we talk about it, her father and i.

without hand-wringing, because it is neither of our first priorities, but with curiosity nonetheless, because observation of humanity is a hobby here. like a betting people taking wagers, we muse about it with gravity, as if it mattered…and in the same breath, with cavalier pretense, as if it didn’t.

will she be pretty?

it’s not a polite thing to talk about.  unless offering up compliments or weighing aesthetics and symmetry, ‘pretty’ is not a subject for public discussion.  society is more comfortable with those judgements kept under catty cover, spewed all over reality tv but never actually parsed out at the dinner table.

and yet…her father and i ruminate on the topic like cows at a cud, chewing it over.

she’s as cute as a bug’s ear, we’re clear on that.  fuzzy head, skin like butter.  her blue eyes are bright and, we’re quite sure, intelligent. we’ve been known to break into parental rhapsody over the edible nature of her fat little legs.  we also call her Piggy Nose.  hey, it’s a piggy nose. facts is facts.

do not get me wrong.  her little face with its elfin gaze and double chins is precious to us: the most beautiful baby girl face we know. because it is hers…and we love her, without qualification or caveat.  but still we wonder.

maybe it’s simple validation-seeking, a co-dependent search for the cheap pat-on-the-head that says we has us a pretty baby and thus must therefore, by genetic extension, be not so terribly fugly ourselves.  could be. we are not above cheap pats-on-the-head, us.  but i think it’s more.  especially since we never once had this conversation about Oscar, who is equally the fruit of our loins and really rather a pretty boy, if i do say so myself.  but in this one area, there is no gender equity.

we shouldn’t care if she’s pretty, after all.   smart, sure.  kind, yes. resilient, absolutely.  empathic and hard-working and thoughtful would be nice too.  with a side order of creative, thank you very much and i’ll deal with the crayoned walls later.  but pretty? beyond the flattery to our own gene pools, why would we care about pretty?  the exotica of the child beauty pageant circuit holds no lure for us; trolloped-up little girls in mascara and pint-size prom dresses give me the heebies.  we eschew sex-specific toys, let our son’s hair grown long, harbour hope and suspicion that gender is mostly a construct.  pretty shouldn’t matter to us.

but pretty always matters more than it should.

no matter how feminist our politics, there’s no escaping the fact that we live in a world where for girls, “worthy” and “pretty” end up conflated more than they should.  even if we reject the connection utterly, others will eventually take it up.  it’s in the ether of this culture. we will teach her that beauty is inside, and mean it, and love her for every inch of herself. but that will not protect her from the pageant that is simply living in a female body, coming to selfhood in a skin that gets appraised and assessed and reflected and judged, every day from puberty through to cronehood.

pretty is bound, at some point in her life, to be the yardstick against which she judges herself.

part of me thinks our musings on the subject are us trying to guess at how and when she and the yardstick will collide, readying ourselves to help her negotiate a relationship with pretty that does not subsume or damage all the other things she is.  because pretty is a brutal master, no matter what one’s face actually looks like.

Dave swears that his personal early research into Women, the Species, shows that the girls who grew up believing themselves “the pretty ones” often ended up stunted, their personalities self-restricted, externalized, by the emphasis placed on their surfaces.

i was the opposite.  i grew up in a house where pretty never came up.  when my father left, he took with him my mother’s sense of her own attractiveness…and i was well into college before she took any of that back.  i was expected to be clean, pleasant, pleasing, polite…but  “pretty is as pretty does” was as far as my mother ever went towards an assessment of my looks.  i grew up with the overwhelming sense that being embodied in female form was a vaguely shameful thing, and that my flaws – crooked nose, pudgy belly, short humpy neck – were horrors barely to be tolerated.  i was 21 the first time i ever remember being called pretty, flat out pretty.  i was so grateful i nearly fell over myself to sleep with the flattering party, to an REM soundtrack in a dirty little room.

so yeh, my late-blooming sense of my own appeal did inspire me to develop a sparkling, uh, wit and intellect as compensation, but it also led to a deep, longstanding insecurity in the worthiness of my physical person.

i don’t want either extreme for Josephine.

and so we talk about it, this unspeakable thing in terrible taste. we hope she’s pretty, but not too pretty.  we hope to teach her that even if the question of pretty is always out there, waiting to tempt her or cause her doubt, her worth is more than the sum of her parts.  no matter how lovely her parents think they are.  or how loony they sound talking about it out loud.

do you talk about pretty?  do you wonder, for your own daughters?  have you worked out your own relationship to your looks and how they’re taken up by others, in this life?