When I was a new mother of a baby boy 14 years ago, I vowed to raise him to treat women as equals. And years later when I had a baby girl I promised myself I’d teach her to feel good about herself no matter what.
So yesterday at the salon, as I leaned back in a chair while a stylist held a hose over my sudsy hair, a mother and a pre-teen girl stood nearby, the daughter in tears.
Another stylist tried to soothe the girl with soft words, saying she’ll be okay, but the girl continued to dab her eyes with a weathered tissue. Once mother and daughter left, the woman in the chair next to me asked her stylist how old that girl was.
“Too young,” I said, butting into their conversation.
“It’s hard for girls these days,” my neighbor’s stylist said. “Kids can be so cruel to girls unless they look perfect.”
Really? But before I could protest, I stopped and realized this is true and is even more pronounced since way back when I was a pre-teen. In fact, I’ve felt pressure over the years to straighten my hair, shape my eyebrows, stay slim, sculpt my arms, and flatten my stomach.
In Hong Kong and China people told me I was fat, whereas in the US I’m considered thin. When I was young, my own relatives said I had a rat’s nest for hair. And because of these things, I turned inward as a teenager and young adult.
As I write in my memoir, Good Chinese Wife, I felt incredibly fortunate to gain the attention of an accomplished academic when I was in graduate school and thus rushed into marriage with him six short months after we met.
Fast forward 8-10 years. I was a divorced single mother and realized there was more to life than what’s on the outside. I found inner strength from the time I spent living abroad and at last could walk with confidence into a room of strangers.
When I think of the preteen girl at the salon, I wished I’d given her a hug. I hope she’ll be able to find confidence for who she is, not what she looks like. I’m probably old fashioned about this, and perhaps out of touch with today’s reality, but correct me if I’m wrong about wanting to teach our daughters–and sons–to love themselves for who they are, both on the inside and out.