My almost-four-year-old daughter often tells me she wishes she had "flat hair". What she means is she wishes her curly hair was straight. Some might put it down to the early adoption of a lament from women throughout the ages - wanting the opposite of what we have. But it's more than that. For a while I was concerned that it was some kind of self-loathing at the ripe old age of three. But it's not that. For my daughter, I realised the reason she was keen on "flat hair" was because she was bothered by the number of comments her curly hair attracts. She told me she doesn't like people talking about her hair all the time. And especially doesn't like being called "cute", which she associates with babies. And she is not a baby, she is a three-year-old girl.
Maya gets attention pretty much wherever we go. Most outings include one or two or sometimes several instances of well-meaning friends or passers-by telling her how cute, beautiful, gorgeous she is, specifically in relation to her hair, eyes, eyelashes, skin. She's over it. My son, who's six, used to get similar comments up until around the age of 4, but they were never as frequent. Now that he's a bit older and his hair is not as curly and not as blonde, he escapes the running commentary. My fear for my daughter is that she will never escape it. Well, maybe when she's about 40 it will start to drop off. At which point hopefully she will feel liberated rather than disappointed that her social currency is waning.
So what's the big deal? I know people are well-intentioned, why can't she (we) just take a compliment and get on with life? Is my 3-year-old ungrateful or just shy? Or is it something else? I don't blame her for being uncomfortable with having her looks scrutinised. While I can see it's in some ways a natural inclination to comment on something that is pleasing to the eye - aesthetic beauty is and always will be important to humans - I also think there's something else at play. Girls are socialised to be as beautiful as they can be - and to bask in the glory of said beauty. Beauty is the ultimate aim and the ultimate prize.
I understand the urge to praise beauty aloud - I certainly feel it in relation to my daughter, and my son for that matter. They are so beautiful to me. I do occasionally indulge my urge to tell my children (and other people's children!) how amazing they look, but most of the time I bite my tongue, or I try to re-frame it with emphasis on how clever they are or how hard they tried, because it's not all there is, and it will fade as other qualities go from strength to strength.