Right after school ended, my daughters and I took a trip to Maine. Due to the remoteness of the house where we stayed and patchy service in the coastal towns, the week was Internet-free; my phone was reduced to a camera, and I took lots of shots of the three of us reading, swimming, climbing trees and swatting black flies.
The morning after we got back, I browsed through the pictures, looking for a few to post for friends and family on Facebook. (After almost a year spent ogling everyone else’s vacation pictures, I was glad to finally have some of my own.) Ocean? Check. Me and friend from college at dinner? Check. Particularly well-curated Bloody Mary? Sure.
The trouble started when I tried to choose pictures of my daughters. In early July, Facebook was full of smiling children in bathing suits at the beach, but suddenly I felt strange about adding mine. My girls are 12 and 14. One is a serious athlete with a black belt in taekwondo; the other plays bass and is headed to art school next year. One has blue hair; one is Barbie blond. One wore a lovely retro gingham one-piece bathing suit, the other a cute candy-striped bikini top and boy shorts. One likes most pictures of herself; one doesn’t. (Don’t be so sure from these descriptors that you can tell which is which). I took several lovely pictures of both of them, but found myself wondering about my criteria for that loveliness. Was I sharing the best moments of our wonderful week, or the best-looking pictures of my daughters?
Let me be clear: I was not worried about these pictures being stolen from my account for prurient purposes. I’m stingy about friending, my privacy settings are jacked as high as possible, and frankly, as a NYC mom, I’m far more concerned about the perv on the F train than I am about online predators, especially since neither of my daughters use social media. (OK, one is on Instagram, but I approve all her friends, and so far her account seems to be devoted entirely to Vines of baby goats.)
What bothered me was how exactly I was evaluating these pictures. Wow, she looks great! Wait, does she look too great? She won’t like how her leg looks there. God, that bathing suit is already too small. Is she eating enough?
Like many of us, when I post pictures of myself, I do my best to edit or delete bad lighting and unfortunate angles. When in doubt, I choose the better picture over the better moment, the good fake smile over the double chins and crinkled eyes that accompany abandoned laughter. That is my problem, and I know how I got this way. But now, in the aftermath of my first beach vacation with my daughters since they made the transition from ornamental bikini tops to B and C cups, it freaked me out to realize that I was evaluating pictures of them in the same way I judged myself. Was I shielding them from the potentially critical gaze of others, or was I perpetuating the sexist standards that, in every other aspect of my motherhood, I was actively trying to dispel?
I can hear the eyes rolling from here: if you’re uncomfortable posting pictures of your kids, lady, then don’t. End of story. But it’s not that simple. What concerns me is the disconnect between actuality and image that seems exclusive to girls and women. At the beach, my daughters and I were completely un-self-conscious; we swam and ate and ran around. Only when looking at the pictures after the fact did I regress into the insecure woman I’m trying to teach them not to be. Even worse, I saw them beginning to follow suit.
I offered up some images for their approval. “Not that one, Mom, look at my stomach,” snarled the athlete who, due to O.C.D., has to be carefully monitored for signs of an incipient eating disorder. “My nose looks like a flat fish died on my face,” mourned the other. I disagreed, but I respected their opinions and kept those pictures private, wishing that they could see what I saw –- or what I wanted to see. I understood how they felt more than I let on.
I’m sure that some parents will read this and proudly announce to anyone within Tweetshot that they don’t think of their daughters in terms of their looks, because the light of unconditional love makes them all beautiful in the richest sense of the word. On one hand, these parents are absolutely right; on the other hand, I don’t believe them. The world ranks girls based on their looks over and over again, forcing us to focus on what we can’t or don’t see, until we see it. I know from experience that ignoring the impact of these standards on our daughters doesn’t make them go away; it just makes them harder to talk about -– and they need to be talked about, because our daughters need our support in order to face them.
It’s not only straight adult men who perpetuate these standards. From the old lady who pinches the cheeks of the blond toddler and calls her an angel while ignoring her brunette older sister, to the five-year-old boy on the train who innocently but audibly announces that one of your daughters is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen while the other, now used to it, just watches and smiles, the world lets girls know every day exactly where they stand. I try to intervene in these one-sided conversations (“Actually, G. is smart and strong, and we think that’s more important!”) usually embarrassing everybody in the process. But what’s the alternative?
My non-blonde daughter is wise and well-adjusted, secure enough in her many accomplishments to tune these people out, most of the time. However, she can also count, so she’s aware that, although she has attended her middle school for three years, there are already several pictures of her 6th grade sister on the school website, and none of her.
This school is racially and economically diverse. They proudly proclaim that they provide a safe space for LGBT youth. And yet their cameras somehow still seek out and record and advertise conventional forms of female beauty, and I want to smash them. In the last year or so, I have made a point of posting pictures in which my daughters are doing something other than smiling –- making music, playing soccer –- so that the focus is not on their faces or their bodies, and the comments say something other than “She’s so beautiful!” and/or “I can’t believe she’s only 14 -– she looks 21!” (God help me.) I still feel like I’m already too late.
In the past week, several essays have made the rounds in which male and female authors debate the visibility and value of women’s bodies of different sizes and ages. Jenny Trout’s viciously funny description of what happens when she even suggests that she might wear a bikini affected me most. Trout asserts that our obsession with women’s shapes and weights has nothing to do with health, and “everything to do with what we expect from women, what we've been told by the fashion industry and the value we place on ‘perfect’ bodies.”
While I do worry about my daughters’ health, I also worry about how the judgments of others will affect the way they choose to live their lives. I hope that they become women who feel secure walking through the world wearing whatever they want to. Right now, though, the two of them together are barely old enough to rent a car. Is it fair for me to want them to be as confident as Trout, especially when I’m clearly not that confident myself? I know I have to keep trying, but the battle is more than uphill. It’s goddamn perpendicular.
Ultimately, I posted just two pictures from the beach. One shows my oldest daughter sitting next to a sand castle the girls built together, while the other walks out into the water in the distance. The other, taken just seconds later, is a lovely shot of my youngest in the ocean on a perfect summer day. Because she’s looking toward the horizon, you cannot see her face, which made me feel more comfortable about putting it out there, until it occurred to me that, without a face, she was just a female body in a bathing suit. At that point I shut down my laptop and poured a drink.
That second picture received over a hundred likes, but no comments, which seems significant, somehow. My friends are overwhelmingly feminist; most of them are parents; many of them have daughters. Everyone I spoke to understood the dilemma I’m trying to describe here. However, short of putting out daughters in social media purdah, none of us know how to fix it.
I’ve looked at that second picture many times since I posted it two weeks ago. Sometimes I’m drawn to the muscles in her thighs, solid from months of hockey. Sometimes I notice the new curve of her hips; sometimes she looks too thin. Sometimes I simply follow the path of shadows on the water. I don’t know if these criteria are yours or mine. The scary thing is that, sometimes, I can no longer tell the difference.