Amanda Palmer recently played gigs in Cape Town and Johannesburg and asked me up, as she does with crazy generosity, to be one of her guest artists. I read a piece originally commissioned for legendary South African photographer Jodi Bieber‘s photo book, Real Beauty, and later reprinted in my collection, Slipping: Short Stories, Essays and Other Writing. I’m putting it up here to make it more readily available.

Thank you, Amanda, for having me, it was such a glorious experience and I love your collaborative and adventurous spirit. And thanks K- for being in the audience in Joburg, even if the letter was so embarrassing to you, now, at nine years old, you ended up literally crawling under the table to get away. And thanks @savagewatson for allowing me to use your pics!


A Letter to My Five Year Old Daughter

Dear K-,

I tell you that you’re beautiful all the time. But never just that word—“beautiful”—with all its connotations and reductions.

I say: “Baby, do you know you’re beautiful and smart and funny and kind?” Because it’s the combination of all those things that make it true.

And you say, “I know, Mama,” with tolerant impatience. Not because you are vain, although you like to wear colorful clothes and a mermaid tail and a fairy princess dress and a tiger hat, and you have already decided that you like your hair to be brushed in a particular way. But because this is not especially interesting to you. It’s a self-evident truth, like saying that mountains are high or tadpoles are wriggly.

You are much more interested in figuring out the world. It intrigues you that black is the hottest color. (Baby proto-goth!) You pick upsnails in the palm of your hand and bring them home. Youobserve that “every car is going to a place” with melancholy philosophy. You wonder whether there is a Cat Jesus and if he hangs out with Father Christmas. You wish you could climb into books and you stop me reading mid-story so that you can talk to the characters, berate the bad guys or warn the goodies about what’s about to happen.

You are full of spark and empathy. You are driven by endless curiosity and ferocious righteousness. You are opinionated. You speak up and you speak out. But you are also sweet and caring. You used to burst into tears when you stood on someone else’s toe. You are still sensitive, but you’re learning to put it in perspective.

Like beauty.

When you were two years old and we were watching Erykah Badu sing the alphabet on Sesame Street, you said “She looks like you, Mama”; and what you meant is beautiful.

I try to show you the range of physical beauty. I point out the posters of Paralympians who are beautiful and strong in their wheelchairs or with their prosthetics, and the punk black girl with green dreadlocks we pass in the mall, the old lady with her button necklace, the boy princesses in the documentary I made on a female impersonation beauty pageant.

I change the words in stories as I read them. Whenever a girl is described as “beautiful” I add “and brave” or “and clever.” I ignore the words “fat” and “thin.” But soon you will learn to read by yourself and I won’t be able to apply the filters.

And that’s what is so wonderful and terrible: that the world rushes in, and you are hungry for it, and I cannot control it.

You come home with other notions of what beautiful is and how important it is in relation to other things. That beautiful is not who you are, but how long your hair is.

And soon, too soon, you will realize that there are other definitive parameters that are so narrow barely anyone fits into them. That “beauty” is white and young and skinny and blond.

And soon, too soon, you will grow up and worry about all the stupid, poisonous slang we feed ourselves—words like “muffin top” and “thigh gap.” You will worry about being sexy instead of sexual. Of looking good instead of reveling in your body.

We battle about watching Barbie and the Dreamhouse or Monsters High because they’re all about clothes and boyfriends and popularity, like the Kardashians for kids, and I try to nudge you to She-Ra and The Powerpuff Girls and My Little Pony, where, let’s face it, every pony has a real job, including test pilot. Shows where the girls go on adventures. Where it’s about more than being beautiful.

And I cannot believe that this all starts so young. That our culture wants to box you in and limit you to being merely physically beautiful. As if that is enough.

As if that is anything at all.

It makes me so angry. How the world treats women makes me afraid for you. Not just stupid advertising or bad kids’ TV shows or salary disparities and lack of maternity leave, but the ugliness of men who hate women with casual ferocity, only one mouse click away.

Or the violence and horror and repression of women that happens a stone’s throw from here, to people we know, and across the world to people we don’t, people who are attacked for all the things I love in you: curiosity and a sense of adventure, for daring to go to school, or having an opinion or wanting a choice in their lives.

I can’t control that. I can’t control or stop the things people will say, what magazines will tell you that you can or can’t wear, the way men will call after you in the street and think they’re doing you a favor, how your physical self will be turned into a weapon against you, in the outside world and, worse, inside your head.

(Me too, baby)

I can’t filter it, I can’t protect you from it. That’s the worst way to live your life—sheltered from the world. But I can arm you as best I can. I can try to nurture your self-confidence. I can try to tell you what real beauty is.

It’s everything you are already. Right now.

Hold on to that. Hold on to it as tight as you can—your delight, your burning curiosity, your sense of humor, your mad imagination, your clear sense of justice, your joy in your body, in running and climbing and swimming and playing and dancing.

Real beauty is engaging with the world. It’s the courage to face up to it, every day. It’s figuring out who you are and what you believe in and standing by that. It’s giving a damn. You are interesting because you are interested, you are amazing because you are so wide open to everything life has to give you.

Your first teacher told you that one day you would grow up to be a great woman. And you will.

But you will also be a beautiful woman—in all the ways that count.

A Post Script Note: 

I wrote this four years ago. K- is now nine, and showing me a thing or two. Here’s one of my favourite true stories about her, that she’s okay with me sharing with you.

Last year, around this time, she told me, very confidently, that she was done wearing dresses. She didn’t like them anymore. She was done. It was over.

I said, “That’s cool. No problem. You can wear whatever you like that makes you happy.  But I’m afraid we haven’t done any laundry, so today you’re going to have to wear a dress.”

“Fine.” she huffed. It was clearly not fine.

“I don’t know what your problem is with dresses,” I tried to reason with her, as I opened up her wardrobe to find something clean. ‘Wearing dresses is the best thing about being a girl! They’re cool, and comfy and it’s only one item of clothing that you can just pull over your head. Dresses are the best!”

She folded her arms, glowering kid-frequency death stares of righteous fury. “Mama! Did you HEAR what you just said?”

I panicked, frantically replaying my words in my head. Shit. What did I say? What did I saaaaay? “Um, uh…’ I stumbled. Oh, right! ‘I meant it’s ONE of the best things about being a girl. One of the best things.”

‘So are you saying boys can’t wear dresses?’ she said, eyebrow raised.

I was so schooled. She’s amazing and wise and righteous and I love her calling me out and reminding me of the important truths about the world.