The older I get the more convinced I am that every woman, every girl, is beautiful. And I'm not talking about that inner beauty nonsense, I mean good old-fashioned external beauty, the type you can see in the mirror. Most of us aren't a size four, many of us don't have perfect skin or an expensive haircut, but all of us look good when we make an effort, all of us have something about us that makes us beautiful. I am an average-looking woman, but that's okay because I'm coming to realise that average is quite beautiful enough.
I did not always know this. When I was growing up, I did not feel beautiful. My parents didn't say I was beautiful; I'm not sure they realised it was important. My mother knew enough from her own childhood not to actively criticise her daughters' features in the way her parents had done to her, and I'm grateful for that. I like to think we're improving with every generation; at this rate I expect Pink will be entering her daughter in pageants. But I think I needed more than just not being criticised. Like every teenager, I stared in the mirror and had no idea whether what I saw was beauty or horror. Some days I was convinced it was one, other days, the other. My face was never going to launch a thousand ships, but I had nice hair and I don't think it would have been too much of a stretch to find something to compliment. Occasionally my mother would look at my colouring and sigh and say ' I do so envy you that you can wear beige. I cannot wear beige at all'. And she was right - she couldn't - and it was the nineties so being able to look good in beige was no small advantage. But I craved more. Once, in desperation, I asked my mother whether I was pretty and she paused and said 'you are quite nice-looking. Now, your sister is very pretty' and you'd probably think that would leave a bigger scar than it does. Thing is - it was true. She got the blue eyes, you see.
But now I have a daughter of my own, and I realise just how fiercely I want her to know that she is beautiful, always, all her life. I have a degree and a PhD in engineering. I do not have a Disney Princess view of a woman's role. I support education for women, and equal pay for equal work, and the right for all of us to do whatever we want to with our lives without being held back by anybody's expectations of what a woman can or should do. I also support being a nice person, nurturing inner character, and not confusing a person's looks with a person's worth. But I think every woman does want to be beautiful, and I don't want her to grow up wondering.
When I was sixteen, for the first time a boy wrote me a letter and told me that he thought I was pretty. If I could go back in time, I would tell my former self not to take this too seriously, that it was not destiny, that sixteen year old boys are attracted to anything with a pulse. But at the time, I honestly thought that this meant we were going to be together forever. I began to make plans for our future married life. I really wish I was exaggerating, but I am not. For the first time in my life I felt beautiful, and that gave him far more power over me than it should have. Fortunately for me - although it did not feel fortunate at the time - he did not really want that power and he did not really want me. But I would have moved heaven and earth for this boy, if he had asked me to. And when it became clear that I expected more of this relationship than he did, it was all I could do not to shout at him but you told me I was pretty! Doesn't that mean anything? Because of course it doesn't. But I didn't know that at the time.
And so, my daughter. What is it going to mean for me, a white mother, to raise a black daughter to see herself as beautiful? Sometimes I wonder if the reason us white folk have been so eager to embrace Ethiopian adoption is because Habesha beauty is.... how can I say this? Maybe this is what I mean: typical Habesha beauty is easy for Europeans to relate to. High cheekbones, slim noses and oval faces? We get that. Loose, long curls? Ditto. It is not a big leap to look at Habesha women and see beauty that we recognise, beauty that reminds us of, well, us. A coffee-coloured, slimmer, taller, more elegant version of us. I'm not saying this preference for this type of Ethiopian beauty over other African beauty is a good thing, by the way, I'm just noticing that it's there.
My daughter does not fit this mould. She has a tiny little button nose, and chubby cheeks rather than sharp cheekbones. She has a high, prominent forehead. She has tightly spiralled curls. She looks nothing like Liya Kebede. And she is beautiful, so beautiful.
When I first met the babies, they seemed so unknown to me. They didn't have my hair or my eyes or my nose. I did not recognise them. Now I know every fold of their skin, every expression of their face, every curl of their hair. It's a strange thing, learning to love a beauty that is not your own, and a beauty that is, if I am honest, different from the beauty I expected. It's intoxicating, too. I know every mother thinks their child is the most beautiful creature the world has ever seen, but my daughter? Honestly, you should see my daughter.
It startles me when I remember that not everybody sees my girl this way. Everywhere we go, people compliment her little toddler curls. But several people have sighed and said 'oh, she's going to hate that hair when she's a teenager'. And I am reminded that not everyone sees her spirals and sees beauty. Cuteness, maybe, but not beauty. It takes my breath away that people say this out loud, in front of her. I usually snap something like 'I hope she always knows her hair is very beautiful' and think remind me to keep my daughter away from your son.
Right now, she's just a toddler and beauty usually means clean clothes and a mostly-clean face. I know I have a lot more work to do on how to nurture her awareness of herself as a black woman as she grows. I see the specialist hair relaxers for children on the shelf at the supermarket and swear never. But then I remember that I don't really know what it's like to have this hair on my own head. I see how beautiful her curls are, just the way they are, but one day she may well wish they were different. I was reading the comments on this totally fantastic post and realised that I shouldn't be tempted to use how she feels about her natural curls as a barometer of my own success as a transracial parent. They are her curls, after all, they are not about me. So I guess she gets to decide. Well, maybe when she's eighteen.
Much, much more work to do. In the meantime, I'm going to tell her how lovely she is until she squirms with embarrassment. And make sure her father says it too, over and over again. I remember reading somewhere that daughters take a big chunk of their self-image from what their father says about them, and I can easily believe that it is true. My parents really did a great job, no complaints, but I don't remember my father ever even mentioning what I looked like. He could probably pick me out of a police line-up, but I think that's as much notice as he took. I just don't think it was important to him. But I want Pink to know that there are always at least two people in this world who look at her and see beauty. Not just because of who she is on the inside, but because of her unique combination of skin and bones and flesh and hair that make her beautiful to look at, too. When she is sixteen a boy tells her that she's pretty, I don't want her reacting like I did. I want her to say Thank you. But then I hope she opens her lovely eyes a little bit wider, looks at him again, grins and say I already knew.