“She’s so cute. I mean, all babies are cute, but she is seriously, like, the cutest baby I’ve ever seen.” People tell me how cute or beautiful or totes presh my 16-month old daughter is basically every day we are out and about, and I’ve heard some version of that initial quote about a dozen times. Despite my rather strong feelings on the objectification of human persons, particularly young girls, this doesn’t really bug me.
How can I complain? I love pointing out babies to my daughter and seeing her react excitedly, as I say, “Look at that cute little baby!” Seeing a baby or toddler, especially when they are playing or laughing or smiling, is wonderful. They each bring so much joy and hope into the world by their little presence. I love seeing babies and kids on my social media feeds. And while I only comment on the cuteness of those who cannot comprehend what I am saying and only tell my daughter she is beautiful rather than that she looks beautiful, I can understand why people find toddlers and other little kids so cute they feel compelled to express it. So when a friend, former student, social media pal, or stranger tells me my daughter is cute, I just feel glad that she brings a little sunshine into their lives. I’m glad that she gives them a tiny fragment of the immense joy she gives me on a daily basis.
But there have been a handful of times when I’ve felt otherwise. One experience involves walking through the mall. There is a modeling recruitment kiosk in the center of our local mall, and every time we walk by this spot, I’m bombarded by compliments about her appearance from the recruiters. I try to be as polite as possible while not breaking stride. But sometimes, when I have to walk across the mall a couple of times, I think about how annoying it will be to pass them and go out of my way to take an alternative route. And while doing this, I have thought about how this small inconvenience is likely a harbinger of the many annoying and unjust things she will face as she grows older, particularly as a teenager and young adult, because she was born female and lives in a culture obsessed with the objectification of girls and women. Thinking about it fills me with both dread and sadness. I will do everything in my power to try to get her to see that objective standards of beauty simply do not exist and that she is more than her physical appearance, but I’m also aware of the limits of parental influence in a toxic culture.
Another experience was far more painful. In a play area at the same mall, my daughter was playing with a young black girl who was probably in kindergarten or first grade. The older girl was trying to help her climb, patting her head, and giving her the occasional hug. After a few minutes, she turned to me and said, “She’s soooooo beautiful.” She started touching her hair and commenting on her blue eyes and “beautiful blonde hair.” And she was rubbing her fingers on my daughter’s cheeks. The compliments continued and as she was talking, I could hear in her voice and see in her eyes a certain sadness, anxiety, and sense of longing. I could tell that in her own mind she was contrasting these traits with her own.
I smiled, but inside I was gutted. And recalling the incident still makes me emotional, even as I write this. I couldn’t help but think of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the videos I have seen of kids associating being black with ugliness or badness (and being white with the opposites), and everything else I have seen that confirms the intimate link that exists between our society’s standards of beauty and racism/colorism. To see the evil of racism penetrating and twisting the minds of children, creating insecurities, is a heartbreaking experience.
But beyond this, I could not help but feel bad about that particular girl and her inability to grasp her own beauty because of structural sin and widespread ignorance. Many of the people that comment on the cuteness of my daughter cannot comprehend how truly beautiful she is, particularly strangers. I can, because I see her—the person. What I see is not based on some fleeting, capricious standards that are detached from objective reality. There is no inner and outer Avery—she is a unified person. And my love for her allows me to see her as she actually is. I value her absolute uniqueness. I know her infinite worth. I see how beauty permeates her entire being.
One of the most wonderful things about being a parent is that it might enable us to have a concrete experience (in loving our children and seeing them this way) that helps us to understand the unfathomable love God has for us and the way he views us. Everyone who truly loves another person may also get a glimpse of what this divine love looks like, and those who have embraced the truth and the Way will see more clearly than those blinded by sin and ignorance. But there may be something special about being a parent—integral to this special relationship with a child. I have no doubt that that little girl’s father sees her as beautiful. And it’s heartbreaking that she doesn’t realize he is right.