"Mommy, why can't you be more pretty"? my daughter asked me one day.
Only women with long hair were “pretty,” according to Sarah. My hand floated to the nape of my neck, smooth after a recent shearing. My hair was short. “Can’t you dress more fancy, Mommy?” she added. And: “Mommy, why don’t you wear more makeup”?
Like many six-year-old girls, Sarah worshipped the Disney pantheon. That day, she was wearing a Rapunzel get-up over fleece pants—the perfect look for a kid who spent her days gracefully accepting compliments for her waist-length auburn waves.
Hearing my daughter’s questions, I felt like she had stabbed me in the back with her safety scissors. The heroines of Disney movies regularly betray their mothers, I just never thought it would happen to me. I wanted to ignore her juvenile style tips, but she had a point.
I was 40, wan and dowdy, a full-time married working mother of two. My own mother, a southern belle born in Brooklyn and raised in Alabama, was also concerned. She had recently started slipping me money to buy new clothes.
Once upon a time, I’d emulated my mom’s rigorous attention to hair, makeup and clothes. In my girl-about-town days, I used to dress for work every morning as if for the office Christmas party, wearing gauzy blouses, pencil skirts and high heels. I ignored my aching feet, and the fact I had to shiver my way through winters.
If Sarah had known me then, she would have liked my style.
But after three years of trying for a third child (years that included two late-term miscarriages—one at five months along), I had stopped caring about a lot of things that used to matter to me. I’d let go of girls’ nights out, sleeping in, shopping, Pilates, therapy, prayer. I had also chopped off my hair during fertility treatment—one less thing to deal with, I figured. My husband, Daniel, didn’t have any strong opinion on my new look; he too was exhausted and distracted.
I never imagined Sarah would be the one complaining.
Maybe, I reasoned, my indifference to my appearance would be a belated feminist triumph. Although it was beginning to seem like I wouldn’t be able to give Sarah another sibling, at least I could keep her from squandering much of her youth in front of a mirror, as I had.
Except she wasn’t having it—she kept dolling up and saying she wanted to be a princess when she grew up. Did she sense the despair behind my asceticism? My last treatment had ended in another miscarriage. I felt and looked more awful than ever, watching dully while Sarah tottered around on high heels and got her nails done, courtesy of my mother.
My husband and I finally decided to stop fertility treatments, and more than a year later, I started to notice my body again. I was surprised and delighted to feel my hair growing long on my shoulders. Desperate to mark the end of such a difficult time, I’d decided to grow it out. And those few extra inches of hair actually made me feel a decade younger, like I was 34 and in the dating phase with Daniel. (Back then he used to proclaimed me “the cutest thing walking,” before kissing me in the lobby of my building.)
But what about Sarah? I didn’t want her to learn to spend all her time primping and preening. But then I realized that Sarah was simply having fun and that my definition of pretty—stringent and joyless—was not the same as hers. In her urging me to add some lipstick and a bit of razzle-dazzle, she’d shown me a middle way, a Zen zone of beauty that put girly pleasures in their proper perspective: as playthings. It was possible to please myself and punk the patriarchy.
Armed with this new attitude, I went shopping. I took Sarah along. She made straight for a purple dress and started squealing when she realized it had a print of vegetables with faces: pouting carrots, winking peppers and smiling leeks. She insisted I try it on, and then buy it. Did it look sexy? Not really. Did I feel sexy? Yes, actually, I did. With fluffy hair and a little lipstick.
Sarah wrapped her arms around me and leaned her head against my belly. “You look pretty, Mommy,” she said.