I set out to try and interview a 3 year old about beauty, knowing that that would be an almost impossible task. But a task we would endure. The interesting thing is that in all of our interviews with adolescents and adults, they seem to reflect on their past and what they learned about how they are supposed to look or who they are supposed to be but aren’t able to really pinpoint where it all comes from. So the interest for me is in thinking more about how early these beliefs and ideals are absorbed. How flexible are the ideas children have about the world and what it means to be beautiful in it?
When we first stat down and tried to talk to Sierra, she was a little shy. She kept running off to play with the cat and would speak only in gibberish for the first few minutes. In talking to her mom, Megan, she shared, “Andy and I tell Sierra that she is beautiful all of the time and we say I love you a lot. And sometimes she does say it to me, which is nice.”
I thought that was interesting to think more about in terms of what it means to hear it from your child, even if they don’t fully grasp the concept. How can we teach our children about these concepts of love and beauty and not only reinforce their beauty and value, but also help give them the space to say it and feel it towards others?
As Sierra got a bit more comfortable with me, we got to talking:
Megan: “Honey, did you like your dress today that you wore?”
Megan: “Did you feel pretty in it today?”
Megan: “What makes you feel pretty today?”
This question pushed Sierra a little out of her comfort zone, which makes sense. I don't think most adults would be comfortable answering that question for a variety of reasons. And so, she hid a bit by crouching her body down and stayed quiet. Megan decided to try and bring her back in and create a space she felt more comfortable so we could reengage:
Megan: “Sierra, where is your beautiful face?”
Megan: “There it is! What do you think about your haircut? Do you like your short hair?”
Sierra: “Yeah. yep.”
Megan: “Can you tell Kyira what you want to be when you grow up?”
Sierra: “A caterpillar.”
Megan: “A caterpillar?”
Kyira: “Heck yeah, then you get to also be a butterfly!”
Kyira: “No? Just stay a caterpillar?”
And while for some of you, you might be thinking, ‘Okay this is adorable but how does it connect to beauty?’, I found it to be an extremely insightful comment. Did you notice how quickly I made the assumption that she would of course only want to be a caterpillar as a stepping stone to becoming a butterfly? Where was the excitement about the caterpillar? What would it mean to not become a butterfly?I realized how often it is in these small ways we begin to suggest things to kids in a way that inadvertantly evolves over time to become the pressure and standards they face in the world they live in. Rather than embracing what somebody wants or needs, we begin to look for ‘what’s next?’, stifling anyone, including ourselves, of celebrating who we are already, what we have accomplished already and the worth owe inherently hold no matter how many steps we climb.
As Sierra and I kept chatting, we turned our focus onto her doll - which seemed a much easier way to keep her engaged in the concept of beauty:
Kyira: “Sierra is this your doll?”
Kyira: “Does she have a name?”
Kyira: “Sierra, do you think that Allie is pretty?”
Kyira: “Is this all of Allie’s stuff?”
Sierra: “Yeah, that is her diaper and toys. You can play with them but try not to break her toys.”
Sierra: “Because if you do, then she will be really sad.”
Kyira: “Yeah and I would be really sad too if I broke her toys.”
Kyira: “So what about this toy? Does this toy have a name?”
Sierra: “No. He doesn’t. A hippopotamus doesn’t have a name. They are just hippopotamus’.”
Kyira: “Oh okay. But he is a boy?”
Kyira: “What about Allie? Is Allie a boy or a girl?”
Sierra: “She’s a girl.”
Kyira: “How do you know?
Sierra: “Because she is a girl.”
Sierra: “See, she has bows in her hair.”
Kyira: “Do you put bows in your hair too?”
Sierra: “Yeah, grandma usually does that for me. I have a grandma. Her name is Sara.”
Kyira: “So grandma buts bows in your hair?”
Sierra: “Yeah because I am a girl.
Kyira: “Okay. What else do you wear because you are a girl?”
Sierra: “Um, I get underwear. And I don’t wear diapers anymore because I am not a baby. But this baby still wears diapers because she poops in her diapers.”
Recognizing we were veering off course pretty quickly, I thought it important to let Sierra lead us down this path for a bit. She was connecting and what I would soon find out was that she was going to show me she trusts me by letting me help take care of Allie.
Kyira: “Yeah, so do you have to change her diapers when that happens.”
Sierra: “Yeah but I sometimes need help…I need help now. I need somebody big and strong to help me.”
Kyira: “But look at how big and strong you are? You just undid that all by yourself!”
Let’s be honest here, even fake, imaginary poopy diapers are not exciting so I was definitely okay with not being the designated diaper changer. Once Allie’s diaper was changed, I decided to see if we could take our conversation a bit further:
Kyira: “So, Sierra, can boys wear bow-ties in their hair too?”
Sierra: “Umm…I don’t know. That’s weird.”
Kyira: “So maybe no?”
Sierra: “Umm…maybe they can.”
This was such a cool moment because you could see in her face how she was at least willing to allow the possibility that it’s not just girls who wear bow-ties. Expanding those rules and assumptions are key in allowing children to develop more flexible views about societal expectations and the way we can see and celebrate beauty in all of our differences.
Kyira: “So, tell me more about Allie. Would you say she is pretty?”
Sierra: “Yeah, she has blonde hair.”
Kyira: “Oh, okay. So blonde hair makes her pretty?”
Sierra: “Yeah. And I have blonde hair too. And she has a dress.”
Kyira: “Yeah she does have this very nice purple dress on. What about you? Do you like to wear dresses?”
Kyira: “What was the dress you were wearing before? Was that a princess dress?”
Sierra: “Yeah. But it wasn't purple. When I was a baby I used to wear a purple dress.”
Kyira: “Do you feel pretty when you wear your dress?”
Sierra: “Yes, I feel princess pretty. And I have a best friend too. Kalea.”
Kyira: “Is Kalea a boy or a girl?”
Sierra: “She’s a girl.”
Kyira: “How do you know?”
Sierra: “Because she is my friend.”
Kyira: “Oh, I see. Can you only have girl friends?”
Sierra: “Yeah, I mean I only have girl friends and boy friends.”
Kyira: “Are your boy friends also pretty.”
Sierra: “No, they aren’t pretty…because they are boys.”
I tried to take it deeper with her but I think we hit an exhaustion point as I had been asking her to stay focused on a pretty heavy topic for a 3 year old for about 5 minutes. But as I packed up my stuff, I found myself excited about the possibility in having more conversations like this. The possibility that, through suggesting an alternative or bending the mold a bit, we can create that flexibility and curiosity in kids that will allow them a greater chance for embracing their own unique identity as well as finding love and space in their heart for others. I am looking forward to furthering these types of conversations with many more kids throughout the entirety of this project!
Thanks Megan and Andy for your commitment to Sierra and her development of a strong sense of self but also in your willingness to allow her to expand beyond the societal structures and norms likely imposed upon her as she walks throughout this world!