My Very Own Dakota Fanning

by Dana Udall-Weiner '97

Dana Udall-WeinerA few months ago, my daughter and I were in Trader Joe’s, looking unkempt and bedraggled after some serious park time on a blustery day. Along with everyone else, we elbowed our way through the bottleneck at fruits and vegetables, continued bumper-to-bumper past meat, and finally arrived in frozen foods — a wide boulevard of an aisle where shoppers can exhale and leisurely peruse all things chocolate-covered. On that particular day, we were after TJ’s mint chocolate chip ice cream, which is an object of worship in our house.

It was there, in frozen foods, that I heard the words, “Oh, I see a young Dakota Fanning,” uttered by a fellow shopper as he peered at my daughter.

A young Dakota Fanning? Funny — I see the ketchup on her chin, the greasy sunscreen in her hair. And did I mention she’s two? Not eleven, or even eight, but two. I assume he was giving her a compliment, his intention benign. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I, like most parents, feel a certain amount of satisfaction when my little ones are praised. But his remark represents our culture’s relentless attention to female appearance, a process that starts before our daughters are out of diapers.

Before having kids, I remember hearing that people comment much more often on the clothing of girls than that of boys. Now that I spend lots of time with munchkins, given that I have two of my own, I find myself saying things like this to girls random and familiar: “Look at your pretty shoes!” “Oh, I love your pigtails!” But I don’t usually do this to boys — in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever told a little boy that his new sweater is fetching.

It seems natural to compliment girls and women on appearance. We assume that such comments are appreciated. And in the short term, they usually are; we feel pride at knowing that our recent haircut, weight loss, or new outfit has been noticed.

Yet compliments have their drawbacks. Sometimes they feel like pressure to the recipient because they convey a certain expectation. And they serve to communicate that it is the superficial trappings of femininity that are most culturally esteemed — hair, skin tone, clothing, and weight. Girls subject to constant commentary about appearance will come to believe that their value hinges on their ability to capture the attention of others.

Though many of us would say we want to stem the tide of obsession with appearance, our actions may tell a different story. The urge to tame an unruly ponytail is strong, and we may feel compelled to keep our daughters perpetually clean, neat, and otherwise presentable.

Which begs the question, “Why?”

It might be that we’ve transferred our own anxiety about harsh judgment or undue evaluation onto our children. We may be highly identified with our kids, so that we see their appearance as a proxy for our own. Or perhaps we think that messy children signify poor parenting; if our kids don’t look presentable, then we aren’t doing our job.

Back to frozen foods… Although I found myself tongue-tied after the Dakota Fanning comment, I managed to utter a mere “thank you.” But that’s not what I wanted to say; I wanted to let him know — or really to let my daughter know — that she is so much more than just a pretty face, that her baby blues don’t hold a candle to her quick wit or her kindness.

Later, far from the mania of Trader Joe’s, I contemplated how I might handle such a situation in the future, how I might downplay the emphasis on beauty and empower my daughter, while maintaining some semblance of grace (a quality that may be overrated — I know — but I’m not one to bark back at unknown men in the grocery store, so let’s be realistic here).

Ultimately, it came to me that the best response to almost any compliment my child receives would be, “Thanks, she’s a great kid.”

And in this instance I might have added, “Now step away from the ice cream and no one gets hurt.”