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Karen Walrond is a photographer, writer and the author of The Beauty of Different: Observations of a Confident Misfit. Read more »
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Over the Christmas holidays, my husband Marcus, our 7-year-old daughter, Alex and I found ourselves in a local coffeehouse. This particular cafe also happens to be famous for making some of the best cupcakes in Houston, so it was a little treat for us to have hot chocolate, cappuccinos and dark chocolate cake balls so early in the chilly December Day.
For a while, we were the only ones in the cafe, and Marcus and I were enjoying a bit of quiet time reading our books while Alex drew and colored in her journal. Suddenly the door opened, and a crowd of beauty queens walked in.
About 10 teenage girls and women, complete with tiaras and staggeringly high heels, walked into the store with an entourage of parents, friends, photographers, make-up artists and other hangers-on, and began ordering cupcakes. Then, lipstick on and sashes arranged just so, they began pouting and posing with their cupcakes for the cameras as my little girl stared, gape-mouthed in awe.
The feminist in me was on high alert: while I said nothing (and truly, all indications were that the beauty queens were polite, smart, and lovely people), I immediately began composing the conversation that I would be having with her later in my head, about how certainly physical beauty is nice, but it's not everything, and that judging people solely on their appearances is rather shallow, and to quote a rather brilliant man, people should be judged on the content of their character and honey, by the way, did I ever tell you about some of the great activists and feminists in history? Because we should talk about...
...but again, I said nothing.
Later that afternoon, Alex came into my room. "Mom, you know what was really cool about seeing those beauty queens?" she asked.
I straightened up, steeling myself to have that talk that I had so brilliantly rehearsed in my head. "What's that?" I asked, a tad shakily.
"Some of them had brown skin. And some had white skin. They all looked different. That was cool."
"Well, um... you're right, Alex!" I stammered. "It just goes to show that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes and colors and differences. Yes, you're absolutely 100% right."
I saved my feminism speech for another time -- the truth is I was thrilled at what she had taken from the encounter at the coffeehouse. As a parent, it can be so hard to convince our children that the differences they have are sources of true beauty, particularly during a time in their lives when conformity among their friends is valued, and uniqueness or individuality can sometimes be ostracized. And as long as I'm being totally honest, even though I wrote a book on the subject, I'm not entirely sure that the concept of different-as-beautiful can necessarily be fully understood until a certain age and considerable experience have been acquired.
That said? Nothing should stop us from trying.
So my challenge to all of us parents, as we begin a brand new year, is to resolve to tell our kids how inspiring they are -- and not just in a generic way, but in a really specific, customized, and most importantly, honest way. We should look for and find the things at which they excel -- the way they throw a baseball, the way they make us laugh, the way they're kind to other kids -- and we should make a big deal out of it.
When they're upset because other kids are picking on them for some attribute or another, we should point out the positive side of their differences (how they make them more sensitive or caring, for example), or simply reiterate the characteristics that make our kids generally awesome. And we should do this as frequently as possible, so that eventually, one day, our kids see -- and believe -- the unmitigated power in their differences, and learn to use those differences for good and not evil.
Because I'm convinced that as parents, we all have the opportunity and the power to raise superheroes.
Even if they also happen to be beauty queens.
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