She had survived, which was amazing. But I still didn’t know what she looked like.
When the neonatologist finally brought her to me, she was swaddled in a baby blanket, with her face completely covered. He laid her in my arms and proceeded to tell me all the ways that she was wrong. Where he saw a compilation of extensive physical anomalies, some purely cosmetic and some that would compromise her ability to eat and breathe, I saw nothing but a beautiful baby girl who needed a fierce advocate and a damn good medical team.
I knew in that moment that we had a long road ahead of us, full of wonder and mystery and medical procedures, and it scared me.
But do you know what scared me even more? How was I going to raise a daughter who had both cranial, facial and limb differences, see and celebrate her own beauty when I couldn’t see and celebrate my own.
We live in a culture where how you look matters. It is hard enough for those of us without physical differences to see and celebrate our own beauty. How was I going to raise a daughter who looked different than other kids see and celebrate her own beauty? And that’s when I decided it was going to be my job to make sure that she fit in despite her physical differences.
See what I did there? I traded out “see and celebrate her own beauty” for “fitting in,” as if the two were the same thing.
I decided that the best way for me to make sure that she fit in was to dress her in the cutest of dresses and bootcut jeans you’ve ever seen. And my strategy worked perfectly – till she turned two I would send her to the babysitter’s house wearing the sweetest little outfits, and every single time she came home, she was wearing the babysitter’s son’s clothes. She liked boy clothes, not the cute little dresses and bootcut jeans I was dressing her in.
In fact, do you know what she liked the most? The boy’s underpants. Because they had a pocket in the front. We battled for years: she wanted to wear boy clothes; I forced her to wear girl clothes.
Until one day, when paradigms shifted, boxes collapsed, and everything changed. We were shopping at a local thrift store when my daughter, Raissa, asked me to buy her a shirt and a necktie.
I said, “No,” just as I had done dozens of times before. Do you know what she did? She turned around, marched her five-year-old self over to the sales counter and asked one of the shop employees to help her. They went to the kids department together, found a shirt and a tie.
And when they returned, the sales lady could clearly sense my indignation because she started giving me this you-better-make-the-right-decision eyeball so I knew I had to buy the shirt and tie even though I didn’t want to.
As soon as we got home, Raissa raced into the living room, tried on her shirt and tie, looked into the mirror and took her own breath away. She said to me in a whisper, “Mama, look how handsome I look.”
Then she ran across the living room and said, “Mama, mama, look how much faster I can run.” And then she jumped high into the air and said, “Mama, look how much higher I can jump when I’m wearing a shirt and tie!”
And it hit me: she could run faster and jump higher when she was wearing clothes on the outside that matched who she was on the inside.
Now, this isn’t a story about gender choice. This is a story of my daughter crushing a widely accepted societal box that says “This is what a girl should wear” and redefining for herself what it means to be a girl. All of my work up until that moment, forcing her to stand squarely inside the girl box, trying to protect her, trying to make sure that she fit in, was preventing her from seeing and celebrating her own beauty.
I was teaching her to abandon what she knew to be true about herself and to adopt other people’s expectations of who they thought she should be. I learned in that moment that in order to see and celebrate your own beauty, you have to know who you are on the inside. You have to truly see yourself.
I learned that style, how you show up in the world, isn’t petty, trite or superficial. It’s complex. It’s dynamic, and it has to be congruent from the inside out. I call it “Inside-out Congruency,” and Inside-out Congruency can never be defined by any box, or preconceived rules, or cultural norms and expectations that are designed by somebody else.
With this new understanding of Inside-out Congruency, I started noticing that the number of boxes we try to squeeze ourselves into – based on what we do, on other people’s expectations of us – is endless.
We know there are the gender boxes, that say, “This is what a girl should wear, and this what a boy should wear.” But what about the professional box? The one that says, “This is what a lake ecologist should wear, this is what a librarian should wear, and this is what a woman working in a man’s field should wear.”
And what about the box that says, “This is what a woman over 40 should wear.” Or the one that says, “This is what a stay-at-home mama should wear.”
Remember how I had broken up with style because I couldn’t find the box that defined me? Well, I was a tree-hugging, world-traveling, kale eating, stay-at-home mama who broke with style because she couldn’t find her box.