The small-framed tween girl slides to a stop in her sock-clad feet directly in front of me.

“Ta-da,” she sings, using jazz hands as her chocolate eyes dance with excitement.

“You can’t wear that to school,” I respond too quickly.

“Why not? I think I look awesome.”

“It doesn’t look right,” I declare. The words spew out of my mouth like bullets, and I instantly want to siphon them back in as I watch my daughter flinch. “I mean, you are not supposed to wear it that way.”

A six foot, purple, zebra-print scarf wrapped loosely around her tiny head. Rather than looking like a headband, it looked more like a mis-wrapped bandage for a head wound.

I stared at the beautiful creature in front of me who was valiantly holding back the tears building in her eyes.

I wanted to shout, “Wait, I was wrong! It looks beautiful! You are beautiful!”  But the truth was, she looked ridiculous.

It was not our first fashion standoff. Gone are the days where I select her daily wardrobe — the adorable dress with matching hair bow and color coordinated socks or a trendy, leopard print sweatsuit with an accompanying hat. I try with moderate success to sideline my control issues and continuously tell myself that I am fostering her independence, her creativity, by allowing her to wear what she wants.  I did not say a word the time she went to school wearing more beads than Madonna in the eighties. I kept my mouth shut when her outfit comprised of leopard print on the bottom and stripes on the top. I even smiled brightly when she attempted a make-shift bump-it hairstyle she saw on Youtube.

I will not be the one to diminish her self-esteem, her self-worth, by commenting negatively about her appearance.

But I just did. Or did I?

Raising confident, courageous daughters is hard. Women face an onslaught of images every day telling us we are inadequate, and Photoshop changes our perception of “normal.” It is easy to feel our teeth are not white enough, our boobs are too small, our waist is too big, and our makeup is wrong.

Given enough power, these messages can break our spirits and increase the desire to conform, instead of love the things that make us different.

As the parent of three girls, I watch my words carefully and meticulously focus on the positive; I know the words I say aloud become the voices they hear in their heads later on in life. I go over-the-top with compliments and and shun others when they mention anything negative about weight, appearance or intellect.

But in this moment with her, I ask myself if I confused promoting self-esteem and self-worth with only saying what I think my girls want to hear?

It is a tight-rope I walk with my daughters. I want them to feel empowered, beautiful and accepted as they are, but I know that self-confidence is more than receiving compliments. Learning to accept and manage criticism, whether constructive or malicious, is an important life skill, yet I feel crushed between the desire for honesty and the motherly instinct to protect them from pain, whether from me or someone else.

I strive to find balance, promoting positivity in all aspects of their lives without creating gigantic egos. Can I be their biggest cheerleader and lead critic at the same time?

The defiant statement, “Well, I like it,” zips out of her mouth and I sense she is struggling to hold back a foot stomp. I know my next words are important, so I choose them carefully.

“Listen, sweetheart,” I begin. “There is a secret code women have called the girlfriend rule. You only use it in extreme circumstances. It states that when your girlfriend is wearing something so bad that she may embarrass herself, you tell her. You tell her because you love her, not because you want to hurt her. That scarf, well, this is one of those times.”

“But, I really thought it looked good,” she muttered, casting her eyes downward.

“I know you did,” I reply softly, pulling her close to my side. “But I think it would look even better over your shirt. Do you want me to show you how to tie it? And how about I get that new headband from Christmas. Do you think that would complete your look?”

“Yeah, I know where it is,” she squirms out of my grasp and heads back to her room.

When she returns a few minutes later, she is smiling in a sea of shades of purple that would make Prince proud. It’s not what I would have selected, but it suits her perfectly, and her confidence is exuding out of her pint-sized body like an exploding star.

“I changed my hair, and I think I like this look even more,” she casually states while moving her braid in order to place her backpack over her narrow frame.

“I love it,” I emphatically state, catching her eyes before she heads through the door.

I reach for my keys as I follow her, heaving a sigh of relief knowing I won this battle of self-esteem. If only the war wasn’t so damn long.

***

This post originally appeared on Mamalode.

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