Alice, age 9: “Mom, do I have to brush my hair today?”
Me: “Um, yes, it would be great if you could brush your hair every day!”
At the time of this conversation, I remember feeling conflicted about how to respond. On the one hand, yes, it’s good to have pride in your appearance. And hair-brushing does not take a lot of effort. But on the other hand, there was something joyful and refreshing about my daughter’s complete disregard for the way her hair looked, how she dressed, or what people thought about her. In Alice’s world, brushing her hair was an inconvenient nuisance and she would just as soon do it as little as possible.
I knew back then that those feelings would not last forever. That one day I would likely be prying her hairbrush out of her hand, tearing her away from the mirror, and escorting her out of the house and away from all the preening and obsessing about her appearance.
Five years later, my prediction has come true.
Is My Daughter Obsessed with Her Looks?
At age 14, there is no such thing for Alice as a spur-of-the-moment trip outside of the house. She is, indeed, obsessed with her physical appearance. Hair has to be coiffed, makeup applied, and clothes changed multiple times before we can even think about leaving the house. God forbid we bump into someone on the street when she is looking less than put together. Once, after 30 minutes of cajoling her to get ready and come on our remote mountain hike, Alice emerged with newly painted nails, Ray-Bans, her fanciest shorts/shirt combo, and her newly purchased flower crown.
I knew this transition from couldn’t-care-less to couldn’t-care-more was inevitable. But here was something unsettling about seeing my confident, self-assured teen worry about whether her nail color clashed with her shirt or if she looked “stupid” in the very same outfit she claimed she loved the day before. With shame, it crossed my mind that I had somehow raised a self-involved, looks-obsessed, one-dimensional child.
Yet I always knew that this could not be further from the truth.
It’s exactly because my daughter is so self-aware and multi-dimensional that she cares about how she presents herself. The paradoxical desires to both stand out and fit in make every outfit choice, every makeup application, and every hairstyle critical to the day’s success or failure and contribute t her being obsessed with her looks. Taking control of her physical appearance is one of the only tangible ways Alice has at her disposal to express herself, and this self-expression is very important to her.
We have spoken at length about how looks don’t matter and that being a good, kind, compassionate person in this world is way more important than any aesthetic. Each time we have this conversation, Alice reminds me that she knows that technically looks aren’t important. But when she looks good on the outside, she feels more confident on the inside. In turn, that makes her a kinder, more compassionate, more understanding person. I certainly can’t argue with such compelling teenage logic!
So while I will never be happy to see my daughter try on multiple shirts only to pick the first one she tried, or take an hour to get ready for an event when the rest of the family was ready in 10 minutes, I understand this is something she needs to do. Creating an identity for herself as an individual outside of her family unit is a natural and necessary part of the teenage process.
And just as she learned over the years that consistent hair-brushing is probably a good idea, so will she hopefully learn that sometimes it’s okay to go out in a less-than-perfect outfit or without makeup. Somewhere deep down, her freewheeling 9-year-old self still knows that.