I have an uncomfortable, unresolved relationship to the word and the idea. On the one hand, it’s one of the words that I never want Ziya to have to live up to, or use to compare herself to others, or wield against herself as she looks into her own eyes but through another’s gaze. I tell her she’s beautiful so that she grows to see her light, and comes to recognise her unique glow as it shines through, a glow she can only apprehend and appreciate if she learns to love herself regardless of the imperfections she sees in the face, hair, limbs and body that are hers. That’s why, in addition to telling her she is beautiful, I also tell her she is powerful, strong, smart and brave.
Yet, I participate in entrapping her still. I’ll point out that her outfit is pretty or her combed curls are pretty. I tell her she is pretty and, in so doing, teach her to identify with the word. ‘Who is so, so pretty?’ I’ll ask. ‘Ziya’, she’ll say, beaming, while I wonder if there is another way. I build this connection between being pretty and being Ziya to protect her. Like so many of us, she will spend years of her life unhappy with some part of her physical self, self-conscious about her attractiveness, desiring the validation it brings. She is growing into a young woman in a world where her dougla hair, her sapodilla skin, her tiny frame, her more African than Indian nose and her more Indian than African bottom will all mark points where she doesn’t measure up to a standard, or a series of standards, which she will have more power to apply to herself than define. I want her to know that whatever ‘they’ think is pretty means nothing.
You are pretty. That word means you. I want you to know you are nothing less, before you even come to know what others have made the word mean.
I want her to know she is beautiful, but I also want her to know, that moment when it matters, that she is pretty regardless of what they say in magazines, billboards, commercials, music videos and more. So, I find myself at odds with my own beliefs. I find myself teaching Ziya a gender socialisation that I don’t believe in because I don’t want the world to determine all the meanings available to her. I don’t see why she has to wear dresses or learn to be feminine or care about her hairstyle and shoes, but I also want to teach her how the world works so that she can understands how it tries to take her power and how she can resist.
In a world where every woman struggles to not feel ugly at some time or in some way, I want Zi to have the entire arsenal she needs to survive, self-confidence intact through her most self-conscious years. Some of the weapons I give her are dangerous, even to herself, but I guess I’m afraid of not giving them to her anyway. I think about pretty this way, on the one hand an idea to avoid and, on the other, one to conquer. And wonder if I am helping or hurting my little warrior, adding to her vulnerability or adding to her victories, when her fight finally starts in the mirror, as it will one day.