The terrors of girlhood

Last weekend I had to drop Mia off at a friend’s house so she could work on a project for school. She was making a coral reef out of disposable items around the house, as part of a diorama representing key scenes in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was in the living room puttering around while she was getting ready. When she came around the corner, she was wearing lipstick.

I could tell she was a little self-conscious, a little proud, a little unsure. She very studiously said nothing about it, and I didn’t either. She just started gathering her things, talking about the scene in the book they were focusing on that day. The lipstick was a little dark, and I think there was a little too much. I noticed she had applied a little glitter around her eyes, too.

It’s not like this was the first time I’d encountered this. She’s ten, she’s been curious about makeup and the various accoutrements of girlhood for quite some time. Sometimes she would disappear in the bathroom for twenty minutes or more and come out in garish colors. It’s fine, because it’s experimentation, and it’s at home. The rules are no makeup at school, and that has always worked out well.

But this felt different. I think it was just her shy demeanor, the eyes that wouldn’t meet mine, the pride and fear and hope that I could see flowing across her face. At some point it had stopped being about pretending to be a big girl. It had become about actually being one.

I’m a single dad; I guess you already know that. Common wisdom tells me I should be worried about the big things coming down the pike with a preadolescent daughter. Periods, hormones, the inevitable anxieties about sex and drinking and drugs. But you know, that stuff doesn’t worry me too much. That’s biology and that’s parenting. I can do that. I have no qualms about that stuff (he said, naively).

What worries me are these smaller details. Teaching her how to put on makeup. Dressing her properly. Doing her hair so it looks pretty. The small things of girlhood that I have no experience with. When she was smaller it mattered less; now it’s becoming important and I am very conscious of my limitations here.

She is not without women in her life. My best friend A lives across the hall and is always free with her time and her advice. Mia’s mother is a regular and influential presence. My own mother lives close by as well.

But still. When you come down to it — Β on a practical, daily basis — it’s just me and her.

I need someone to give me lessons. To teach me the mysteries of blush and lip gloss and eyeliner, to teach me how to braid hair. To teach me the small details of girlhood, so that I can at least guide her or offer some helpful advice when she rounds a corner and stands shyly at the threshold of her new life, wearing too much lipstick and too much glitter around the eyes, hoping for my approval, while I just stand there, humbled into silence.


16 thoughts on “The terrors of girlhood

  1. Maura

    Even though I lived with both of my parents, my mom never got around to teaching me any of that stuff. I was too much of a tomboy to ask, maybe? I think most girls that are interested get most of that from their friends anyways (just like all the information about sex and drugs, unfortunately…). Don’t worry, you’ll do just fine! And I never did learn to wear makeup, and I think I turned out alright anyways.

  2. OK, can I just say… This is adorable.

    I’m sorry, I don’t mean to poopoo your concerns–they are real and scary and I understand that. It’s just that my parents divorced when I was young, and although we never lived full-time with my dad, my sister and I were there often enough that sometimes he had to comb our hair or (horrors!) put it in a ponytail for us. He had absolutely NO IDEA what he was doing, and his big hands would just pull our hair and our heads in the most hamfisted ways imaginable.

    My sister and I rolled our eyes at the time and laugh about it still, but, really, it was adorable.

    Your daughter is in good hands. Don’t worry. You’ll both come out of this in one piece.

    1. Mia often views my activities in this area with a benevolent impatience. She’s seems resigned to that fact that I’m kind of an imbecile where this stuff is concerned, though she has not yet reached the stage where she can laugh at it. πŸ™‚

  3. Ellen Datlow

    Awwww. This is so sweet of you Nathan. I’m afraid that some of the things my mom taught me about are a bit dated. eg. She showed me how to “curl” my eyelashes with…an eyelash curler. I never got into that much and threw away my curler decades ago (mascara can do as well) but recently when I mentioned this to a much younger woman friend she was stymied–she had no idea what I was even referring to :-).

    The other thing my mom did (way too much) was criticize the way I dressed, wore my hair, etc –she still does this occasionally and I’ve spent decades learning to ignore her and not let it hurt me. I just hope that Mia doesn’t have that experience with her own mom –I know that you wouldn’t do that).

    Your job is more to let her experiment with the makeup and stuff and maybe just give her feedback? Dunno. But I wouldn’t worry too much.

    1. Thanks, Ellen. πŸ™‚ I think you’re right; I think I should just let her experiment and try to offer some feedback and from doing anything too crazy.

  4. A

    Ellen, eyelash curlers still have a presence in most women’s makeup bags (all of my female relatives and girly- girl girlfriends, anyway) but now there are “designer” versions to choose from. I’m afraid I’ve already begun to instill some makeup snobbery in Mia, as I am often guilty of putting on makeup in the car when I take her to school (don’t worry, N-only at stoplights!:) and she asks all sorts of questions. Since I don’t have a daughter, it’s fun to talk with her about these things, especially if it deflects some pressure from my terrified friend. πŸ™‚

    1. I actually passed you once while you were putting makeup on at a stoplight. I was going to honk and wave but, as you might guess, I was well on my way to breaking the sound barrier, so there was no time.

  5. So sweet. Mia is very blessed to have someone who loves her so much.
    –And girls get advice about hair, makeup, etc. from friends or magazines (but I’m sure magazines is a whole other blog entry…)
    Of course, coming of age in the 80s we had it easy—just perm the hell out of it.

    My mom said something to me about makeup I’ll never forget, but in retrospect was probably to keep me from wearing too much:
    “Makeup should enhance your natural beauty, not cover it up.”
    (Not that I had much natural beauty but you get the point.)

  6. It’s interesting that most of your commenters mentioned learning to put on makeup from friends and magazines. I think the reality may be that the way an adult woman puts on makeup is actually not the same as how a teen wears makeup anyway. (Like, we’re not all that much into glitter . . .) The typical response, years later, from women is that their mother tried to teach them things that didn’t really apply to their own lives.

    I think the most important thing is to take seriously when she says she has to do something because “everyone’s doing it.” The typical parental response is to think that’s silly and to emphasize the importance of individuality, but it actually really is important, during the teen years, to have a certain brand of jeans or whatever the important jewelry of the moment is. (Silly bands, at the moment!) It does actually affect the child’s day to day school life. So I would say, follow her lead, let her experiment, buy her the magazines and products she wants (unless of course they’re too expensive, but that’s another discussion), and take her concerns seriously. If my mother had done those things, I think I would have had a much easier time of it! πŸ™‚

    And if her friends are allowed to do something, and it’s harmless, allow her to do it too. The no makeup in school rule is going to have to go pretty soon, I’m guessing, because all the other girls will start wearing it, and she’ll want to too!

    1. This strikes me as good advice. I’m already of the belief that she should be allowed to follow fashion trends. I think intentionally causing your child to be “different” from the other kids is a special kind of cruelty.

      The no makeup rule is specific to the school, not me. But yeah, that will definitely change soon.

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