Thursday, 21 April 2011


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.


  1. I know this post is about so much more than what I am going to pick to comment about, but....

    HOLY CRAP. A PhD in engineering? I am now officially intimidated. By your smarts as well as those gorgeous brown eyes you have.

  2. Great post Claudia! I can only hope and pray that my daughter is able to see her beauty, to truly know it one day. Thanks for this.

  3. You want the story of how I decided to apply for the PhD scholarship, il P? I was talking to a PhD student when I was in my final year of undergrad and bemoaning the fact that I had no money to go abroad and do a PhD (which is what I wanted to do). He said 'well, you know, you could apply for a scholarship' and I said 'oh no, I'd never get one' and he said 'you might as well apply. I knew a girl who got one, and she wasn't very smart either'.

    I was going to be offended, but the thing is, I knew the girl in question and he was right, she WASN'T very smart. So hey! I applied. And then I spent four years bored out of my skull in a lab. True story.

  4. HAH! Claud, I dig you. And regardless of what doo-wah had to say about your smarts, I'm still intimidated.

  5. So interesting...Elfe has that typical Habesha Liya Kebede look, and I expend a lot of mental energy worrying that TOO MANY people tell her how beautiful she is! This morning at the doctor's office an elderly woman told her she was beautiful and then practically mauled her - pinched her cheeks, stroked her legs, rubbed her curls - it was really borderline disturbing. I worry that as she grows older, people will only see her beauty. I always make a point of telling her how smart and strong and curious she is, what a fast runner she is, how she asks such good questions, so she doesn't start to think that all she needs in this world is her pretty face (though I tell her she's beautiful too, of course). But this post has me thinking about how to strike the right balance...

    As always, a fantastically thought-provoking post!

  6. I love this, Claudia, and it is quite true. I think you have more than half the battle won with a good self-esteem of your own self and your own beauty. I feel like some of the lesson is learned by example, they are more likely to believe someone who knows their own beauty. I think you are right, also, that we all clean up quite nicely, that there is beauty in every one of us. I can't say enough about the father's kind appreciation of his daughter's feelings and her beauty. For one who receives it, it is wind in her sails.

  7. I always knew you were one smart cookie, but I'm not sure I remembered that you were an enginerd too. You really are my people. LOL. I had planned on a PhD, but after the umpteenth unscheduled 3-hour meeting of standing in the lab (and really needing to pee) and listening to my prodigy (literally) advisor contemplate whether to use turbulence or turbulent flows in a title for a paper that he planned to write 3 years from then, I had to force myself to focus to "Do not push him out of the lab. Don not push him out of the lab." It was then that I decided for my sanity that a master's was enough. That is my true story.

    As to the main point of your post, I could not agree more. I think our parents were still hyped up on women's lib and kept us focused with what was in our heads instead of what our faces looked like. Good in many ways, but not enough balance to let us know that we were beautiful too. I know I sure would have liked to hear that. Pink has such a thoughtful and strong mama that I know she will know both that she is beautiful and can do anything in this world.

  8. Ahh, so true, so true. My Dad was a harsh critic on looks and especially WEIGHT and unfortunately there are many 'defining' conversations I can recall from childhood/adolescence that aren't pleasant. And on my wedding day, I recall wanting nothing more than for him to tell me I looked beautiful....

    I agree with the others--YOU are so aware you will find that sweet spot balance for Pink...she will know her beauty from the inside AND the outside.

  9. I just wrote you the most amazing, insightful, earth-shattering comment ever. And Blogger ate it. Blogger and I hate each other.

  10. I'm breaking my own no commenting rule for this one, only because it made me SOL (snort out loud as opposed to LOL) because I'm sure I had very similar conversations with mum, but in reverse! I've nearly always been convinced that you're way more attractive than me (then I stopped caring and now I don't really waste mental energy on it anymore). I also have very clear memories of mum telling me that my hair is my best feature (but I felt like what she really meant was that the less said about my OTHER features the better!). For what it's worth, I also have clear memories of Dad telling BOTH of us that we looked great... maybe those have been unfortunately edited out of your memory. Oh, and I'm glad you didn't marry the 16 yr old!

  11. That first time I met you (years ago now!) when we all went out for drinks, I thought, "Wow, Caro is beautiful!" True story.

    When I was a little girl (I think I've told you this before). I asked my father if I was pretty. He paused to think about it and said, "You aren't pretty, you're beautiful. Some people are pretty because they're young, but you have good bone structure, so you will be beautiful all your life." He would be astonished that I remember that. I'm sure he doesn't.

    You ARE beautiful and so is your daughter. If you don't believe me, I suggest you both ask J.

  12. ... and I'm back to clarify that my snorting was most definitely not in derision, but amazement at our different yet similar experiences!

  13. I knew you were some kind of smart-aholic but that you are an engineering smart-aholic is a surprise. I always thought of your "real job" as maybe an editor at a magazine or something.

    Have you read "Reviving Ophelia" ? It talks a lot about how to grow a deep and true sense of confidence in our daughters. I read it years ago, but just yesterday I was talking with another mom friend about this very subject (beauty) and remembered that I need to pick it up again.

    It's a hard balancing act though. Dew Drop doesn't have the typical Liya Kebede kind of beauty, but she still gets fussed over all of the time for being so damn gorgeous. I feel prickly because I don't want her to rely on those comments or to place too much importance on beauty alone. But I also don't want her to feel ashamed of her beauty or feel embarrassed about it.

    I like to pick out grown women who DD will likely look like and say "See her? She has big eyes like you do. When you grow up you get to look a little like her. See her beautiful curls? Her big smile? How tall she is? Her brown skin? You get to be a beautiful, black woman when you grow up!" And I can see that she "gets" it a little and gets an extra spring in her step.

  14. Wonderful thoughts, Claudia.

    I was telling my daughter how beautiful I think she is the other day in front of my mother and my mother said, "she is going to think WAY too much of herself." And I finally realized why my mother NEVER complimented ME.

    What a mistake. I would not have thought too much of myself... but I *would* have thought my mommy thought I was beautiful.

    And that's what I want my daughter to KNOW. She's beautiful. She knows it b/c her daddy and mommy told her so.

  15. WAITAMINUTE - I always knew you were an extremely talented writer, I've seen pics so know you are beautiful, you take gorgeous pics but you're also a Ph.D?!!!

    How did we not know this?

    I agree with all your points about Pink :) Especially on the dad also telling her she's beautiful so she's not swayed by some teenage boy!

  16. Hmmmmm. That last bit. About the boy and her already knowing she's beautiful because of her dad. I. Like. That.

  17. I love this post. I don't recall ever being told I was pretty/beautiful/looked nice as a girl, and I am a woman with serious self esteem issues. I think it is so important for us to tell our girls they are beautiful - and our sons, too - to give them confidence. We know life isn't all about how we look, but having confidence in one's self and solid self esteem can lead us to to greatness in other parts of life.

  18. Oh wow, there is SO much stuff here that I want to think about! Not least - ummm, Lucy, say WHAT? Your comment made ME sol. (Nice acronym). Maybe they had some kind of sophisticated divide-and-conquer thing going on. The plot thickens.

    I might write another post about some of the other stuff or this comment will turn into a novel. So much here to think about!

  19. Love this! I have asked my daughters at various times.... "do you know how beautiful you are?" and when she says yes, I ask, "how do you know?" and they both say, because you told me! LOL!
    Confidence comes from the inside, and the outside. Every child should have parents who think the sun rises and sets on them, not that they don't need to be corrected or taught or whatever, but to have parents who love them the most and who think they are the best.

  20. I LOVE this post!
    I had a lady at daycare once tell me that if I kept telling Mihiret she was beautiful I would give her a big head. She said she never told her daughter she was beautiful.
    Needless to say I went out of my way to tell her daughter she was beautiful from that day forward..LOL
    I was just thinking about all of this as it relates to my two girls. I had a wonderful lady on the plane ask why I was adopting from Uganda when Ethiopians were so beautiful. I told her that Bea was beautiful too...she looked downright skeptical (and she was a Ugandan woman!).
    I hope I am able to help them know their beauty both out and in.

  21. This is a great post Claudia! I have been thinking about this idea a lot since I changed adoption programs. It's been harder for me than I'd like to admit to let go of the idea of what my child will look like. I am afraid of having an ugly child.

    But, you are right, we never know what our children will look like no matter where they come from and all women are beautiful. I returned to university at age 28 and was astounded by the beauty of the 19 and 20 year olds around me and, then I thought, maybe I was beautiful once too! And maybe, I still am.

  22. Oh, and I meant to add, did you know that the 'caucasian race' used to include north Africa and the horn of Africa? The term used to reflect body shape rather than skin tone, as it does today. I think that you are right on the ball with your analysis of why we (people of all races) think that Ethiopians are so beautiful today.

  23. Wow, your posts always give me something new to think about. I was talking with friend recently about a similar beauty issue, and we were wondering if our group of friends (late twenties to late thirties) are just plain more comfortable in our skin given our life experiences, and thus more accepting of beauty in general or whether it is more acceptable to give compliments these days, or a mixture. No idea, but I sure hope my children and nieces/nephews know how beautiful I think they are. And a PhD in Engineering??? Girl, as a former drama major, I'm officially very, very impressed :-)

  24. Thanks for writing this, Claudia. I've been thinking about this issue for awhile but could never have expressed it the way you did. I never thought I was pretty when I was younger which affected me in so many ways my whole life, looking back on it. I want things to be different for my daughter. I read your post out loud to my husband and he is already telling our little girl how pretty she is- your post struck a chord with him too. And I especially loved the comment by Sian-I'm going to pick my moment and say the exact same thing to my daughter when she's about fourteen.

  25. Amazing post. Really really loved it! Have you seen the documentary "Good Hair" by Chris Rock? It was fascinating, hilarious and sad all at once. It was a realy eye-opener into the culture of black hair (and made me really thankful my brown babies are boys).

  26. Great post. We live in a predominately caucasion area and two of our kids are not. They do however happen to be georgous and I make sure they know that. They hear it a lot from us and from others. People comment about how beautiful my daughter or her hair is pretty often. Sometimes I'm worried that it will go to her head too much. She's noticed the differences in our skin, which I explained by letting her know that her birth mother had skin the same color as hers and showing her the picture again. When she asked why again I said that God makes people different becasue it would be boring if everyone looked the same. She walked into church one day and told the Sunday school teacher "God made me this pretty."

  27. It was partly the absolute beauty of your children that led me to read more of your blog. I stumbled across it when you had posted a bunch of photos, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that I said out loud, "What gorgeous babies!"

  28. <>

    This is exactly what I anticipate experiencing when the time comes to meet our children.... I wonder, what will it be like to stare into brown eyes, rather than the blue or gray I've always been used to? Or to know every inch of a person who looks nothing like me or most of the people I'm close to? I think it will create a whole new way I experience beauty... and I can imagine myself feeling sorrow that others can't see it.

  29. how did i miss this one?

    I am zapped emotionally. It's been one of those weird, eating away the real problem kind of days.

    To top it off, I must've said something hiddeous recently because a few people deliberately un-followed my blog today and I want to ask them "what did i say??"

    So I wish I had something deep to say. I agree with Liz. I agree with everyone. So many good thoughts. Great post dear. And I hate your PhD, you smart girl.


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