Last night was one of those discussions that makes you wonder whether anything you say is getting through.
“We’re going to have lots of dancing and dresses but no Barbies, because you hate Barbies,” she says, earnestly.
“That’s right,” I say, thinking ‘all right, she’s hearing me!’
“I love them,” she says. My heart sinks. The only message she’s got is that I hate them, and at four (in a week or two) she’s already decided that my opinion is less important than her peers. And what is swiftly becoming her own.
“Really? Why?” I say, bravely, steeling myself for the worst.
“Because they’re pretty! and they like dancing.”
Oh dear. We have a discussion about whether Barbies are also smart, strong, powerful, funny or any of the other good characteristics I’d like her to value. She mostly shakes her head but it doesn’t deter her. I ask whether she’s ever seen a Barbie with brown skin or black skin or even any other colour than pink skin? Nope. What about fat Barbies or even Barbies with a happy belly (I pat my own for emphasis)? Nope.
But how do I explain the concept of “unrealistic” or “unrepresentative”? She doesn’t understand why any of that’s a bad thing. After all, she’s white: pink skin, blonde hair, blue eyes. Barbie doesn’t jar for her at all, unlike olive-skinned, dark-haired me.
I ask whether it would be easy to run or climb trees or play soccer in the unrealistic dresses Barbie wears? But of course, Barbie probably has clothes she can change into for that. She’s rich too. Money’s no object when you have your own house, car, boat, caravan, horse ranch.
And then the worst comes.
“But I want to be pretty!” she says. At not even four. I can tell this is where the 46 per cent of nine-year-old girls who thinks they need to diet come from.
I’m caught between the desire to tell her she is pretty (she is, to me; she’s utterly gorgeous; I’m fairly sure she’s pretty even according to that bizarre societal version of pretty) and the compulsion to tell her that pretty is irrelevant and so fleeting and a fickle thing to base your self-esteem on.
“What would happen if you weren’t pretty?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Would you still get hugs?”
She shakes her head. Wow. She lives in a mental world where the basic human right of physical comfort can be withdrawn if you’re not attractive enough.
“That’s pretty sad. They don’t deserve hugs? So all those people who aren’t pretty just have to sit in a corner and cry by themselves and no one can give them hugs? You know,” I tell her, “If you were burned in a fire and your face wasn’t pretty any more, I would still love you and I would still hug you.”
“But I’d still be burned,” she says, child logic in full force.
“Yes, and I’d be sad that you got hurt but I’d still love you and hug you.”
“Enough talking,” she says. “Read the book!”
I read the book: The Sign of the Seahorse by Graeme Base, a rollicking tale of an underwater pub filled with a greedy capitalist Groper and a brave Soldier Crab and a good environmental message about not polluting the oceans. And one female character, named Pearl, who is the love interest and who goes away from the danger leaving signs to follow so her true love can find her after he’s dealt with the catastrophe. Sigh.
Advice and book recommendations welcome.