"Pretty is as pretty as pretty does," my mother always said.
And I always hated it.
I was never one to feel comfortable in my own skin. No amount of doing anything, I maintained, would turn me into something I wasn't. All pretty did, in my book, was stare back at me from the television screen or the pages of magazines, with the disdainful sneer of the popular girls in high school. "I'm a model! The model. Model yourself on this," she seemed to say. I saw myself -- short, imperfect skin, growing curves, unruly hair -- and I saw the model, and I felt inadequate, just like most of us do at some point. There's the reaction we're supposed to have: spend money to attempt to conform to the unattainable. Mine was the opposite: reject. I hid myself in jeans and baggy t-shirts and ignored the onslaught as best I could.
I wanted to feel pretty, but I didn't know how.
When I picked up Mademoiselle tonight, I found her "brushing" her hair with a plastic bristle building block. "That's not a brush!" laughed the nanny, but Mademoiselle smiled coquettishly and continued. Every night, after her bath, I hold her on my lap and gently brush her fine, soft blonde curls. "Your hair is so beautiful!" I murmur. I want to tell her she's pretty, but often I stop myself. I want her to feel strong, powerful, capable, intelligent, but pretty? Pretty carries heavy baggage. The feminist in me wonders if I'm poisoning her with those words; if by telling her she's pretty, I'll make it so important to be pretty that she never feels she is.
There's a threshold age when girls start evaluating themselves and determining where they come up short. Before that, we're all princesses, wearing twirly skirts and dancing un-self-consciously, worried only about the sequins and the colors of our dress-up costumes. After it, we look in the mirror critically and aren't sure we like what we see. I'm not sure when I passed it: at age ten, eleven, twelve? If we're lucky, we pass a second threshold, there's no telling when, and then the reflection begins to finally look like ourselves.
A couple of years ago -- at age thirty-three, give or take -- I found a haircut that truly suits me. My hair doesn't look like a shampoo commercial, but it looks cute, framing my face with soft curls that fall an inch or so short of my shoulders. I've learned how to talk to a hairdresser, even in French, so I don't have to worry too much when I'm forced to change; wherever I go, I'm able to more or less explain what I want.
"Her hair is so beautiful, I don't want to cut it," I confessed to the nanny as we watched Mademoiselle brushing.
"Oh, but you should!" insisted the nanny. "It'll grow back so much prettier." I pictured taking Mademoiselle to the hairdresser for her first haircut, and felt certain she'd sit cooperatively in the chair and watch with interest in the mirror. "Belle!" I'd tell her to engage her, just like I do when we try on new clothes.
I'd have to cut off a lock before we went. To save it for the baby book. To save it for me. And then I realized that maybe I didn't want to cut Mademoiselle's hair because I wanted to prolong the innocence of her baby hair, of not worrying whether it looked "right" or not. Perfectly ridiculous nostalgia, I scolded myself. She won't become damagingly self-conscious at two.
Even when I was at the height of my rejection of fashion, I'd occasionally find clothes that just felt right. I remember in particular a simple black knit top I found in college that marked my waist in a flattering way. When I looked in the mirror, I thought, "This looks good. I feel particularly pretty in this," and it was an unusual enough feeling at the time that I still remember it now. I soon started to find long skirts that would fall nicely from my hips, and I was wearing one of them one of the days my future husband first noticed me, he later confessed. I wasn't looking to fit to a model. I was recognizing what fit me, and it was a different feeling altogether.
Here in Paris, women dress with reflection. You notice it in the Métro: walking out of their houses in the morning, they want to feel pretty. It isn't assumed that they do so to impress men, or anyone else in particular (although doing so isn't an unwelcome side effect, when the men notice respectfully -- as in my experience they mostly do). This isn't the uniform pretty staring back from advertisements, but a multitude of different kinds of pretty, each personal and therefore true.
So this is what pretty does, after all.
I learned to feel pretty here, but in retrospect, maybe it had nothing to do with France. Maybe I would've figured this out eventually anywhere. Now instead of wondering how I might conform to a model, to the model, I've learned to read the pictures in the catalogs and find images of clothes that will look good on me, without self-judgment. I see it as a game, or maybe as a puzzle.
As I pushed the stroller into the elevator on my way home with Mademoiselle, I couldn't help but glance at my reflection in the mirror. Mirrors are like quicksand, and I still sink into the morass as I unconsciously analyze unimportant details, like dark circles and pores that are too big. As I brushed my hair back from my face I noticed with dismay that there were more gray strands than I remembered seeing before. Should I dye? I always told myself I wouldn't. But that was back when gray hair was a sometime and somewhere far far far away proposition, and not a here and now kind of thing. When the elevator doors opened, I was still leaning in close to the glass, contemplating myself unhappily. The irony of only now figuring out the right haircut just when I'm going gray (albeit very slowly, I hope) was not lost on me.
Mademoiselle, whose hair is so soft and golden, what would she think of me if I can't love my hair just the way it is? What will that teach her? The feminist in me told me sternly that I should accept myself the way I am for my daughter's sake. And after all, I couldn't disagree that I'm much more beautiful now at thirty-five than I was at twenty-five, to say nothing of fifteen. Who's to say the trend will reverse now? As if too prove my point, a slim, stylish Parisienne with an elegant haircut, a silver haircut, walked by as I was considering this.
Don't get me wrong: I believe you can dye your hair and be a feminist. But could I dye my own hair and still accept myself as I am? I wasn't sure. For now, I resolved to leave things the way they are.
And to write all this down. For Mademoiselle to read some day.