Curse of Beauty
My daughter posts a bikini selfie on Instagram. Half her ass is showing. I rush to her room and swing the door open so hard the knob makes a hole in the wall. I say, “Take it down.”
My daughter is fourteen. She’s 5’5” and just over a hundred pounds. She looks like a marathon runner or a beach volleyball player, one of those women who can run across the sand in a bikini and nothing jiggles. She wears glasses and braces and her hair straightened and down to her butt. She has big, pouty lips and defined cheekbones. People say we look alike, but she is much prettier than I am—than I ever was.
I named her Samantha and since the day she was born I’ve called her Sammy. I almost named her Roxy, but friends warned me against it: “Only if you want her to be pole dancer.”
Sammy’s in eighth grade at Palmetto Middle, the same public school I went to thirty-five years ago. She and I have a conference with her science teacher, Ms. Tortuga, because Sammy got a D on her midterm report card. Sammy went to Sunset Elementary, a language magnet, which was a hell of a lot harder than Palmetto Middle. She got all As and became fluent in Spanish. Now she’s not doing her homework in any subject.
When I was in eighth grade, I wouldn’t have considered not doing my work. I cared about my grades. But Sammy doesn’t seem to care about anything except her hair.
Sammy has long, curly hair, but the style today is straight. For her Bat Mitzvah a year ago, I took her to a blow dry bar and that did it. She walked out with the perfect hair for a thirteen-year-old. She didn’t wash her hair for twelve days and it got so greasy I could smell her ten feet away. She refused to wash it until one of her friends told her it was time.
I made a deal with her then, which I thought was one of the best parenting moves of my career: I’d take her to the blow dry bar every time she finished a novel. This was when she still made As. She read two novels, long ones, and two Sundays in a row I paid $46 plus tip and she got her hair straightened. But then her aunt got her a flat iron for Christmas and now she spends an hour at night with the flat iron and then wakes up forty minutes early to re-iron her hair before school. She hasn’t read a book since.
I meet Sammy in the front of the school and as we walk past the cafeteria and into the science wing, I’m hit by the smell—the same Clorox and tater tots and gym socks smell I suffered through every day of what used to be called junior high. I remember the ninth grade dance we had in that cafeteria and how we thought the dance was “so gay.” “Gay” was our word for things we didn’t think were cool. Now I’m gay.
Jill Savitt smoked cigarettes in the bathroom during that dance. I thought Jill was cool. Now there’s vaping. Sammy told me kids think vaping is cool. Kids are idiots.
Sammy and I sit at desks in the front row for our teacher conference. Tortuga stands in front of us like she’s about to deliver a lecture. She’s tall, not fat, but solid. She looks around sixty with brown straight hair and gold highlights. Most striking are her teeth, which are too big and too white.
“So nice to meet you,” Tortuga says. She smiles. “Your daughter is a pleasure,” she says, and keeps smiling. “I so enjoy having her in my class.” She leans in and lowers her voice, which has the effect she’s going for. I’m totally drawn in. She says, “Samantha is such a pretty girl.” I thank her. I probably blush.
I say Samantha’s dropped the ball. I ask what she needs to work on, what I can do to help. Tortuga says something about mass and velocity, then she turns to Sammy and says, “You should not be wearing those shorts. When you wear those shorts, every boy gets an erection.”
I am totally surprised. If Sammy wasn’t there, I may have laughed that nervous laugh I get when I’m face-to-face with a weirdo. But I play it cool. And I wonder if Tortuga’s right. What do I know about eighth grade boys? Also, I have been thinking the same thing: my child dresses like a tramp.
We drive straight to Target to buy new uniform shorts.
Miami-Dade public schools require kids wear a uniform: a polo style shirt and jeans or Bermuda shorts. No short shorts. Uniforms serve to equalize students. Uniforms take away peer pressure so kids can focus on learning and not on how they look. Normally, I’d take the stance that kids should be allowed to wear what they want and to express who they are. But now I see uniforms as a respite from the pressure to look sexy. Still, Sammy does her best to express herself. Her shorts are so tight, they ride up her thighs and the pockets don’t lie flat. She wears her jeans skin-tight, too, and is in the habit of hiking them up every few seconds. We have an ongoing fight about this. I tell her to pull them down. She tells me to pull mine up. I say, “No, that’s gross, you can see everything.”
Apparently the style in middle school is camel toe.
Sammy and I have had many fights over her clothes. Some I’ve won: no high heels, no thong underwear. And some I’ve wondered if I’ve made too big a deal out of and then conceded: shorts that look more like a bathing suit, padded bras.
My mom buys most of Sammy’s clothes. Every time they have a shopping spree, Sammy comes home with Daisy Dukes and midriff shirts and spandex dresses that barely cover her ass. My mom’s assessment: “She looks beautiful.”
I’m not saying she doesn’t look beautiful. That’s the problem.
I fight with my mom, too, but she plays dumb and she plays Grandma. According to my mom, she only got to dress me in frilly dresses until I turned three, and then I refused to wear anything but my brother’s brown corduroys and a T-shirt with the iron-on “Keep on Truckin.” I think what’s happening here is my mom didn’t get to dress her little girl. So she’s dressing mine.
A week later, I ask Sammy what’s going on in science. Sammy says, “Today Ms. Tortuga said, ‘You’re so beautiful, people think you’re stupid.’”
“You are not stupid.” I say. “No one thinks you’re stupid. You know that, right?”
“Ms. Tortuga does.”
I cannot fall asleep. I remember how sure I was at Sammy’s age that I wasn’t pretty. Through high school and college and for years, I wore boxer shorts with men’s suit vests I bought at thrift stores. I wore big, horn-rimmed glasses and no makeup, when all of my friends had makeup bags stuffed into their glove compartments so they could put it on before school. I went for ugly because I didn’t think I could make pretty. I believed I was ugly for a very long time.
And while it sucked, it forced me to develop other charms. I worked hard in school and in sports and I knew I had to rely on my personality to get any attention.
But what if a girl believes beauty is her only asset? Sammy already stopped trying academically, which could ruin her future. She already spends hours browsing bathing suit websites, which wastes so much time and puts an impossible beauty ideal in her mind. She posts selfies on Instagram—even bikini shots—and who knows who’s lurking on the Internet. And I’m so afraid she’s not eating enough.
First thing in the morning, I call Tortuga. I say, “Please stop talking about my daughter’s looks. She’s getting the message that she’s stupid.”
“Oh, I never said Samantha was stupid,” Tortuga says. “I said, when she sits in my class looking so beautiful, people will think she’s stupid, but she has to prove them wrong.”
“Why should she have to prove anything? You can be pretty and smart.”
“Oh, there’s nothing more appealing,” Tortuga says. And then if it’s possible for a voice to light up, her voice lights up and she goes on about my daughter’s perfect body. How elegantly she moves. How she doesn’t even wear makeup. “She doesn’t even try,” Tortuga says, and I wonder if she means in class or with her looks. Then she clarifies, “All she has to do is look at the boys with her beautiful big eyes and the boys go brain dead.”
And then a weird thing happens. I go brain dead. I know I should be disturbed, but I am seduced. And I’m flattered.
My daughter is beautiful. I wanted to be beautiful. And isn’t she a reflection of me?
Tortuga says, “I had to work hard to get the boys’ attention. I had to get good grades so I could help the dumb kids.”
I say, “I had to be a clown.”
She says, “I didn’t get pretty until college and then I was unstoppable.”
I say, “I didn’t get pretty until forty.”
Tortuga says, “Pretty girls have it so easy.”
A few hours later, I sober up: Fuck you, Tortuga. Kids already think there’s a divide between the smart girls and the pretty girls. Don’t compound it. And it’s not Sammy’s problem if a boy gets an erection. Don’t put that shit on my daughter.
The next day, Sammy comes down stairs in jeggings and a halter top. Her friend’s mom is honking in our driveway. The girls are going to wander around Dadeland Mall.
I block her at the door. I say, “You are not wearing that top.”
I stand with my arms crossed, my kid in a halter top, gunning for the door. She still feels safe in the world. Do I let her live free a little longer or do I tell her there are people out there—boys, old men, even women teachers—who prey on children?
I think of the fight we had when I found her bikini selfie on Instagram.
“No. Bathing. Suit. Pictures.” I said.
“Everyone posts bathing suit pictures,” she said.
All of her fourteen-year-old friends post the exact same pictures. They pose in their skimpiest bikinis and aviator glasses, the exact same glasses with the bluish lenses. All of their backs are to the camera in the exact same position as they slink into the ocean or into a pool. They turn their heads so their long, silky hair flips just so as they peak around at the camera. I have seen hundreds of these pictures on her feed. They are so fucking cliché.
“I don’t care what your friends are posting.” I said. Except I do care because this Lolita bullshit is an epidemic. I didn’t know how to articulate how sad I felt that her friends derive their self-esteem through their looks; that they show off their bodies and wait for approval. I read the comments: “Hot bod.” “Nice!” “Looking sexy.”
I felt like throwing her phone out the window. I said, “You’re more than your body.”
“What?” she said, like she had no idea what I was talking about. Then she said, “Why are you so prude?” and something softened in me.
I said, “Are you advertising you want to have sex?”
“What if I am?”
“Well if you are,” I said, “I want to make sure you’re ready, emotionally.”
We stopped fighting just then and she said, “What do you mean?” And then we talked about how the first boy she kissed got clingy and how she didn’t know how to tell him she wasn’t interested anymore and how the second boy got mean and how hurt she felt. I knew where she stood sexually and I supported her.
I said, “When you have sex, your heart gets so involved. You have to be ready.”
She’s going to the mall, heading out into the world. I don’t want her to be afraid. I don’t want to kill her spirit, so I say the thing that scares me the least: “Because that outfit implies you want sex.”
She’s so young, I don’t even know if she understands the word “implies.” And I hate implying that anything someone else thinks is her fault. But she looks too sexy for a fourteen-year-old girl.
She throws her arms down and puffs out her chest, a little tantrum like the ones she’s been throwing since she was three years old. She pushes past me to her room to change and says, “You’re worse than Ms. Tortuga.”
Am I worse than Tortuga? I have to do what I can to protect her. I go outside in my flip-flops and sweatpants and wave to the other mom. Sammy comes out—she’s changed into jeggings and a very tight T-shirt. I watch her flit out to the car with her smooth hair, her perfect posture, her hips moving side to side. If I had her looks I would have used them the same way. I’m glad I never got the chance.
Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.