My 5-year-old daughter has been studying herself in the mirror a lot lately. It's a new thing, because none of the mirrors in our house are visible to anyone standing less than four feet tall. That's why I was surprised to find her standing on the toilet to get a full view of herself in the bathroom mirror, tugging at her hair so hard I thought she'd yank every strand out of her head.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
She didn't take her eyes off her reflection for a second. "I want my hair straight," she announced.
I wasn't confused, disappointed or incredulous -- yet. At first, I had only one reaction. I was pissed.
You see, Eva was born with a full head of dark, shiny hair which grew into a halo of glorious curls as soon as its first cell underwent mitosis. I stepped beside her and stared, the ringlets in her hair bouncing buoyantly on her shoulders, while my own thin, pin-straight hair lay plastered against my head.
It seemed to me that by some miracle, I'd endowed her with all the fabulous DNA that skipped right over my generation and onto my offspring -- and that she'd scooped every bit of this DNA into her hand, thrown it on the floor and stomped on it.
I think all mothers look at their children and feel that nature has granted them a little piece of unflawed perfection. Even if one eye is bigger than the other or their smile is crooked or they walk pigeon-toed and bowlegged at the same time, all those imperfections meld together to make one magnificent, most perfect creation -- and to change any one of those features would make them... well, not them.
"What do you mean, you want straight hair?" I demanded. "You're my little Shirley Temple!"
I wasn't just speaking metaphorically. At age 2, she was tap dancing to "The Good Ship Lollipop." She knew all the words by heart.
"I don't like it curly," she said. "All my friends laugh at it. They say I look like a clown."
"And what might be the names, addresses and social security numbers of these dumb b*tches?" I inquired.
At least, that's what my inner voice inquired. My outer voice started spouting those life lessons and age-old words of wisdom that kids don't start paying attention to until they're too old to use them.
"What does it mean when people are mean to you?" recited the outer voice.
"I forgot," she shrugged.
"It means they're not happy with themselves. Putting you down makes them feel better about themselves, at least for a little while. Do you remember what you should do when they're mean?"
"Yes," she answered without hesitation. "I should kill them with kindness."
She remembered. It's one of those philosophies that take a second to embrace and a lifetime of struggle to perform. I believe if we follow it, karma will do its work, and the world's master plan for humanity will work exactly the way it's supposed to. But just in case it doesn't, I've got the first and last names, addresses and phone numbers of every self-righteous, snotty little prima donna to prance across my little girl's path.
As the days went by, Eva's quest for self-improvement continued. Next she wanted hot pink streaks in her hair. With a little bit of red. And purple. And blue. My shining brunette with golden highlights wanted to smear her head with Skittle-colored chemical warfare. The very thought of it was like graffiti splattered all over the Sistine Chapel.
And suddenly, I thought of my mother and became very, very sorry for that dragon tattooed behind my left shoulder from 15 years before.
The next day I was sitting at the edge of the pool at the YMCA, waiting a third consecutive year for Eva to get her head wet. She sported a pair of bright green "froggles" and was demonstrating her new ability to blow bubbles under the water.
"When are you going to put your whole head under the water?" I asked.
I could have lip-synched her response right along with her. "In a hundred days," she said.
"You said that about a hundred days ago. And a hundred days before that."
"In googolplex days, then," she amended.
"C'mon, Eva..." I began, but I knew my efforts would be futile. It's a conversation we've been having for three years -- but this time, it ended with an unexpected twist.
"My name's not Eva."
Oh. Now this.
"Of course it is," I said. "I have the documentation to prove it."
"No. I don't like my name. It's too short," she said.
"And what do you propose instead?"
"Katie has the exact same number of syllables!"
"Oh. Well, then... Julia."
"I'm not calling you Julia," I huffed.
"Because it's not your name!"
"I'll only answer you if you call me Julia," she shrugged, then turned around in her flotation device-infused swimsuit that made her look like a puffed-up superhero, stuck her mouth back in the water and resumed her bubble-blowing.
I thought of my "100,000+ Baby Names" book, its pages torn, folded and scribbled on, its spine broken from being pored over for three solid trimesters. On the back cover, dozens of names, narrowed down to ten, and matched with dozens more in search of the perfect first and middle name combination -- until I found it. Eva Noelle -- like Christmas Eve backwards. Suitable for every princess in the U.K. and beyond.
At that moment, she looked up at me. Her eyes were bulging out of her froggles, and they were slightly slanted from being pulled tight. They looked magnified, like fish eyes -- and suddenly the image of her father when he was a kid flashed before my eyes, staring at the world from behind coke-bottle glasses. Her usually poofy, curly hair was slicked behind her ears, and for the first time, I saw her from the perspective of mean girls from every generation -- the same wolf pack who had the power to convince her that her hair was too curly, her name too short, her very essence not essence-y enough.
And then I had a thought in my head that I'm not too proud of. At that moment, I hoped with everything in me that she had good eyesight. And I hoped that she would never have to wear glasses like her father.
That's when I got a whole new kind of pissed -- at the mean girls lying in wait, and at myself for giving in to their demands. If my girl was bald with a pair of coke-bottle glasses, they wouldn't know how beautiful she is inside and out. They wouldn't know how she piles blankets and her favorite stuffed animals on top of her dogs when she thinks they're tired or wounded, or how she turns up the music in her room with the door open and dances so enthusiastically she almost knocks herself out on the furniture, how funny she is, how she speaks up for her brother when he has trouble speaking for himself, or how she cries during sad Disney scenes, like when Lady gets tossed in the pound, or when Dumbo's mother swings him by the trunk through the asylum bars.
"You know what?" I was practically yelling at her. "Who cares what those girls said about your hair? You don't need to please them. You don't need to straighten it or make it a different color. Your curls are your trademark. Without them, you wouldn't be YOU! Do not conform! Be yourself! Be you -- sweet, spectacular, wonderful YOU!"
And with that I hoisted her on my shoulders and spun her around. A spotlight shot out of the sky and illuminated us. Christina Aguilera stepped out of the shadows and belted out "Beautiful."
At least, that might've happened. Except Eva broke the magical moment with an exasperated sigh. "Can we just do hot pink streaks, then?" she pleaded.
Once we got home, sadness overwhelmed me. I remember looking in the mirror with the same quiet discontentment, like I didn't measure up. Girls who look at themselves that way tend to limit themselves. I didn't want any girl of mine growing up with a poor self-image.
My thoughts were interrupted by a slap from the living room, followed by Eva's admonishing voice.
"Anna! Don't hit the Bean!" she yelled. I entered the living room to find our dog with her tail between her legs and our 3-year-old laughing gleefully.
I was going to say something. But instead, I watched what happened next. Eva put the Bean's head in her lap and tenderly stroked between her ears.
"Don't worry, Bean," she consoled. "Anna's just being mean because she doesn't like herself. Let's go kill her with kindness!"
And for the better part of the next hour, she propped her sister into a princess dress and gingerly combed her hair with a magical singing princess brush.
Suddenly, it didn't matter what she looked like or how she wore her hair. I didn't care if she conformed to the mean girl masses or struggled to meet their standards. As long as she didn't change that dancing, dog-whispering, Disney sobbing soul on the inside -- that soul that made her essence so very essence-y-- nothing else meant a thing.
That weekend, I took her to the salon and watched them streak her hair with pink and blow-dry every last curl out of her head. And when they were finished, I discovered the unexpected. Beneath my Shirley Temple with her cascade of curls was a whole new kind of fabulous.