Deep into quarantine, when the days have blurred in a sea of unshowered sameness, I find myself lounging on the couch next to my 6-year-old daughter Shira. We're watching an Instagram video on my phone — a hair tutorial by a gorgeous redhead with a mane so perfect that I feel physical pangs of jealousy. I make a passing comment, a fleeting observation about how much I love her hairstyle. I don't think twice about my remark, but Shira clearly does.
She looks at me, a question written across her face. "Mom, are you beautiful?" I'm hesitant to answer because this feels like a parenting pop quiz I'm about to fail.
My tangled hair is knotted in her faded pink scrunchie. I'm wearing pajamas older than she is, most likely an impulse buy from a sale bin. I feel aged and distinctly unattractive, as someone who has spent most of the past year homebound, moping around in sweatpants as her makeup collects dust in an unopened bathroom drawer. Parenting in a pandemic has stripped me of so much, including my typical vanity. But assessing my appearance is more complicated than my current dedication to elastic-waist pants or aversion to hair dryers.
As someone who stretched the childhood term "late bloomer" to its outer limits, I'm uncomfortable with anointing myself as beautiful. When I started high school, I was already seeing an endocrinologist to solve the puzzle of my stunted growth. As my friends racked up inches and morphed into their teenage selves, I stayed the same, entering the ninth grade in the body of a 12-year-old who barely grazed 70 pounds. The idea of heads turning because I was attractive, instead of swiveling to see why I was so short, didn't even register at the time.
A comically awful combination of puffy '90s bangs, oversize flannel shirts, ill-fitting jeans, and a home hair dye disaster only compounded the problem. As I injected my daily growth hormone shot, I would fantasize about shopping in the junior's section and getting my first boyfriend, all seeming possible as soon as I passed the five-foot threshold. I believed the right "outside" would fix everything "inside," the greatest delusion of beauty.
My parents always told me I was beautiful because they saw me through a lens that was theirs alone, a filter of pure love. But it would be years before I gave myself the same gift, to view myself so generously. By the time I reached my final height — a grueling journey to 62 inches — I thought I would feel relief, crossing an invisible finish line and raising my hands in mental victory. But beauty isn't a fixed destination, and a finely honed instinct for self-criticism doesn't wane overnight. I found new areas to obsess over in college and beyond – from the size of my stomach to uncooperative hair. What was good could always be better, and that perpetual quest exhausted me all the way into motherhood.
Becoming a parent didn't vanquish my vanity, but it did deprive me of the time to fully indulge it. As a twin mom of two willful, highly expressive, and spirited girls, the focus on beauty softened, along with my personal judgment.
Now my first-grade daughter, with long curly hair and wide blue eyes, is asking me an impossibly weighty question. Despite being young, she is perceptive, and I don't want to deflect.
I decide to fight the impulse of self-deprecation. I look at her perfect, curious face and say with conviction, "Yes, I am beautiful."
Shira smiles and catches my eye. "I think you are too."
We don't watch more videos, I don't comment on anyone else's perfect hair, and we continue to cuddle, frozen in time as the world waits to reemerge.
I might feel at my worst, but I know there will be better days. I'm no longer an insecure girl measuring herself against the wall. I'm a woman who grew up and came to terms with my own expectations. My beauty comes from being seen by my daughters. Their love is the most beautiful thing about me.