I’m 13. It’s a warm spring day and I’m standing outside my school waiting for my mom to pick me up. A classmate is standing there in the afternoon sun, and we’re chatting about the day. I look down at my legs under my skirt, in white tights, and I can see the unshaven hair lumping underneath.
The classmate looks down and sees the same, and comments, “It’s a little bunchy under those tights, huh?”
I could have died. If a hole had opened up in the ground I would have gladly fallen through. At home, I immediately asked my sister - a year younger and less inclined to follow my mom’s rules - about shaving. I found out she had been shaving for years - so long that my mom thought her leg hair simply hadn’t grown in. My sister handed me a razor and told me to take it slow and watch my knees and ankles.
Prior to this , when I had expressed mild interest in shaving, my mom had told me my blonde leg hair was nothing to be worried about, I was "too young" to shave, it would grow thicker and harder and darker if I shaved it, etc,... In retrospect, I see she was trying to preserve my innocence and prevent me from being objectified, a very natural reaction coming from her own childhood wounds and experience of abuse. She was hoping, like many moms, that I would land on the magical line of pretty and feminine yet not at all sexy. Not shaving legs, wearing makeup, or having ears pierced was part of how she thought that would happen. She was happy to figure out hairstyles, choose clothes in flattering colors and patterns, and let me choose my favorites.
As I shaved that night, I thought of how I didn’t want my daughters to have this kind of moment. I would never tell my daughters they couldn’t shave their legs, pierce their ears, or wear makeup. It was terrible to feel like the girl who is behind the curve and doesn’t know how to do all the little things the other girls do. To be fair, my comfort with my daughters being more feminine, even a little sexy, comes out of the safety my mom helped to provide. But it was her vigilance about teachers, sleepovers, etc,...rather than my ineptitude at feminine style, that really made the difference.
When my girls watched me put on makeup, I let them try. By the time one of my daughters was 4, she put on mascara so well I didn’t notice until it streamed down her face when we were in the pool later in the day. They dressed up and did photo shoots so well that there was no point in paying for professional ones. They picked out sparkly ball gowns from the thrift store and felt glamorous running through the grass. They wore high-heeled sparkly mary janes to amusement parks and hikes. If they asked when they could shave their legs (and I'm not sure each of them asked) I said "you can start whenever you feel like it. Go slow and watch your knees and ankles."
The really interesting part has been that they haven't ended up obsessed. They are simply capable and not behind the curve. Briefly, they try full-face makeup, and then decide after a few months that it's not worth the time and doesn't really improve teen skin. They have landed on basic facial hygiene, mascara and lip gloss. They curl their hair for an occasion every week or two. They pick out cute outfits with friends and enjoy wearing a new dress to a big party. I'm glad that they seem to enjoy being girls, even though there have been awkward and emotional moments here and there as they grow, shop for clothes that fit a changing body, adjust to skin and hair care, and need deodorant.
Especially as the wider culture has become more ambivalent about what it means to be a woman and mother, and many girls find themselves uncomfortable with the objectification that they feel, it has been good to see my daughters find their way and embrace fashion and the fun of outward femininity. They and their friends help each other choose outfits, do their hair, and shop for swimsuits. I've learned about products and techniques from them - and my sister, who still knows more than me - so they regularly feel like "experts." They enjoy seeing the outfits that stylish moms put together and assume they will also look good after however many children. How hard could it be if lots of moms they know have a cute style?
Please, moms, let your daughters enjoy being girls, even if it means they wear
tattered princess dresses all afternoon or want pierced ears earlier than some book about modesty or feminine virtue would predict. Don't operate from fear of them being objectified. Let their beauty skills develop naturally over time as they become interested. (If they are genuinely uninterested until a later age, that's fine, too.) Enjoy the process and take pictures of their butterfly wings and fancy hair. Girls are sweet!