I read a very thoughtful post-and-comments on the subject of the beauty we mothers see in our children last night, and it got me thinking. I have a nine year old daughter who is bright and talented and talkative and loves math and reading and who is also already convinced that she is a little too fat.

She lives in an Arab environment and goes to an international French school and has American friends, so her influences are mixed. Arab and French women tend to be more feminine than American women, for whatever reasons. It’s rare for girls to go out for sports; they tend to take dance or theater or music. For many years, she has been the only girl in her class without pierced ears. I don’t know at what age the French pierce ears, but Mauritanians pierce their daughters’ ears at 3 days. In a language where there is no word for child, only for son/daughter, boy/girl, you have to have a way to know at a glance the sex of the child. Families who can’t afford earrings for their tiny ones tie bits of brightly-coloured twine through the holes to keep them open. Let’s not think about how they are pierced in the villages and shantytowns. It’s best not to.

Although she of course compares her looks unfavorably to her friends’, in some ways I don’t worry about her self-esteem. My daughter is exotic in her environment. She has fair skin; she is American; to some, her passport is as precious as pure gold. She received her first marriage proposal when she was 4, and this turned out to be the first of several proposals, mostly from men in their 20s or 30s.

Ilsa is small for her age, and at 4 she still looked like a toddler. I was out with Ilsa and my friend Z, and it had gotten late. Ilsa lay down on the carpet and went to sleep, and Z’s cousin, about 17, covered her with his robe. Then he told me, “I’ll wait for her; I’m going to marry her.”
I took a deep breath and carefully explained that in our culture we do it differently, that she’s the one he’ll have to convince, not me, and that not until she’s about 22 and finished with university. I thought I was very polite, especially considering that my initial emotions curled my hands into fists, but Z was appalled at my manners. “It’s a great compliment,” she hissed at me. “What’s wrong with you? It means he thinks she’s really beautiful.”

I was skeptical, though, as this same young man had earlier been exploring with me the possibility of me getting him a visa to America. I suspect that my daughter’s golden hair had less to do with it than her golden passport.

When she was smaller, everywhere we went people would mutter, “Zweina, zweina, masha’allah” (beautiful, beautiful, thank God—the “prayer” is meant to avert the Evil Eye) while reaching out to pat her cheek, feel her hair. They still do it, although to a lesser extent now that she’s older.

Ilsa takes it all in stride. “Why would he want to marry a little girl?” she asks me when, at the age of 8, she receives a proposal from someone who is about 25. “I bet he’ll be dead by the time I’m old enough!” She laughs. “We can only hope,” her father adds dryly.

On the cusp on the teenage years, she moves through her days with confidence, braids swinging down her back. Of course she’s beautiful, but what I want to show her is how the whole package works; how what is inside of her will come out and shape her features to show grace and kindness, or sourness and cruelty.

When she was little, someone gave her a book of Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast. I’m not a big Disney fan but I don’t mind their version of this story because it’s more full of morals than the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. Gaston is beautiful on the outside but not on the inside; the beast learns to be beautiful on the inside before he can become beautiful on the outside; only Belle is beautiful in both places.

Inner Beauty. I don’t mean to be mystical here; it’s something that we all recognize on some level or another—how when we love someone, we see the whole package. Ilsa sparkles. She’s more than just a set of features that I think resembles her grandmother’s—it’s what she does with those features: how she pouts and blinks her eyes when she wants something but can’t hold the expression and we both start giggling; how she gives me this cheesy grin when she thinks she’s about to hear a “yes”; how she glows when she’s excited about something and dances around the room; how angelic she looks when those features are at rest in sleep (yes I know it’s a cliché. There’s a reason things become clichés, you know). It’s her ability to turn a neat room into an absolute pigsty but to her, it makes sense—the towels are carpets and the pile of clothes is a throne, don’t you see, Mom? It’s how she walks through rooms with her nose in her book, holding a plate of scraps for the rabbit, and calls for someone to open the door for her because it doesn’t occur to her to set down her book, feed the rabbit, and then pick it up again.

When you are away from someone you love and think of them, you don’t think of their face. You think of them—their essence, who they really are. It is an emotion deeper than words or pictures, one that really doesn’t need them. It’s why we can forget faces but remember people. This essence goes by other names, character or soul. Teenagers can’t understand that a pimple on the end of their noses is of much less importance to how their face ultimately looks than how they treat the unpopular girl on the bus, but one of my goals* in raising my daughter is to teach her this. She already instinctively chooses her friends for their characters; her best friend is the girl who likes reading and climbing trees, not the one who prefers trying on her mother’s make-up to acting out the latest stories they’ve invented. But I remember how enticing those other girls can be. They’re the ones who tend to be popular in high school. I want to give her enough of an anchor for her soul that she stays true to who she really is, and that in truth she is someone who makes wise choices.

To be honest, Donn and I are not among the “Beautiful People.” We weren’t popular in high school; we weren’t swamped with dates in college. (Although, like beetles, we are beautiful to each other :) ) I will be very surprised if Ilsa ends up with model-good looks. But that’s not what I’m worried about. I don’t care if someone sees her walking down the street and is struck by her beauty, although if we stay in the Arab world, it may happen. But I care that she impress people she meets with the qualities that make her uniquely Ilsa, my beautiful daughter.

*I’m including this word in a blatant attempt to qualify this post for Scribbet’s writing contest.