Last week, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror doing my hair and makeup as my five-year-old daughter stood beside me, carefully observing each step. I could feel her watching me intently as I brushed mascara through my top lashes and touched up my eyeliner. It made me smile as I thought of when I used to sit next to my own mother when she was getting ready to go somewhere, taking mental notes.
As I get myself ready, she tries on my highest pair of heels and slowly walks back and forth while trying to balance and firing off questions. She asks why I’m making skeleton eyes (a smoky eye), what each cream does, and why I'm painting my face. I struggle to answer these questions in a truthful but responsible way. As I move a wand methodically through my hair to define my curls, she adds, "Mama, why are you changing your hair?"
It’s a routine I've perfected over the years, but every step is novel and exciting for her. On the one hand, I find makeup and skincare gratifying and love experimenting with trends and techniques. I love telling the story of how beauty weaves into my everyday life as a mother. Yet, I want her to understand she doesn’t need makeup to feel beautiful. Our culture puts so much emphasis on physical appearance. I consider it one of my greatest responsibilities to instill a sense of confidence in her from a young age—creating a foundation to believe beauty begins with beautiful behavior.
As I see her watching me from the corner of my eye, I often wonder she's taking from this moment. How will she perceive beauty? Becoming a mother has made my approach to beauty, and how I talk about it, more intentional. Below, find some beauty lessons I've learned as a mother and what I hope to convey to my daughter.
Take Care of Your Mental And Physical Health
To me, beauty begins with taking care of yourself. I feel beautiful when I’m laughing with the people I love, showing kindness, feeling confident, having interesting discussions, and exploring the world around me. I am able to be my truest self and take care of those around me when I’m prioritizing my health—eating nutrient-rich foods, drinking water, and getting sleep (I'm still working on this one). That includes a quality skincare routine and using a sunscreen every day.
It also includes having time to read a book, play with my kids, write in my journal, and spend time outside. It’s slowing down and being kind to myself. It’s stopping the negative self-talk. I tell my daughter she’s strong, beautiful, smart, creative, and loving because I want those to be the words ingrained in her head.
Experiment, But Don't Conform
In an aptly titled Psychology Today essay called "Culture Dictates the Standard of Beauty, Judy Scheel, Ph.D., writes, "thoughts and beliefs may be controlled heavily by culture, but how we choose to respond is based on our own choice." If I could talk to my 12-year-old self the first time I picked up a hair straightener, I would gently tap her on the shoulder and tell her to love her curls. I would tell her to straighten her hair only if she feels like doing something different, not because all the magazines and movies are telling her to do so. Try new beauty trends because you want to have fun, not because you want to fit in. Scheel writes, "If our brains are manipulated into believing what the media tells us regarding physical desirability, then can we not take the bait?
I’ve been experimenting with beauty since I was a pre-teen, sometimes for the right reasons and often for the wrong ones. I’ve learned not to be so prescriptive but instead to create my own path, and with that has come trial and error. There are aspects about myself I once viewed as insecurities but now see as defining characteristics, like my curly hair. Accepting yourself as you are is truly a lifelong process and one I continue to work on.
Understand the Difference Between Filters and Reality
We are told what is beautiful—and what is not—daily. Filters and editing on social media are proven to be dangerous to the fragile psyche of children and young adults. Every insecurity can be digitally modified in seconds and presented as a mirage, leading to a distorted self-image. In a study published in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, the authors note "the pervasiveness of these filtered images can take a toll on one’s self-esteem, making one feel inadequate for not looking a certain way in the real world, and may even act as a trigger and lead to body dysmorphic disorder."
On that note, how do I delay this in my daughter? If there’s anything I’d like to filter, it’s her exposure to this warped reality.
Be Confident in Your Individuality
According to a survey, confidence levels in kids fall by 30% between eight and 14. And the effects can be long lasting. One of the ways to combat this is to "embrace risk and failure, to turn off the negative soundtrack in their brains." That starts with doing it yourself as an adult and keeping "great failure stories on hand, the bigger the better." Thankfully, I have plenty of those tucked away.
Confidence is walking out of the house barefaced with your hair air-dried because you like how you look and feel. It’s also wearing makeup because that’s what you feel like doing. It’s taking risks when you’d rather stick with what you know. For my daughter, it’s speaking up during morning circle in kindergarten. It’s coming up to a group of girls she doesn’t know at the park and asking if they want to play together. It’s wearing two different socks because she thinks it looks cool (spoiler, it does). It’s being true to your individuality.
Give Yourself Time to Figure it Out
Ultimately, I want my daughter to learn whether she wants "skeleton eyes" or pink hair, it’s up to her to define what beauty means and how she wants to express herself. If I’ve learned anything as a mother, it’s every day is a new challenge, and things are always evolving. I’m giving myself the grace to figure out beauty and motherhood, and maybe one day, my daughter will share her own beauty lessons with me.
Psychology Today. "Culture Dictates The Standard of Beauty." 24 April 2014.
JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery. "Selfies-living in the Era of Filtered Photographs." 443-444. 2018.
The New York Times. "The Confidence Gap for Girls: 5 Tips for Parents of Tween and Teen Girls." 2018.