The weight of the question was heavy and the answer far too complex.
“Mommy, am I pretty?" asked my mousy-haired, keen-eyed and kind-hearted 5-year-old. She was shoving her over-sized glasses up the bridge of her tiny nose when she caught a glimpse of herself in the bathroom mirror, the one that I've always thought she was too short to see.
Her question: “Mommy, am I pretty?" immobilized me. It hung in the air on a busy school morning, amidst a flurry of lunch-packing and shoe-tying. The weight of her question hit my heart like Thor's Hammer, shattering ribs and going straight for the kill.
"Mommy, am I pretty?"
"Little Bug, you are so much more than pretty. You're kind. You're clever. Your heart shines like gold in the sun, and your smile warms up the world."
"But am I pretty?" She has this look. In it I see a reflection of myself when I'm frustrated. It's the same look that I'm certain my own mother saw regularly. It disarms me.
"Why are you asking?"
"Because I have to be pretty."
The world stopped. The world's barbs suddenly started to chip away at the stronghold I thought I'd created. This very stronghold was designed to guard her from the expectations that a girl's value was in what she wore and the way she smiled.
"Mommy, please. Tell me that I'm pretty."
I get down on my knees, still knowing that time can't stand still for these deep talks, and that school starts soon so her jacket has to be zipped up and her backpack has to sit comfy. "Little Bug, you are beautiful. You are beautiful because of all that I know you can do. You are strong, and funny, and smart. Yes, you are pretty. But that's not the most important thing."
"But a boy said it was."
Motherly fear shifted on its axis, morphing into righteous fury that had to be swallowed because my daughter is five and does not understand words like "patriarchy." This faceless boy suddenly looked like every man who's ever commented on my appearance as if it's the only thing I possess that they value. His face became the face of every man who has said pretty is all I could offer.
"Listen to me, Bug. The next time a boy says it's important that you're pretty, you ask him if he thinks his mama is pretty. Then you ask him if she is a better mama because of it."
"You're a good mama," she says. "And I say that before I say you are pretty." The epiphany was visible. "You are more than pretty, mommy! You're a good mama! And I am a smart girl!"
We leave home. We leave shelter and expose ourselves to the world for another day. I choose not to wear makeup, and I let my brilliant girl wear her favorite ripped jeans. I would have gleefully let her shout, "Forget the patriarchy!" if she knew the weight of those words. Instead, we listen to the Muppets sing their silly songs, and went over her letters and spelling before finally getting to school.
School: the place where I hope she learns that her mind and heart are what matter the most.