Tuesday, August 21, 2012


We spent the morning at a photographer's studio. I love photography. I am in awe of what people can do with a camera, like an actual camera that isn't my iPhone. And while I don't know what it's like to work under the pressure of potentially unhappy customers, we didn't really have fun. Yes, I'm sure we will get an incredible photo at the end of it all, and since the photo session was a gift from my mum and stepfather, I'm grateful that we had the opportunity. But trying to coerce my children to sit for the perfect shot is not my idea of a good time.

I don't have good feelings about bodies being in the centre of attention on a good day, or more specifically, my body being the centre of attention. Blame the mean boys and girls of my youth, my penchant for baking, my hips' homage to Ruben, or my years in ballet, but I've never been a big fan of my body, and this generally makes me feel uncomfortable in any setting where attention is thrown my way, even when it's positive. (This is not my best trait, but it is who I am. I even annoy myself, like when someone compliments my hair and all it does is make me feel terrible about the rest of body. Just accept a compliment, already.)

As a parent I often struggle with just how much attention is given to my daughters' looks. Don't get me wrong, their beauty stops me in my tracks. But they are my kids, and I'm hard-wired to think so. And I am also stopped in my tracks by their thoughts and feelings, and even sometimes by their jokes (Alyce over breakfast today: What letter makes honey? Me: I don't know. Which one? Alyce: "B"!) But strangers who only meet them for a few moments, or acquaintances we run into only now and again, they always focus on their looks and they just can't seem to stop going on. And on. In some ways this attention make me feel proud because I know that it isn't their good looks that gets the attention, but their enormous hearts that shine through their faces. But other days I start to worry about what Alyce and Shira are learning from all this attention.

Like most things, I'm conflicted (surprising, I know). Rebecca at Girl's Gone Child made an excellent point about raising our girls to enjoy their own beauty, and it has stuck with me since I read it last year. She writes:
I want my children to own their beauty, not be ashamed of it. I want them to know how to take compliments and to return them because we are the sum of all of our parts. In order to have healthy bodies we must know how to properly care for them, not ignore that they exist. Our bodies are more than just shells. They bring pleasure and yes, even happiness when treated with respect and love. So ignoring our daughters' physical selves does not protect them so much as it sets them up for potential guilt and insecurity. (Find the rest here.)
This is good stuff: we are the sum of many parts, bodies included. But my challenge comes in the form of having absolutely no idea how to teach my girls to love their bodies but not become defined by them. For them, right now, their bodies are praised. But let's face it, a few mean (or simply thoughtless) comments down the line and all of a sudden that praise turns to critique, and when that happens I want them to stand on the knowledge that their worth comes from more than bodies. I grew up thinking I was somehow second-class because I wasn't as skinny as my friends. Now that I'm a mother to two girls, I find myself in a bit of a defensive position when it comes to bodies.

Relax, you're thinking, and you're probably right. This isn't the first time I've over-thought something. At the end of the day I try to teach my girls to enjoy their bodies and not to take things too seriously. We dress up as princesses and fairy ballerinas, dress up in my clothes and make-up, and then spend hours forgetting about what our bodies look like as we chase each other around the park playing tag and secret agent. What I didn't like about this morning was that I felt like we signed up for an hour of picking on my daughter's bodies. It became an exercise in choosing the best clothes, brushing the hair out of Alyce's eyes, and placing their bodies just the right way. When the photographer asked if I could fix their wispy, fly-away hair, I said no, that's who they are. When he wanted them both smiling directly into the camera, I refused to beg constantly for them to listen and sit still. When he looked disappointed by their ability to listen, Matt and I were laughing on the sidelines at Shira's determination to thwart his every attempt at control. I think we were terrible customers, but I was unwilling to make this a moment for (mostly) Alyce to feel as though there was something wrong with her, that her body didn't look just right for the pictures. There are so many things for them to learn as children, between all the talk of manners and rules and learning how to be a kind and generous human being, I'd rather not make an issue out of some fly-away hair.

This gift from my mum is a wonderful one, and I can't wait to see what pictures did come out of today. If we ever do this again I'll see if we can find a photographer able to come to our house and follow them around, capturing them the way I love best: up to no good. For now, though, I'll mostly just enjoy these blurry photos I took with my iPhone. They're blurry because Alyce and Shira are children and don't like to sit still. Also, I was laughing so hard. That's way more fun than static free hair styles and matching dresses.


  1. Oh, wow...this is SUCH a loaded topic. I have two daughters, very different. I just can't remember people commenting on my son's physique CONSTANTLY (aside from saying that he's tall like his dad). Violet is willowy, Margot is more "solid". They have very different colouring and face shapes, hair types and builds. Violet, for one, misses NOTHING and I wonder how long it will take for her to start noticing, or commenting, on their differences. They often colour a picture of princesses or ballerinas and ask me which one I like best (which in their minds means which one do I think is prettiest). I always say, "I'm not sure...I haven't talked to any of them. I'd have to see what their personalities are like to know which princess I'd most like to be friends with!" I could go on and on. Girls are particularly under the scrutiny of the world's eye. I never hear my husband wonder aloud what he looks like from behind because it never occurs to him that anyone is looking at or scrutinizing his perfections/faults. Imagine the freedom!
    Great post. I love how you always shoot from the Rubenesque hip (I have them too, and am learning to if not LIKE them, at least accept them)and share those unsettling moments of motherhood. Because so often when I share these thoughts with family, I'm given a "lighten up!" look. But these are the things that keep me up at night, you know? I know you know. End of novel.

  2. There's definitely nothing wrong with raising girls (and boys!) to "enjoy their own beauty"; the difficulty arises because our culture tends to over-emphasize beauty (more specifically, a particular type of heteronormative femininity) as the foundation of a girl's self-esteem. But of course we want our children's self-esteem to be more robust, substantial, and less subject to the whims of others.

    I like this article about talking to little girls in ways that affirm other aspects of a girl's self-esteem:

  3. I think the photographer did a great job considering how hard it is to get your girls to stand still.