Thursday, October 4, 2007

She's So Beautiful

These are the words that come out of 4 out of 5 people's mouths when they first meet our daughter, and it's been bugging Liz and I. It's not something that we think about every minute of every day, it's just one of those little things that bug us.

Why, you ask?

Well, we've asked ourselves the same question. Why does this comment rankle us and just not feel right? It's not that she's an ugly kid. In fact, she is very cute (you'll have to take my word for it, as I'm not going to post pics here that would fully identify her). She has a smile that lights up a room, and enough social skills that she could compete with a politician in working a room. And we don't dress her like she's in a beauty pageant. So what's so wrong about pointing out that she's a good looking kid?

Well, for one thing she's only 5 years old. And people have been saying this for at least the last 2 years. And I just don't think it's appropriate to talk about really young girls as "beautiful". At least not when you first lay eyes on them. There's something in the comment that just sexualizes this young child by referring to her as beautiful. I mean, isn't there anything else that you might say? Like "She has a nice smile", "My, she's well behaved", or just "Hi, Sweet Pea!". OK, so most days they'd be stretching the truth if they said she was well behaved, but we wouldn't mind.

Unfortunately, we think that that the base reason that people say this probably doesn't have to do with people purposely trying to make her a sexual object, but it's just as bad. We've come to the conclusion that people do this because we are white and Sweet Pea isn't (we are a family thru adoption-both of our kids are bi-racial African-American/Caucasian). So when people first encounter Sweet Pea being introduced as our daughter, they're naturally a bit taken back. I get that. She doesn't exactly look like us. So while they're feeling awkward they feel the need to say something nice, and so come out with the "She's so beautiful" comment.

While I don't really think people are trying to be malicious, I wonder why this particular comment comes out. I suspect that it might have to do with the "unofficial racial preference rank order for adoption", which places relatively more value (in decreasing order) on kids that are white, asian, hispanic, and finally African-American. Being of mixed race (with half being Caucasian) bumps you up a half notch. So I think a big part of this comment thing is just people feeling sorry for us that we adopted kids that were of "lower preference", and wanting to say something to make us feel better.

Thus far Liz and I just usually mumble something non-committal, and go on from there. We don't think that people are consciously being rude, so don't make a big deal out of it. We sometimes think that maybe we're just being overly sensitive, but the comment just has never felt right. So, dear readers, let me know what you think. And if you ever happen to meet us on the street, you now know what not to say.


hj said...

I think it really depends on your geographic location in order to understand the exact sub-text. Where I live, mixed race kids would not be seen as being 'lower' on the adoption hierarchy.

If she really is strikingly beautiful, it might be people bubbling forth with their first thought (of her beauty) upon seeing Sweet Pea.

There are come-backs, but I only know the hackneyed ones. I think you're in need of a cute, fresh reply and I know there are others (esp. some hub bloggers) who are really good at this.

Another Autism Mom said...

I personally love the beauty of mixed race kids. Maybe I'd be one of those complimenting your daughter that way - sincerely. I'm also one of those people who always say my friends' kids are beautiful... But that's because they ARE!

By the way son has a HUGE crush on a preschool classmate whose Dad is black and Mom is white. She's the prettiest girl in the school, no doubt about it.

VAB said...

Kids are often beautiful, but that doesn't make them sexual. I used to have a good looking dog and everyone made that exact same comment. I'm sure they weren't be sexual. My experience has been that it's pretty common to hear kids complimented on their looks at that age. ("Why isn't he just the cutest thing ever!") I don't usually do it because it think kids find it embarrassing, but my wife will sometimes make similar comments.

hj said...

Hmmm, I want to add one small thing of which I was a bit unclear: I've lived nearly all over the US in nooks and crannies and near hollers (as well as huge metropolises). In certain of those places, racial/ethnic/cultural prejudice is still rampant. I'd say that given your profession and the way you write, that you're very adept at reading people. You wouldn't have written about it if you weren't picking up on something valid. Again, the [temporary] solution is the snappy comeback a la Cary Grant....

Anne said...

I'm bi-racial and people didn't say that when I was a kid. They said, "what are you?"

She probably is beautiful.

Club 166 said...

The adoption hierarchy is very real, and on a national level that's how it's ranked. It's stupid and reprehensible, but that's the way it is (ask any adoption agency).

I wouldn't mind people saying she was "really cute", but somehow it's different when they say "she's really beautiful".

I don't want to come up with a snappy comeback, as I don't think that people are really trying to be malicious.

I'm familiar with the "what are you?" ignorance. I didn't think it started until at least 7 or 8, though.

I actually thought that it was just me being an overprotective dad until Liz mentioned it to me last week. It's just kind of weird.


Ange said...

Just my thoughts... I used to get this comment A LOT about Moosie (my younger boy) and people wanted to touch him. Strangers usually restrained themselves, but family and friends couldn't help themselves. He reflects this wonderful combination of traits all at once that people call "beautiful"...I don't know... angelic, sweet, innocent, joyfulness... No one ever said that about my older was always "he's all boy" or "spunky" etc. And if it means anything people would always slip and use the pronoun "she" even though they knew he was a boy. It's just something that shines from his soul. Maybe it's the same thing people feel when meeting your duaghter?

Camille said...

I'm just guessing, but I think the folks where you live are a little in shock about your daughter being biracial and are overcompensating for their immediate thought which is, "oh, too bad she's not white..."

I also imagine that she's very cute, maybe even beautiful. I agree that "mixed" kids are usually very pretty. My (honorary) grandkids are mixed race. And they are very pretty. Their mom is gorgeous, she's mixed too, but most people would assume that her parents are both African American.

It's just sad that these questions sort of hang in the air. Biases get "wired" very deeply. As comfortable as I am around my friend and her kids, I sometimes feel awkward around African Americans because when I was growing up, there weren't any around, few of any other minorities, either. I think my kids don't deal with this kind of awkwardness, they don't seem to anyway.

I also agree that there is something vaguely creepy about exclaiming that a little girl is "beautiful". My ASD kid has extraordinary eyes, but they are actually "dysmorphic". It's a case where dysmorphic is the ideal (according to many people here) taken to an extreme.

Club 166 said...

Thanks, guys.

Ange, I think sometimes it may be that people are idealizing or objectifying my daughter, which bugs me. She's much more than her looks, which she is not responsible for. She's reasonably smart, very social, competitive, extremely stubborn, and as self-centered as any 5 year old. Focusing on looks (to the exclusion of everything else) just seems so shallow.

Camille, I sense often that you're right that it's a "too bad, she's not white" comment. We don't live in the most expensive area, but it is a nice area. Although the area is probably 15-20% black and prides itself on being 'progressive', I think there might be the underlying feeling that we're breaking some kind of unwritten rule or something. Like if you're white it's only OK to have mixed race or black kids if you're lower middle class or below or Angelina Jolie. Everyone else is excluded.

I don't think it's the biggest thing that we'll have to deal with in terms of race relations, but I also feel that if I can understand it more it might give me insight into other things.


Niksmom said...

Joe, since you obviously can't control what stupid things come out of other people's mouths, how about this one:

Thoughtless person: "Oh, she's beautiful/gorgeous/etc.!"

You/Liz: "Thanks, but yout should see her insides/ spirit/ personality --it's even better and so much more important!" (All said with a friendly smile, of course, to indicate you assume they meant no offense.)

Suzanne said...

I do get what you are saying, that your SweetPea is worth so much more than her physical beauty. but this is America. People probably think they are being nice to notice the superficial.
Like Anne, I have lived the life of "what are you/what is she?" Not a warm fuzzy feeling. Things would have been very different for me had people ever said "she's beautiful" So, as unimportant (and sexualizing) as it is, it beats the alternative.

Casdok said...

If i bump into you, i will remember!!!

kristina said...

Your response reminds me of how I feel, actually, when people say of Charlie "he's so cute"---sometimes they throw in "handsome." Since he is 10 now, is getting hair on his upper lip, and is my size, few people would say "beautiful" directly, but I've still heard that on and off. I feel very mixed still about hearing "he's so cute": I want to say, that's just one thing about him---plus, the word "cute" is vaguely denigrating, as if what Charlie cannot do is compensated for his appearance.

I am probably over-sensitive about this---

Daisy said...

The worst case: She might have trouble in adolescence if she runs into cosmetic issues: braces, acne, etc., if her self-image is too tied up in her looks. However, I think you and Liz have your heads together enough to handle this potential by raising a well-adjusted young woman.

bigwhitehat said...

There is nothing sexual about saying she is beautiful. If you assign some connotation the the word "beautiful" trust me that is your own thing. Most people don't share that connotation.

My daughters are remarkably pretty. I get reminded of this all the time. I quit letting that bother me a long time ago.

aitch-jaye said...

I'm still mulling on this, but perhaps it strikes such a chord because at its core, it's still considered improper to comment upon someone's outward physical appearance ... _most especially_ upon meeting them for the first time.

I know I'm old, but it used to be considered a breech of etiquette to make remarks upon a gentle-person's personal appearance. It just really wasn't done.

Sorry, I'm ancient ... and I was raised by my Victorian, Virginian Grandmother....

mumkeepingsane said...

Like Kristina I have been known to be bothered when someone meets Patrick and talks about how cute he if that makes up for the issues that he has. I've often wanted to say to them "he'd still be wonderful even if he was ugly".

I imagine some people are very uncomfortable when meeting an adopted child of a different race. It would serve everyone better if they admitted it or asked honest questions instead of reaching for a one-liner like "she's so beautiful".

Anonymous said...

HaHaHa! Often when people first meet me they say "you're beautiful!" Think about,what am I supposed to say, 'Thank You'? I usually just smile, but it's definitely wierd. Should I say "you know, my IQ is 120 and that's so much more important!" HA! Can you imagine what they would do? Any suggestions?