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A little while ago:
“What are you doing?”
My daughter is standing on her bed and facing the mirror atop her dresser. She’s not looking at herself, not performing the sort of quick once-over females tend to do before going to town. Instead, she’s studying. Closely.
“I’m looking at myself,” she says.
“Why are you standing on the bed?”
“Because if I stand on the floor I can only see half. I want to see the whole thing.”
I offer the sort of nod I often give to females. The sort that says I don’t understand you, but I’m going to act like I do.
“Okay,” I tell her, “but hurry up. We’re ready to leave.”
She continues to scrutinize and then asks, “Daddy, can I ask you something?”
“Can you ask it in the truck?”
“Can you answer it here?”
She tilts her head to the side and lets her blond hair spill down over her shoulder. My daughter never used to pay attention to mirrors. Now she can’t pass by one without taking a peek to make sure nothing needs tucking or straightening or smoothing.
“Am I pretty?” she asks.
“Very much so,” I say.
She tilts her head to the other side. “Do you think Hannah Montana is pretty?”
“Well,” she says, “I think they’re beautiful.”
“Can we go to town now?” I ask her.
She hops off the bed and takes my hand. “What makes them beautiful, Daddy?” she asks.
“Well, since I don’t think they’re beautiful, I can’t really answer that question.”
“I don’t think I’m beautiful,” she says.
“Because there’s a lot wrong with me.”
We’ve made it to town. My daughter managed to sneak away and into the truck before I could talk to her more. And heading to town with family in tow is not the proper time for such a conversation. So I’m currently left to stew and walk the aisles of the local Target, trying to decide how I’m going to finish the conversation her and I had begun.
At eight, my daughter is on the cusp of that age when appearance begins to matter more than it once did. I don’t think that’s really a bad thing, but it is confusing to her. She thinks everything is beautiful—sunrises, sunsets, and the puffy white seedlings atop dandelions come to mind—but she secretly fears she is not. I can understand. It’s hard to compete with sunrises, sunsets, and dandelions.
And when it comes to things that are beautiful in any obvious way, she still refuses to call them ugly. To her, ugly is just a word people use for things where the beautiful chooses to remain hidden.
That’s the way I want to keep it with her. Because that is nearest to the truth.
This is also the truth—there is a lot wrong with her. Behind that blond hair and those blue eyes is a little girl who has gone through much. Too much, if you ask me.
I see the way she wears long sleeves and pants in the warm weather to hide the bruises that can pop up after her insulin shots. I see the way she talks to friends with her hands in a fist so they won’t see the pock marks left on her fingers from her sugar checks.
It’s bad enough to have a disease, she’s told me. But when you believe that disease makes you ugly, it’s worse.
I don’t blame her for thinking that way. I think there are a lot of people—older, smarter people—who do the same. But what she sees as ugliness I see as a means of becoming beautiful. Her disease has given her a compassion and an understanding I could never have.
I remember recently reading about the Miss Navajo Nation beauty pageant. Held every year. The contestants do the sort of usual things you would find in any pageant anywhere. They dress up and show their talents and talk about what they would do if they held the title.
But there is no swimsuit competition. In its place is a demonstration of some traditional Navajo skill, which can be anything from weaving to butchering a sheep.
I like that.
Because beauty isn’t simply about looking pretty and speaking well. True beauty is useful. It draws attention not to how good you look, but what good you can do.
That’s what I’m going to tell my daughter when we get home.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.