Advice to a Daughter

Some time ago, my friend Nathan Ballingrud posted a wonderful blog post called “The Terrors of Girlhood.” It’s about being the single father of a ten-year-old girl who is just starting to experiment with things like cosmetics. It started me thinking about what I would want Ophelia to learn when she was that age, what I wished my mother had taught me. I learned these things on my own, but it was harder learning them that way, and it definitely took a lot longer.

This post won’t be about writing. But I think that at least my female readers might appreciate it.

What would I want a ten-year-old girl, about to become a big girl for real, to know and remember?

1. Take care of your skin.

When I was growing up, I always thought makeup would make me look better, prettier. What I realized as I grew older was that makeup didn’t make the difference. The health of my skin did. I used to read fashion magazines (still do on airplanes, sometimes), and one thing they always seem to point out is that French women teach their daughters to develop a skin care regiment at a young age. I don’t know if that’s true, but I wish my mother had taught me that. It’s not a difficult thing. You need to clean, moisturize, and never, ever go out without sunscreen. I never had the patience for tanning, which was very popular when I was growing up, and I’m glad now. Friends of mine who tanned started getting brown spots and lines ten years ago. I’m still doing all right, although I know the lines will come eventually. But at least not from sun exposure. And this one was important for me: when you get the inevitable teenage (or adult) blemishes, take care of them rather than accepting them as a normal part of growing up.

It’s almost embarrassing to be talking about this in public, because how we take care of our skin is such a personal matter, something done in the privacy of our bathrooms. But if I had a teenage girl, and of course I will, that’s the first thing I would teach her.

So, embarrassment aside, here is my personal arsenal:

Cetaphil, Proactiv (because my face breaks out if you look at it wrong), Garnier. So now you know.

If your skin is healthy, almost any makeup, or no makeup at all, will look good on it. And you’ll get to forty-two (which is where I am, in case you were wondering), and smile when people assume you’re considerably younger.

2. Take care of your body.

I also thought the right clothes would make me look better. So I bought expensive clothes, hoping they would turn me into – something, I wasn’t sure what. It took a long time for me to realize that it’s the body underneath that shapes the clothes. So a healthy body is much more important. I want Ophelia to grow up knowing that she should eat healthily, and in healthy portions – and watching me do the same. And I want her growing up knowing that exercise is a normal part of life, something that one simply does every day. That one walks, runs, dances, rides horses. That moving is important, natural, part of what we do as human beings. That a girl should be strong, limber, and able if necessary to kick some zombie butt.

I want her to see me growing older still able to do a decent downward dog, or last through a Pilades routine. And eating my vegetables, so that someday she will eat them too. (Yes, well. That’s a struggle at the moment.)

3. Take care of your spirit.

This one is difficult to describe. I used to see girls my own age that I admired because they seemed so confident. They decided what they wanted to do, and then did it. (They also inevitably had beautiful skin, and a sense of fashion that I envied because it was so individual, and yet seemed so right.)

It took me a while to realize that they usually came from a particular group: girls who had been raised in fairly wealthy families and who had gone to independent schools. Often, girls’ schools. I hate to write that, but it’s true. They had been raised differently from most of the girls I knew. They had been raised to think for themselves, to consider themselves important. Their spirits had been nurtured and cultivated from a young age. They believed in themselves, in their own vision of the world. The adults in their lives had taken them seriously, and so they took themselves seriously.

But it doesn’t take wealth, or a fancy private school, to do that. Girls should be taught that they are important, that their ideas count. And they should be taught to treat themselves that way, to value and care for their own spirits. To seek out the highest and best for themselves. I think I do that when I take Ophelia to the museum and discuss art with her – why she likes some things and not others. When, rather than telling her she can’t have something (even ice cream), I negotiate with her and we discuss the various options.

But this is important for all of us, I think. We all need to take care of our spirits, to give ourselves beauty, take ourselves seriously, challenge but also reward ourselves.

My ideas about this aren’t well-developed, perhaps because I’m very good at taking care of my skin, and reasonably good at taking care of my body, but not particularly good at taking care of my spirit. I’m still learning. But I want Ophelia to learn better and at a younger age than I did, so she can be one of those girls I used to admire, so self-possessed, so smart. And with such great skin.

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