When “Beautiful” Means “Different”

By Stacey Conner

Who does her hair? She asks me gruffly.  I look up from the table where I am trying to manage my four young children and squint into the glare of the insanely fluorescent lighting of a local burger restaurant.  I rarely take the kids out to eat alone, but day after day trapped in the house have driven us to this corner burger place.  The freezing rain taps against the dark window. I try to block it out along with the difficult drive home.

I'm sorry? I reply as she registers over the chaos and the demands for fries.  She is barely taller than my oldest children with a pretty face around a prominent nose. I notice first the red apron that she wears around her waist and blush at the french-fry explosion under our table. The red glow in my cheeks burns deeper when I finally understand her question.

O-oh, I stammer.  I do. They're only box braids. I am immediately apologetic and defensive, explaining my short-comings to this stranger who has asked me a simple question.  I can't corn row.

She touches one of my daughter's thirty braids and feels it from root to tip with expert hands.  They look good, she answers me, but they need more oil. They're too dry.  Our hair needs oil every day.

I wince. I know. I have wonderful oils at home. Mango. Olive-infused. I have never been into hair. My own long, auburn locks can be gorgeous, if done by a hairdresser, but I have never learned to style them and I wear a perpetual ponytail with straggly broken fly-away fringe. The foreign texture and baffling care of my daughter's hair has sapped whatever energy and interest I ever had for primping.  We consider our bi-weekly box braiding a mutually endured chore. The oil applications slip my mind sometimes, I am ashamed to admit.

I nod now, feeling like a failure in a fast food restaurant with my pale ketch-up-smeared boys and my unoiled brown daughter.  I know, I don't stay up on it enough.

I used to do all of the kids' hair in my neighborhood, she tells me.

Really, you must be so fast.  I am jealous. I would give much to have been raised with this skill. To be deft and quick and not five-thumbed and fumbling with the tiny braids and miniature beads.

She nods and I am dying to ask her if she would like to teach me, if she would be interested in giving me lessons in corn rows, but I don't. I just revel in the fact that she thinks my box braids are good and vow to oil every single day. A vow that it takes me an entire week to break.

It doesn't strike me until later that she never said that Saige was beautiful. She touched her with matter-of-fact skill, not wonder or curiosity.  It is one of the most honest and easy interactions that I've ever had in this town regarding Saige or her hair.  The realization makes me sad and scared and unsure of our decision to parent our multi-racial family in this small Northern city.

Usually, it goes quite differently.  Your daughter is gorgeous.  She is so pretty.  Oh, what a beautiful girl.  May I touch her hair?  Look at those beads!

My daughter is a beautiful girl, inside and out.  She has a captivating smile.  She can infect a room with her effusive giggles.  She is gentle and inclusive with her younger brothers.  She is also miserably obstinate and she throws fake tantrums that send my blood pressure rocketing through the roof and into the heavens.

In other words, she's a five-year-old girl.

I think she is stunning, but I love her with all my heart.  I rocked her as she screamed her fear and grief, new to our home.  We weathered a difficult attachment period together.  I've seen her be delightful and horrid and mean and joyful.  She is my child.

In the great scheme of children of the world, I don't find her looks particularly remarkable or unremarkable. All children are beautiful. My little girl, the recipient of so much exuberant praise on her physical appearance, and in particularly her hair, draws attention in this part of this small city, I fear, for being something more akin to different.

I don't think her well-meaning admirers intend that subtext when they lavish her with praise.  I don't think the kind strangers with whose compliments we contend almost daily understand why their comments engender my tense smile and deflective remarks.

They're mine, so I think they are all beautiful.  I say.

OH, but she's gorgeous!  Look at that hair.

All children are gorgeous.

Why fight it? After all, who doesn't want to be beautiful? It's a compliment, don't be so sensitive. I hear these arguments, but I disagree intuitively, deep in my core.   I don't want the word beautiful to have a subtext for my daughter.  I don't want it to mean, exotic or different or unique or black. Most of all, I don't want it to mean noticed.  I would rather someone at the grocery store say, straight up, I noticed your daughter because she is black and you are white and it made me curious about her and your family.  Sure.  That makes sense and that is something that we can talk about on the way home in our own time. Our family is different and people notice, that fact is an easy one to address.

But beautiful laced with different? Maybe Saige will grow feeling gorgeous and unique and maybe she will grow feeling like she sticks out in our family and in our community.  Maybe it doesn't matter and maybe it does. Most likely, like all things, it depends on the child.  I am sure I am one of few Jews in this neighborhood.  Strangers often remark on my sons' bright red hair.  Different certainly isn't bad.

Beauty, though, I would prefer to let her define on her own with as few preconceived prejudices of others as possible. I consider it my job as her mother to be a safe haven for her. To speak words that she can hide behind if she wishes, even if it makes a friendly stranger feel a little uncomfortable. Our differences are ours to share or not as we please. She need not feel vulnerable to every passerby who hides curiosity in compliments.

And so, for now, I'll stay on course. I will downplay over-the-top compliments even when it offends the speaker. I'll continue to seek out every interaction that I can to make it clear to my daughter that the dynamics of this street do not equal the dynamics of this city or this state or this country.  I'll drive her to our African-American pediatrician and I'll request the dental hygienist with ropes of tight blond and black braids tied on the top of her head in an intricate knot.  I'll follow the art classes of our beloved preschool teacher from Barbados around this whole city.  And I'll take her back to that restaurant often, for the casual, unamazed discussion of braiding and hair.  Okay, and maybe a little bit because she liked my box braids.

It's a strange no-man's land I find myself in “ I fear the judgment of black moms that I meet and dread the questions of white moms. I imagine with anxiety how Saige might feel about it in just a few years.

The kids laughed at my hair today. Saige pipes up at the dinner table.  They said it sticks up funny.

My heart thumps painfully sideways in my chest.  Her hair is done with two ponies on either side of the top of her head. We call the style Mickies, because the deep, thick black balls above her forehead look like Mickey Mouse ears.  The back I left natural to give both Saige and me a break and to let her hair rest.  It looks beautiful when she leaves in the morning, but no matter how much oil I put in it, no matter how carefully I brush it down behind the ponies, by the end of a long day of school it is matted, dry and covered in every fuzz that her head encountered that day.

It does stick up in the back.

Which kid laughed? I ask her.

All of them.  Carrie said it sticks up and they all laughed.  She states it matter-of-factly; she isn't upset.

That's not nice, all hair is different, what did your teacher say?

She said she thinks my hair is beautiful.

I think your hair is beautiful too, I tell her. I am caught in a mama bear rage, though I know it is an overreaction.

Matt catches my eye at the other end of the table.  It's okay, he soothes, kids say whatever they're thinking. It's not mean-spirited.

It's not intended to be racist, he means. I know that, but it doesn't make it not about her differentness.

Would it be easier if she were in a predominantly black class? He asks me.

No. It would most likely be harder.  From a hair perspective, anyway. Gone would be the innocent comments “ those kids and their parents would know that someone at poor Saige's house was stumbling around hair-blind.

Tomorrow, our little girl declares, we should put the ponies all over my head.  That way, it won't be Mickies, it will be TOFU HAIR.

She laughs uproariously, her head thrown back, her mouth open, not phased by the comments of others, unwilling to be cowed, unafraid and confident.  Her brothers join in and the screeching laughter approaches rainforest canopy levels.  She giggles until even Matt and I laugh with her, though why that would be Tofu Hair escapes her confused parents.  The way, I suspect, her peers will laugh with her as she grows.

Because she demands it, because her poise leaves no room for ridicule. Because she is beautiful, inside and out.

Stacey Connor, a.k.a. anymommy, loves chai tea lattes, bed time and being at home with her children. She hates the cold, finger paints and play dough. She blogs about life with a toddler herd, adoption, trans-racial parenting and other issues, big and small, at AnyMommyOutThere and her first historical romance novel is published serially at Summer Connolly Romance.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

32 Comments

  1. I love how you love your daughter. Period.

  2. bravo. beautiful. the fact that you are aware and active with regard to her *differences* indicates to me that most of your fears for her will not come to fruition. the love she is surrounded by will support her, i feel, and is demonstrated by her ability to have such a wonderful sense of humour about it. awesome. that’s amazing.

    xo

  3. Beautiful writing, beautiful family, your strength and love will always give your daughter what she needs.

  4. I did foster care for a very short period in my life (till my husband left and took our foster son with him) and once or twice did respite for a black teenage girl.

    I empathize with all five of your thumbs.

  5. S,

    You reduce me to tears, regardless of url.

  6. your whole family is gorgeous. how could it not be with you at the helm?

  7. I know exactly how you feel, and my children are Black kids with Black parents. However my daughters are stunningly gorgeous. My youngest daughter has and has always had long long eyelashes, a cute mole above her lip and curly hair. Strangers in the black community would pass by and say oh she’s so cute and look at that pretty hair (even if it was messy). Sometimes they would even say “good hair.’ I would be incensed. I didn’t want strangers to make my daughter feel anything based on her looks. I’ve been teaching her to be smart, kind, understanding, and loving. Then along comes someone who has their own adult feelings and they project them onto my child. I don’t teach her that her hair is any different than anyone else in the African American community, and I used to be so afraid and angry when others made note of it. I didn’t want her to experience the hurt and pain that I did for being a “pretty light-skinned girl with good hair.”

    After a while I realized that her father and I have the most power and influence in my child’s life. If I didn’t make a big deal out of it and just said “thanks” when they came with their projections, my child wouldn’t notice a thing. She didn’t. She hasn’t experienced that pain in the way that I have. She has been judged and even attacked based on her hair and looks, but she still doesn’t know it. When a kid dislikes her for no reason at all or makes strange comments, I just make sure that I explain to her that it’s a problem that they have. NOT a Problem that they have with her. There is a difference.

    • Brooke, I have to admit, it is a relief to know that this happens outside of adoption, if that makes sense. And there is so much wisdom in your second paragraph. Thank you.

  8. Stacy,

    If I can offer up any words of advice/encouragement, please DO NOT “fear the judgment of black moms that I meet and dread the questions of white moms”. The way I see it, YOU are her mother and only a fool judges others for being a loving, caring, and conscientious parent. I’m quite sure you don’t have time to take advice from fools do you (unless it’s me of course ;-)?

    Seems to me you are going (and will continue to go) above and beyond for ALL of your children and that is never a bad thing. You should be applauded for the steps you have taken, and should even get a standing ovation for KNOWING which steps to take in the first place.

    YOU GO GIRL!

    • Isn’t it funny how we get to be all grown up and mature and the adult in the situation and still insecurities creep in and plague us? You’re right – and much of that feeling is *my* issue that I’m projecting onto others I suspect.

  9. You had me in tears by the end of this post. This is exactly how I feel as a mother of a beautiful boy that I love with all my heart. I could have written this post if I could put the words together as openly as you did. The difference is that my son, who is 3 1/2, does notice people staring at the store and basically anywhere else we go. He notices, he speaks up, and it genuinely bothers him. When people tell him that he is cute he scowls and yells “I am NOT cute!” Our outings resort to him glaring at everyone around us. It breaks my heart to see kids staring at him but not speaking to him or not sitting next to him because they think he is different from them..I want to scream “He is just like you!”
    Thank you for writing this and being so open.

  10. what a great post. this may sound crazy, but my family gets the same reaction all the time. whether we’re traveling to a new city or dining in a restaurant, we always get: “What a beautiful family you have!” and then they stare and us, smiling.

    In the beginning, it was nice to hear. We think our family is beautiful, so why shouldn’t others think the same? Then we started to realize the subtext: “Wow! We are so surprised to see an intact Black family with both parents and 3 well-behaved, presentably dressed kids.”

    Now when we hear the “compliment” my husband and I exchange a knowing look. I think the statement is meant to be genuine, but I can’t help but feel a little sad about what it truly means.

    and i’m right there with you on the mamabear tip – my daughter (who sports cornrows and beads) is enamored with a classmate who has straight, silky hair. she often tells me she wishes that she had “hair like Megan.” and yesterday she announced that she wants “bangs.”

    Oh and I forget to oil too ;-)

    • I’ll love you forever for that last sentence. Nothing in this comment sounds crazy to me, I think so many of the casual “social” comment we make reflect the way we see the world and the assumptions we make about it (myself absolutely included).

  11. This was a good read. I loved how you said all children are beautiful. Different physical appearances is a beautiful thing…if all of us looked the same…the world would be a boring place! As for your daughter’s hair, at night before she goes to bed, you can style it and part it how you want it to look the next day, put on some extra virgin coconut oil and braid or twist it. Then in the morning brush up the edges around front/back of the head, put on barrettes and let out the braids or twists and style it with your fingers however you like. The braids are simple and will help lock the moisture in so that her hair will feel softer. I’m not a hairstylist but I’m multi-cultural and have years of experience dealing with my own hair!

  12. I’m actually sad to read this and I feel pretty lousy now. While I understand your point, I do tell other families their children are beautiful when I see children who are adorable AND are different. I notice because I’m part of the adoption loop. I’m more commenting on how lovely their children are – in look, in spirit, as part of a family. I know how hard adoption can be and often I just want to reach out in a gesture of togetherness and spirit. I do think different can be beautiful. I know different isn’t going to be glossed over so I’d rather be positive about diversity I guess.

    We all look, we all consider. It’s human nature. I guess I assumed a parent telling you that your child was beautiful was better than just looking and not talking.

    • It’s so hard. We all have different perspectives, different motives, different ways of looking at the same situation. Thanks for sharing your point of view. For me, the “discomfort” comes when a stranger focuses on my daughter and her beauty, often ignoring that I have three other children with me.

    • I see what you mean, but you’re thinking about it from the perspective of the one doing the telling. You/Somebody might single out the rare disabled kid or the Black kid and tell them they’re beautiful with good, honest intentions. You are just one person and you see no problems with your one action. But then the family moves on, and 30minutes later, someone comes and again singles out the one child and thinks ‘if I tell him/her they’re beautiful, I will have brightened up their day’, and they do so and walk away. A few yards down the road, someone else comes to single out the child in the wheelchair for praise…

      Do you see?

      The solution to these ‘different’ children being left out of compliments isn’t, in my opinion, to single them out for praise, but to treat them the same as any other child. In the same way that, in my opinion, the way to sort racism and sexism in years gone by isn’t to positively discriminate, but to treat everyone equally and fairly.

      I completely get what you’re saying, because I too smile inwardly at the different, but I understand the problems it could cause if I only saw through my own eyes, especially when it comes to our easily influenced little ones.

  13. I was reading away thinking that black women tell me the same things about both my girl’s hair (ages 17 and 4). They don’t have hair like mine and I don’t know what to do with it sometimes- ok, a lot of the time. I do know how to cornrow and I still get the talk. I am black. I was adopted by white parents when I was 6 weeks old so I understand the backdoor comments that people say. I have had white people tell me I should be thankful for being rescued from black culture, black people tell me that I was ruined. So either way someone had something to say. My mother told me once that “they talked about Jesus, they are gonna talk about you too” so I do my best to let go of the judgement that shines on me, my parenting and our family. People don’t understand to this day why I have photos of white people all over my house, “no, I wasn’t being lazy, they didn’t come with the frame, those are my white people”

    There is an underlying curiosity, a backhanded compliment and judgement rolled up in the questioning of people about your children…let them wonder and please, don’t throw yourself under the bus because you didn’t oil the child’s hair “enough” or you can’t cornrow. The love and tenderness with which you write about your daughter is profound. We, your readers feel it and your daughter does too. As someone who has been there- still is there- I can tell you that no matter what, I know my mother loves me and that is what matters. You are having the conversation and helping her be strong in who she is so in my mind, box braids or not, you are raising a girl who will be beautiful inside and out. GIve yourself a pat on the back.

    • So true. And I’ve probably unintentionally done this same thing to others. Thank you for giving me the gift of knowing an adult adoptee that considers her family her people, regardless of color.

    • Thank you Chrystina for your post. I had tears …. “those are my white people”.

      I hope that my son and future children will say that … will claim us. I know that our brown children will ‘get it’ from all sides, and in the end, I just hope that we have done our job to instill a pride in their culture (both white and black).

  14. I’m a single white mom with a beautiful Ethiopian daughter, and I’ve just about made myself crazy worrying that I won’t do her hair “right.” But now she’s 11 and taking charge of her hair herself — and she’ll do some of her own learning about the best way to do that. My hair didn’t always look perfect when I was 11, so I figure she gets the same freedom. And anyway, last week when I asked her to list some things about herself that she likes, she proudly wrote “My hair!”

  15. A friend sent me the link to your blog, and it brought tears to my eyes. I am a divorced, white mom, whose marriage to a black man produced the two most important people in my life, who right now are (nearly) 2 and 4. We moved from an area where I was the minority, to an area where they are very much the minority. There are only blond-haired, blue-eyed children at their daycare, and everywhere I take them, we get (awkwardly long) stares and yes, many, many compliments of their beauty. I wasn’t sure why the compliments made me bristle inside, but you said it perfectly. And I never, ever know where the line is of wanting to somehow immerse my children in the side of their heritage that is so missing, and yet not in that very appreciation make them feel different. And the hair! Yes, everybody marvels that I do my daughter’s hair (I just last month struggled through attempting cornrows!), but I live in constant suspension between wishing there were more black people in our town, to being scared that I’m going to run into some, because, well lets face it, my hair braiding skills leave much to be desired, and I found out the hard way that well-done hair is important to her culture. Thank you for saying what needed to be said, and exactly what I needed to hear.

  16. I grew up in South Africa and started attending a “white” school as a young “coloured” girl soon after legal segregation ended. In my first week there, 2 boys threw sticks at my hair to see if they’d get stuck. I was new and shy so I just sat there and felt sorry for myself.

    I now have a “white” husband who delights in all the things my hair can do – from straight to curly to afro to waves. It’s all about perspective and you’re giving your daughter the RIGHT perspective. Go you!

    http://www.mommygonemad.org

  17. I grew up in SA and went to a “white” school as a “coloured” girl soon after legal segregation ended. In my first week at school, two boys threw sticks at my hair to see if they’d get stuck. I was shy and terrified, so I just sat there and felt sorry for myself and my curly hair.

    I am now happily married to a “white” man who delights in all the different things my hair can do – from curls to sleek to afro to waves. It’s all about perspective and you’re giving your daughter the RIGHT perspective. Go you!

  18. I DONT THINK THE HAIR IS THE PROBLEM FOR REAL THE ADULT IN THIS WORLD WORRIED ABOUT THE WRONG THINGS. SO KEEP DOING WHAT YOU DO TO KEEP YOUR ANGELS AND YOURSELF HAPPY AND DONT WORRIED ABOUT SILLY THINGS LIKE THAT BECAUSE NO ONE JUDGE NO ONE IN THIS DAY. SO REMEMBER JUST KEEP BE HAPPY THAT ALL THAT MATTER NOW MY SISTER. ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE.

  19. I just found your blog and I love it! I will link to it from my blog unless you tell me otherwise. Thanks!

  20. I love how you expressed your feelings about this subject. I feel the same way sometimes with my little boy when he is noticed in public–and I know it is because he’s different. I never know how to handle it. Thanks for your good ideas.

  21. Oh wow. That was beautifully written. I too love how you love your daughter and hope that one day I will get the chance to love a daughter (or two!) of my own and see the beauty of a child from a new, unbridled, unwavering perspective.
    God bless you and your family.

  22. You know I have always marched to the beat of a different drummer. So with that being said I do tell parents their children are beautiful and I mean it. Please don’t feel odd or embarrassed when others tell you that as well. As you know self esteem goes a long way with a child and you can’t hug or love your kids too much. In this world where people can and are often mean hearing something positive goes a long way. When people tell me my son is beautiful, or gorgeous and they wish they had his hair or his eyes or even his lovely skin I smile and thank them and tell them he is beautiful inside and out.

    It’s really okay to be different.

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