My new scanning skills have definitely changed the focus of my blogging over the past weeks. I was looking back through old photos again, this time to put together the story of my wedding kimono, when I came upon a small album of my favorite pictures from my childhood. There are only about a dozen or so that I bothered to take with me from home. I’m particular about pictures, and there are phases of my life I’d rather not have memorialized in visual form. But these photos made the cut, times I do want to remember.
The first photo above with my father was taken when I was starting the second grade at age 6, and yes, I was a pale blonde at the time, rather like my own youngest (my older son is inexplicably swarthy, and no, I didn’t have a fling with the mailman, although he was a very nice guy).
This next photo was taken in the summer of 1971, two and a half years later, when I was nine. You’ll note that my expression has lost its childish innocence—I’m self-conscious, even at that tender age. I’m also wearing a bit of make-up and dressed “sexy” in my oldest sister’s flapper costume that she wore for a dance recital, my costume for a float my father and I designed for a Humane Society dog show. This picture always takes me by surprise. “Oh, I was sort of cute back then,” says a little voice in my head and then I pause, an old sadness bubbling up in my chest, mixed with a pang of fear.
That’s because it feels dangerous to say such things about myself, even the little girl that I was. It’s stuck-up. Prideful. Bragging. I know I’ll be punished for my sin in some way, if not immediately then somewhere down the line, because “having a big head” and thinking highly of yourself is the worst thing that can happen to a child. It was certainly dangerous for my parents to “get above themselves,” an aspect of Depression-era North American culture that Alice Munro portrays well in her fiction. Compliments and "big heads" may indeed have been dangerous for my parents' generation.
And then there’s the fact that any cuteness of feature in me was totally cancelled out by my body, which you may observe from the next photo was…well, not blubberously fat, but not at all thin. And even back then, thin was in.
Why do I see my generous thighs first instead of that miraculous Eiffel Tower my father built to my design, gluing tiny pieces of balsa wood together for hours in the basement? Why do I second-guess my looks instead of admiring the “Belle of France” lettering in crepe paper, a trick I learned from a library book on creating your own float? Why does the solid flesh trump the creative deed every time? Eventually I do see these things and most importantly of all my father’s love in helping me create this stage for a can-can girl and her poodle (named, I'm embarrassed to admit, “Boofy” of all things, AKC name “Mimi’s Bouffant”).
But I’m still a little sad because I know that little girl will spend the rest of her life doubting and wondering—am I worthy? Was I pretty? Or do I just pathetically wish I were?
I just finished an interesting book called The Myth of Male Power by Warren Farrell, which argues that men pay a deadly price for gender inequality (fascinating for a mother of sons). But what I want to quote here is the author’s contention that women enter a beauty pageant every day of their lives. As a corporate workshop facilitator, Farrell would put executives through a roleplay where they would be selected for a job promotion based on their looks. Apparently this exercise worked wonders in helping men feel what it was like to live in a woman’s body, because it wasn’t just about sex, it was about self-worth. Those who didn’t make the finals felt rejected, lesser than. Those who did wondered if they were being appreciated for the wrong reasons.
And that’s exactly what it’s like to be a woman.
My situation was complicated by the fact that my much older sisters were willowy thin and lovely. The oldest was a total guy magnet, with suitors in constant attendance. My middle sister was not asmuch the car-stopper, but she had a flair for the dramatic, and I have many memories of her holding court with tables of guys, charming and teasing them. In my novel, Amorous Woman, my protagonist Lydia describes her widowed mother and the power she held over the men who came to pick her up for dates, power that Lydia longed to claim for herself one day. I realize now that I was thinking of my older sisters as I wrote that, a nine-year-old watching from a distance the power a pretty woman could have. But I wasn’t the pretty one. I got the good grades. I performed. But that was never enough.
My parents were loving people, but they didn’t believe in compliments. Compliments on my looks would have to come from strangers. I remember the first time this happened. I was ten and my parents and I had just moved to Albany, New York—my sisters were in college in other states at the time. We were eating out at a fancy restaurant and the waiter, a man from the Middle East, took it upon himself to pay me lavish attention. He called me a young beauty, a princess. Every time he came to pour water, he poured compliments as well. Frankly, it made me shy and uncomfortable. And it further helped shape my attitude toward such treatment when my father commented under his breath, “Guess he’s looking for a big tip.”
Which he probably was. But that link between compliments in exchange for something that put me at a disadvantage continued in adolescence. Simply put, boys said you were pretty when they wanted sex—whether it was true or not had no bearing--and so such things were not to be trusted.
I’m not sure if my self-esteem would be stronger if my parents had been more forthcoming with compliments. I may not have trusted them either and consumer capitalism is certainly invested in making all of its citizens feel lesser than so they will buy, buy, buy. But I do try to compliment my kids, sincerely, whenever I can. I tell them they are handsome (they are) and smart and hard-working.
The other day after my son presented his oral history project and we were safely in the car, he said, “So, are you going to tell me how great I did?” He rolled his eyes a bit, but I could tell he liked it anyway.
Okay, I’m predictable, but at least I don’t have to worry he’ll get a big head, because was born with a large skull anyway!
So, how to conclude these illustrated, painful yet prideful ramblings? Compliment your kids, sincerely, whenever you can. It can’t hurt—while the opposite surely can. That I believe.