How do I teach my daughter looks don’t matter when I wear makeup every day?

mother daughter makeup feminism


For a long while now Helena, 5, has been giving me grief about wearing makeup. Even though I work from home and interact with the public minimally, I always wear basic makeup. Every single day. “Mommy, you are beautiful just how you are,” my kindergartener will say. “Why do you wear makeup? You don’t need makeup!”

I think she’s getting some of this messaging from her dad, and I support that. But I still wear makeup. Every single day. The dynamic renders me a hypocrite, and a confused one at that. How do I instill in my daughter that her value is not attached to her appearance when I dye my hair and occasionally wear high heels? How do I encourage her to stand up to societal pressures to conform to ideals of feminine beauty when I groom my pubic hair into nature-defying styles?

How can I possibly tell my daughter that looks don’t matter when each and every day I make sure I always look my best — and “best” includes plenty of unhealthy practices that contort my appearance to appeal to a sexist beauty norm?

This is what I will tell Helena — some now, and some later:

It may not be fair, but looks do matter. You can’t control that. So use what you have. Look your best.

Beauty is a power. So is sexuality. Not fair, perhaps. But fact.

Appearances is no substitute for smarts, wit, humility and kindness. But you knew that.

A smart and humble woman knows how to exploit her beauty and sexuality in ways that does not degrade herself. This is a fine skill that few women possess. Know that it exists.

And so last week over scrambled eggs and carrot muffins Helena once again questioned my beauty regime. What if you don’t wear makeup for one day? she challenged. What could I say? I had nothing. So I said: “OK.”

And all day long I walked around my neighborhood with my pasty skin and dark-circled eyes and invisible lashes. My pallid cheeks and lips made me look unhealthy, if not downright sick. During my weekly media training session on Skype, I told my coach about my experiment. “Hm,” said adorable Jani with her glowing skin and ruby lips. “I like you with a little color in your face!” I still didn’t cave to my cosmetics craving.

When I picked Helena at the bus stop that afternoon, I proudly said: “See? I didn’t wear makeup all day. I did it!” Then we started joking around, me dramatically pleading: “PLEASE, just a little eye liner?!! I’ll DIE without some mascara!!!” We giggled as we held hands, walking in the street. “What about tomorrow?” I asked her. “Just a little lip gloss and blush,” Helena smiled. “And that’s it.”  

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