A perfume ad came on while we were watching tv the other day. Models strutted through a sparse stage set of doors and hallways. Their unnatural gait suddenly struck me as completely laughable; Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks could have sponsored them.
“Ha, this is so funny guys, look! Look at that silly walk? Don’t they look silly?” I called to my kids, laughing. I thought that maybe drawing early attention to the silliness of this affectation might be healthy, but heck, let’s face it, I also always like to share a good laugh.
“They aren’t silly,” my five year old son said soberly, “That’s how girls walk.” My little girl never said anything.
Somewhat alarmed at his assessment that this unnatural gait typifies females, I said, “They do? I’m a girl. Is that how I walk?”
“It’s how fancy girls walk,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Oh,” I said, “So I’m not a fancy girl? What kind of girl am I?” I’d like to pretend that I responded with just as matter-of-fact a tone in my voice, but there was a touch of hurt around the edges. I braced for some matronly appellation, but after a pause, he diplomatically said, “A pretty girl.” Ah. Well, I didn’t complain. But he had picked up that trace of anxiety on my part and stored it away for later.
Maybe that would have been the end of it if I hadn’t brought it up again myself a few days later in another silly mood. I said, “Hey! Hey guys! I’m going to do the fancy girl walk. See if I can do it!” (But maybe it wasn’t just a silly mood; maybe I really wanted to prove to myself that could embody that brand of femininity.) I circled the bedroom barefoot, strutting; despite my best efforts, I more resembled a drunken sailor then an elegant, aloof model. I told myself that I could do it better if I were wearing heels. I tried not to think to myself that I could do it better if I were not 5 feet tall and 250 pounds, if I were not a dowdy housewife wearing a t-shirt with a hole in it.
My son soberly confirmed that I did not look like a fancy girl.
That evening over supper at a restaurant, eyes glued to the TV as usual, he kept saying, “I’m looking for fancy girls so you can see them, Mumma. I want to show you what a fancy girl looks like.”
He has recently started remarking that he likes girls because girls are pretty. It feels like a fragile moment in time, where I want to make sure to steer him straight in his perception and valuation of women. So I asked him, trying to understand what was going on in his brain without making him defensive, why he wanted to show me fancy girls.
“Because you want to be one, Mumma,” he said. Oh.
I was happy that he didn’t say something like, “Because I like fancy girls” or “Because fancy girls are the best girls” or the like, but I shivered a bit inside. Was this all due to my slightly wistful tone when he had first said that I wasn’t a fancy girl? Or was there more to it? Despite my best intentions, had my own vanity ingrained in him the idea, though never explicitly stated, that contrived prettiness is the priority for a woman?
We had the same exchange over and over during that meal. Sometimes I would say in frustration, “Angus! I don’t want to talk about fancy girls anymore! I don’t want to hear anymore about it! Stop watching the TV! That’s not what we’re here for!” Sometimes I would say calmly, “Angus, the important thing is not how a girl looks on the outside, but who she is on the inside.” I believe that, but I wondered if my own love of pretty clothes and jewelry belied my words. I fretted about pushing that point too hard—beautiful people are part of a beautiful world, and I don’t want him to think that’s wrong. But I wasn’t sure how much it mattered, because the only response I ever got from Angus was, “I’m looking for fancy girls to show you, Mumma. Because you want to be one. Don’t you, Mumma, don’t you?”, repeated until it became haunting.
Every morning, we cuddle and pretend play for awhile. This morning he brought his wind-up diving submarine over. “I’m going to put this in your hair, Mumma. I’m going to make you a fancy girl.” I clung to the tiny bit of reassurance that at least his image of a fancy girl was not limited to sequins, high heels, and thigh high slits, that it could include something as big and tough and mechanical as a submarine. I did wonder if he was playing on my perceived weakness, my desire for fanciness, in order to let him do what he wanted with my hair. In any case, I didn’t want that propeller within five feet of my head.
Little sister came in to join us and somehow, in a split second of distraction in which I heard no whir, felt no slight breeze near my temple, the submarine became attached to my head. “I just wanted to make you a fancy lady, Mumma” my son said in response to my initial speechless, gape mouthed dismay.
I growled. I grumbled. I cried because it hurts having a submarine hanging from your head, but he couldn’t believe it really hurt because I also kept laughing. A submarine caught in my hair for the sake of beauty. In one event, the kind of daily happening that keeps me feeling frumpy and unfeminine was juxtaposed with a little boy’s attempt to embellish the Mumma he loves so much. It was hilarious. I should have turned it into a teaching moment, probably, about the folly of dressing up to please someone else, or the lie of sacrificing comfort for beauty, or the shallowness of mere ornamentation. But I just laughed, and I hoped that he saw between my laugh lines a beautiful Mumma in pajamas who doesn’t need to be a fancy lady to be fulfilled.
As for the submarine, with no adult around to help me and the boat pulled right up against my face, the best I could do was unravel a couple of inches. My pragmatic little girl went for the scissors, and that was that. Now I have a funky little curl framing my face. And a little boy’s question ringing in my ears, “But you want to be a fancy lady, don’t you, Mumma?”
Jennie Robertson writes and edits from her New England home or on the road. Her work has appeared in MaryJane’s Farm magazine, Literary Mama, The Yummy Mummy Club, and is forthcoming in the anthologies So Glad You Told Me and Here in the Middle. She is a regular contributor to the TOTS Network.