How to Talk to Your Daughters About the Beauty Myth


By Siobhan Carroll, WRUN Contributor
Braevehearts Blog

I find the universe’s machinations to quite canny sometimes. My almost six year old daughter is deeply observant, the kind of child who notices when you change the hand towels in the bathroom (this doesn’t extend to remembering to brush her teeth without prompting for some reason). Lately she has tuned her antennae to me when I am putting on makeup, something that happens maybe twice a week. I don’t know if it is a result of her growing awareness of boys and girls being different, or just that it looks kind of funny when your mom is putting paint on her face, but I am acutely aware of it.

For the record, my daughter is gorgeous, with a canvas of creamy skin dotted with freckles and perfectly mottled pink cheeks. She has eyes the color of an autumn sky framed by dark lashes and perfect dimples that you could scoop guacamole from. How do you explain the concept of makeup to a tiny person whose appearance A) isn’t something she should be thinking about because she’s a kid and B) is a non-starter because said appearance is perfect anyway?

She likes to sit next to me while I put makeup on, messing with the brushes, looking in the mirrors, playing with the different tubes and packaging. She asks what each item is for, watches me use it, sometimes pretends to do it herself. She’s asked me why I wear I makeup, and I’ve said something along the lines of “because it makes my skin look pretty like yours” or “it just helps cover these dark circles under my eyes from not getting enough sleep”. I feel like those are half-assed explanations though, but it is a loaded question. The full truth is complicated.

I wear makeup to cover up the story my face currently tells- that I am tired from having three children, one a newborn. That I rarely wash my face at night. That I haven’t had a facial in over a year. That I don’t take care of myself like I used to.

I wear makeup to feel like I’m trying. To put my best foot forward when I’m meeting new people or want to make a good impression.

I wear makeup to feel attractive, to feel young. I’m only 36 for Pete’s sake!

I wear it to my regular mom’s night out because it is a way to feel indulgent about time that I so rarely have these days.

I wear makeup because society says I should.

That last one hurts, which means it is the real truth. Makeup is one of those things that addresses a problem we didn’t know we had. Yes, Cleopatra wore kohl but if it weren’t for the modern cosmetics and beauty industry would we be standing in front of mirrors lamenting the paucity of our eyelashes and seriously considering Brooke Shields’ sales pitch?

Back to the universe- this has been making the rounds on the internet in the last week:

The model transforms within a minute from a very pretty, normal woman into what can only be described as a Barbie doll. The most disturbing thing about the video is not the use of makeup and hair extensions- things that given the time and means we could all do- but the digital manipulation of the woman’s body that renders the original model unrecognizable. I actually flinched when the retouching lengthens the model’s legs, as though it was being done to her physically.

Then there are these illustrations by artist David Trimble, an attempt at making Disney princess-like characters out of actual female role models like Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafazai. It was done, in the artist’s words, “to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to paint an entire gender of heroes with one superficial brush”. Many people didn’t take it too kindly- reducing Anne Frank to a cartoon is a provocative move- but I find it rather brilliant. To say that to be a hero you must be a wasp-waisted, big-haired cookie-cutter figurine with an omnipresent smile plastered to your face is absurd, and Trimble skewers that absurdity to perfection while displaying an extraordinary swath of heroines of all shapes, sizes, colors and ages.

My husband and I were flipping through OnDemand movies last night, looking for something to watch and the thumbnail for the Little Mermaid flew by. I made some sort of growling noise and said I didn’t like that movie, and since my husband may or may not have witnessed a few impromptu family renditions of “Part of Your World” featuring my sister on lead vocals with a wooden spoon for a microphone, he looked perplexed. “Well, I DID like it, until I realized that she gives up her voice- her actual, literal voice!- to be with some dude she spied for 15 seconds over the bow of a ship passing in the night”. Bogus message, supremely catchy songs though (Le Poisson is my personal favorite. Hee hee hee haw haw haw!).

We are bombarded constantly with messages about our physicality as women and precious few about our brains (or voices, for that matter). Heck, this is true of men too- less David Beckham maybe, more Neil DeGrasse Tyson. We are visual creatures, we respond to things we find visually pleasing and there is nothing wrong with that, but creating unattainable ideals is a problem. There is no difference between Photoshopping that model and caricaturizing important females in history. Both started with real women and both attempted to make them fit some kind of pre-determined ideal, and both ended up ultimately dehumanizing them. One was just more upfront about it.

So here’s what I’m going to say to my daughter when the makeup thing happens again: nothing. I’m going to let her play like she does and ask questions.  I will answer them the best way that I can, and tell her that it is just part of how I like to feel at my best. And then we will play soccer again, or read books, or I’ll pretend to be Robot Mommy (My robot voice is awesome and for some reason they listen when Robot Mommy tells them to do stuff. All hail the robot overlords!) . She’ll learn that being the best her involves being healthy, being smart and expressing herself, and that all the mascara in the world can’t replicate the thrill of a goal, the joy of a great book, or laughing hysterically with your best friends.*  That’s where real life is lived, and true beauty resides. It is not in a magazine.

*And also, beware giant undersea octopus witches singing catchy tunes.