June 2, 2013
So I've started brushing my daughter's hair.
She's 7. It's time.
Some would argue it's past time. Some would argue she has spent the better part of her life looking rather unkempt.
I would reply with one word: Jessie.
Jessie is the perfectly coiffed titular star of the Disney Channel show about a 19-year-old Manhattan nanny. She's quick with the acerbic one-liners, bewildered by her life and wracked with insecurities about boys and accessories.
Her hair, though, is fantastic. As fantastic as London's from "The Suite Life on Deck" and CeCe's from "Shake It Up" and Ally's from "Austin and Ally."
I know all about their hair because my daughter loves their shows with the same level of zeal that I devote to hating them.
The Disney princesses are always coming in for parental flack — they're too doe-eyed, too empty-headed, too prince-reliant. But the princesses are child's play. They may be devoid of career ambitions, but at least they treat people well. (Animated people, but still.)
Disney's tween and teen characters, packaged for elementary-schoolers, are wretched. Many of them are mocking and contemptuous and petty, and they've saturated the marketplace so that even if you limit screen-time exposure, they and their hair will still call out to your kid from clothing lines and lunchboxes and stickers at the pediatrician's office.
What does all this have to do with brushing my daughter's hair?
Until recently, she could not be bothered. Washing her hair was torture. Brushing it was a waste of her time. She eyed bows with the same disdain she directs at tomatoes.
I loved this. I loved that she approached birthday parties and spring musicals and first days of school with nary a glance toward her hair.
"Should we brush your hair?" I'd ask, usually on our way out the door.
"Nah," she'd invariably reply.
And that always felt like a victory. Like she was headed out to enjoy whatever we were about to enjoy for the sheer experience. Not for the chance to look cute in photos or show off her headband.
Once we arrived, she'd always dive in with abandon — not a moment spent wondering if her braids would come loose or her curls would drop.
She was the antithesis of Jessie. Now she wants me to brush her hair. Sometimes she brushes it herself. The other day she asked me to re-create a hairstyle in an American Girl magazine and didn't bother hiding her contempt for my pitiful rendering.
Have the Disney gals' shiny cascades of thick, lovely tresses tangled themselves around my daughter's psyche? Is she assigned to years of standing in front of the mirror feeling defeated? Has she already equated beauty with popularity and popularity with power?
I suppose it's time to approach this topic with a little more nuance. Good grooming is hardly the same as shallow obsession with one's looks. Certainly I can allow her — encourage her, even — to take pride in her appearance and enjoy the little bursts of bliss that come from loving the way she looks.
Certainly I can teach her there's room for her appearance on her list of priorities (just hopefully not at the top). And whatever form her appearance takes — coiffed hair, pink hair, shaved hair, Jessie hair — it shouldn't determine where she fits in the world or how she treats the people in it.
Certainly I can do everything in my power to keep her from becoming acerbic and contemptuous and petty (plus doe-eyed, empty-headed and prince-reliant).
Which all reminds me of Jon Stewart's recent quip on "The Daily Show," in light of the flap over Disney's sexing up the "Brave" character, Merida.
"You have an arrangement with the parents of America," he faux-scolded Disney executives. "Our job is to make sure the children are sitting in front of the screen. Your job is to raise them right. If you keep teaching them the wrong lessons, then we're going to have start doing it ourselves. And that's not cool."
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