Pretty Is as Pretty Does

Part of adolescence is learning how to change. Learning to be who you are and accepting that your exterior doesn't define you. The process matters, and Nadia Ilse missed it. She took a short-cut and her mother approved.
08/17/2012 10:02 am ET Updated Oct 17, 2012

One of the hardest things I do as a parent is stand back and let my son fall, get hurt, and feel disappointed, angry, upset or frustrated. His troubles have been small so far: Learning to share and standing up to a mean kid at a birthday party aren't world-shattering events. But neither he nor his troubles will stay small forever, and part of my responsibility is to start preparing him now for a world that can be cruel, unfair and confusing.

I try to build up his self-esteem. (Is that a bad thing now? I can't keep track of what's OK this week.) I expose him to challenges, and let him solve his own problems. I make him apologize to people when he behaves badly in public. When I feel guilty about my tough-girl stance, I dole out cookies, because even when I know I'm doing the right thing, chocolate chips make everyone feel better. But when dessert is over, we're back to tough love.

Which is why hearing about 14-year-old Nadia Ilse's plastic surgery stopped me cold. A perfectly normal-looking girl was bullied because her ears "stuck out." The bullying drove her to thoughts of suicide, and that led her mother to find a surgeon with the Little Babyface Foundation who donated his skills to pin her ears back. Nadia's mom also let the doctor throw in a nose job and chin reconstruction as a kicker.

Nadia is happy now. "I look beautiful, this is exactly what I wanted, I love it," she says. She no longer has those ears. The bullying has stopped. I wanted to be touched by the doctor's actions, Nadia's joy and her mother's relief.

Instead, I'm sad.

Sad and disappointed, and frustrated too.

Nadia was a compilation of everything she was supposed to be. Now she's not. Today she's someone else's idea of beauty. A molded and sculpted vision closer to perfection, removed from the skin in which she was born.

As a woman, I'd like to be outraged that another young girl has been brought to her knees by a society that values being attractive above all things, but this scenario has become so common that my outrage feels a little forced. My maternal instincts, however, are on high alert. As a mother, I'm horrified that a child has replaced her unique and lovely face with one less noticeable. I'm troubled that her mother was a willing participant in her daughter's transformation. To be sure, Nadia will blend in -- she'll be one of the crowd. But in becoming more "beautiful," I think she also became more ordinary.

Nadia's doctor says, "She was picked for her surgery because of her deformities." I still can't figure out what those deformities were and I've stared at Nadia's picture for days. I saw a girl. A normal girl. This wasn't, as Nadia's mother claims, just like getting braces. Plastic surgery is a far cry from straightening crooked teeth to achieve a blinding American smile. (In the interest of full disclosure, I had braces twice. I also color my hair and wear makeup. I'm not immune to the desire to feel pretty, but I draw the line well before Botox or anything involving anesthesia.)

Nadia will never know what it means to mature into her face -- to watch as gawky features slowly morph into a more polished adult image. It's an uncomfortable process, but an important one. I hated it. I had vampire teeth (hence the double dose of braces) and kids called me Ichabod Crane. I was flat-chested, gangly and awkward for years. But part of adolescence is learning how to change. Learning to be who you are and accepting that your exterior doesn't define you. The process matters, and Nadia Ilse missed it. She took a shortcut and her mother approved.

When was the last time your kid came home from school and said, "Hey, I got an A! I cheated" -- and you said "Great! I'm proud of you for skipping the hard part. After all, it's only the grade that matters"?

I am not saying I want this girl to suffer. Bullying isn't something we should accept as a rite of passage. I think we can all agree that bullying is destructive and damaging and wrong on every level. I also don't believe that people with real and crippling deformities should be denied surgery, charitable or otherwise. I think Nadia's mother loves her daughter, saw her in pain and wanted to help her. If Nadia's reaction is any indication, she did. But at what cost?

In helping her daughter get plastic surgery, Nadia's mother reinforced all the stereotypes her daughter was facing by telling her the solution was to change what she looked like. She didn't tell her daughter to get angry at social constructs that subjugate women into pretty decorations, as Jessica Valenti argues she should. She didn't encourage Nadia to accept herself for who she was and learn to ignore or stand up to the bullies. Her mother helped her run and hide. A part of me understands that, really, I do. It's just not a lesson I want my kids to learn. I don't think we do them any favors by helping them avoid the painful parts of life.

I'm sure there are people who will say I'm not entitled to a voice in this debate because I don't have daughters. I understand that. When it comes to looks and the pressures surrounding appearances, I do think it is easier to raise boys. My struggle is to raise sons who recognize that a girl or woman's beauty isn't limited to her face, who value women of all types, who choose not to label them or cheapen them by deeming them attractive only if they fit the latest fashion norms. I'll do my very best. But can someone tell me how I do that if the girls don't believe it themselves?

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