Friday, June 27, 2008

Pretty Astounding

  Zev’s classroom recently presented his teachers with a tile inscribed with the psalm “A Woman of Valor.” You know the one: “A 
woman of valor, who can find? Her value is far beyond pearls.”

It’s a nice poem, but not one that was ever recited in my house 
growing up. Praising a woman for her domestic and mercantile skills? Sure. We’ll get to that right after Benny Hill.

As Zev and I left the school, we spotted another preschooler in the yard, and Zev stopped to watch her play. This girl was about 4, a year older  than Zev, with flowing brown hair and the most mesmerizing green eyes I’d ever seen on a child.

“She’s pretty,” I said to my son, whose staring seemed
to suggest the same. I smiled sweetly at her, but the girl wasn’t going to have any of it.

“No I’m not!” she protested. “I’m human.”

“Yes,” I said, trying not to laugh. “You’re a
pretty human.”

“No,” she corrected, a little too loudly. “I’m 

She huffed off, insulted and seething. I felt like calling after her, “Jury’s out on that one,” but I thought better of it.

I have no idea what it’s like to raise a daughter in this era of  half-naked high school reality stars. It’s true that girls are under
too much pressure to look a certain way. I probably could have benefited from hearing more about the importance of brains and less about the loveliness of looks, growing up.

But I doubt that teaching a child to refuse a compliment is the wisest 
way to counteract all that. Even the “Woman of Valor” enjoys  adoration: “Her children rise and praise her, her husband lauds  her.”

I like my friend Taly’s approach, which was to tell her infant daughter, “You’re so pretty. And you’re good at math.”

It was a joke when Adi was in diapers. But now that she is pushing 5 --
  and is both beautiful and brilliant -- it seems to have worked as a kind of prophesy. I wonder what kind of prophesy being a Not-Pretty
        Human will turn out to be.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we Jews have been
training our daughters to be Not-Pretty Humans forever: “A Woman 
of Valor” makes a point to say that “charm is deceptive and
        beauty is vain.” (Only Jews would come up with a love poem that 
says, “Sweetheart, you may not be much to look at, but you make
great candles.”)

It’s no wonder we grow up confused. The world isn’t going to stop judging us on our looks, even if our parents don’t. Maybe
it’s time we throw some pretty in the mix. Add some rouge to the rocket scientist. Definitely slap some lipstick on that Valorous Woman and let her -- and our daughters -- know that being pretty and being brilliant aren’t mutually exclusive.

Having the best of both worlds sounds pretty good to me. We are, after 
all, living in post-feminist times when a potential Commander-in-Chief 
can wear Army boots as easily as Christian Louboutin heels. Why wouldn’t 
we teach our daughters to embrace that?

I decided to ask the Human’s mother that question; I watched to 
see whom the girl would run to so that I could make eye contact with her
  mom. But Mrs. Human was busy thumb-typing on her Blackberry and didn’t
look up. She had missed the whole exchange and running across the playground to explain it her might have come across as creepy. Our preschool feminism
tete-a-tete would have to wait.

Instead, I watched Mrs. Human shuffle blindly toward the playground gate, tapping on her Blackberry while Not-Pretty skipped beside her. It bears noting that Mrs. Human is also quite beautiful. And as ignorant as she 
was of her daughter’s self-image, I’m sure whatever she was
typing was very smart.