walk through the Average door and pulls her through the Beautiful door in just the no-nonsense way I would, if I ever saw you make you make such a choice. And yes, it was eye-opening to see gorgeous women in the video talk about why they chose the Average door.
But something bothered me about it, too. I felt resentful and couldn’t explain why. It stayed in the back of my mind for days before I could articulate it. Finally, I figured it out: I have lots of male friends who I know for sure would walk through an Average door if a Handsome/Average entrance were presented to them. If I asked them, “Are you good-looking or average-looking?” they’d say, “Average,” without any shame or coyness. And they’d be right. And they wouldn’t really care too much.
So that’s what bothers me. It bothers me that for women, beauty has always been paramount, so much so that even efforts to change beauty paradigms still make beauty mean so much more than it really does.
Of course, Dove is using a different definition of beauty here. They’re using the definition mothers use when they look at their kids. They’re defining beauty not as above-average at all, but as reflected love, as self-love, as self-worth.
In that definition, everyone is beautiful. Our children are beautiful because we love them so much. My wrinkles and grey hairs are beautiful because I, too, am loved. When you, my daughter, tap my crooked teeth and say “Teeth! Bootiful, mommy!” that’s the way you’re defining beauty, too: you’re saying, “You’re my MOM! You’ve got teeth in your mouth! That’s AMAZING!” And that’s how all of us should think and feel, all the time. More power to anything that promotes that definition.
But there’s still something I don’t like about women having to choose a door in the middle of their day. Halfway through the video there’s a woman who pauses, looks at the labels, and continues on her way. It’s presented as though we should pity her for not wanting to choose, for not being willing to call herself beautiful. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that was the right reaction. “Um, sorry, beauty products company, but all I want to do is go to work/get lunch/pick up my kid/buy my groceries. And there’s a side entrance the next street over. So screw you. I won’t label myself for your camera.”
I guess I have contradictory desires. I want a world where you, my daughter, feel beautiful every day. I also want a world where you can choose the Average door and, if interrogated, give an answer like the one I hope I would have: “Why? Because I think I’m average-looking. I’m also average for artistic skill, foosball and cooking ability. I’m below average for math skills, spatial reasoning, memory and bowling. I’m above average for intelligence, organization, writing skill, and – well, I could go on, but what’s the problem? Am I missing something? …Oh, you’re saying everyone is beautiful? That’s great! In that case, might I suggest you look up ‘average’ in a dictionary? Because if everyone is beautiful, then beautiful is the average, and we can just knock down that pillar in the middle and walk through the door together.”
Or maybe I wouldn’t have said any of that. Maybe I would have walked through the beautiful door: partly because that’s what I would tell you to do. Partly because that’s what you would tell me to do. Partly because every quirk and sign of wear and tear on me is a reminder of a life I’ve loved to live. Partly because I am your walking, talking birthplace. Partly because I share the innate beauty of any living creature. Partly just for me.
I want you to choose the beautiful door, and I want there not to be a beautiful door at all. Maybe I even want you to knock it down.