From Here to There

If Beatrice turns out to be beautiful, don’t I want her to know it?

By Summer Block

There is a photo of my daughter Beatrice on a children’s clothing website. In the photo Beatrice is wearing a crazy quilt sundress with the word GLAM written across the chest, paired with a pair of black strappy heeled sandals decorated with metal studs. Beatrice has her eyes lowered and arms extended like Jesus showing his wounds, and on her face is a look of serene delight. It’s a tranquil image that belies the psychic strife that lay behind it. For me, of course; she was perfectly fine.

It started when my husband Dev and I were at IKEA watching our children abuse the display furniture. A woman approached me, business card in hand, and introduced herself as Tracy Lee (all names changed), the head designer of a local children’s clothing company looking for a few more models for an upcoming catalog shoot.

“She looks like a size four?” the designer guessed, and then explained, “I see a lot of girls. Do you also have a two-year-old girl? We need a size 2.”

I took Tracy’s card, feeling pleased and flattered, then put it away and largely forgot about it. Two weeks later, curiousity got the better of me and I looked up the company, a clothing wholesaler who sells girls’ dresses to high-end department stores. I emailed Tracy and she invited us to come down to her studio.

Beatrice is pretty. Honestly, all five-year-old girls are pretty, and not in a “we’re all winners” way, they actually are all pretty, in large part because many of the things we consider pretty are just signs of youth. I never really think about Beatrice being uniquely or especially pretty, though occasionally I’ll see something in her and think, “Now what am I supposed to do with that?”

At five, Beatrice is still totally innocent of the idea of personal beauty, or even that some people are considered better-looking than others. She had never heard of modeling before, and though she had seen girls in clothing catalogues at home she never stopped to consider where those little girls came from nor to wish she might number among them.

A few days later I drove Beatrice down to the company’s headquarters. The studio was in Vernon, five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, in an industrial neighborhood of textile and garment factories. As we drove, lost, down the sweltering streets past signs advertising wholesale zippers, I tried to sound casual.

“We’re going to go somewhere to try on some dresses and someone will take some pictures of you.”

We arrived thirty minutes late for our appointment. Inside the building was cool, comfortable, and more elegant than its industrial exterior would suggest. A small group of employees was gathered in the company break room eating from a large box of ice cream drumsticks. They offered one to Beatrice, who accepted it gladly. She settled into a folding chair, dripping ice cream down her dress front, asking everyone questions like, “What’s your favorite saltwater fish?”

“She’s so cute!” everyone exclaimed without answering her questions. “And she has personality!”

“Listen to her talk!”

“She has the cutest voice!”

“And she’s not blonde! We have too many blondes. Everyone is a blonde!”

“Is she mixed?”

“She’s very ethnically ambiguous.”

“You don’t have a two-year-old daughter, do you? We really need a size 2.”

When Beatrice had finally finished her ice cream, Tracy led us to another room outfitted as a design studio, with tailor’s dummies and swatch books and a giant work table in the center. Along one wall were several rolling racks of girls’ clothes, tagged and organized by size. Another designer, Joanne, helped Beatrice into a size 4 dress, exclaiming all the while over how cute she was. Each time I bristled, concerned that all this talk of cuteness would put the idea into Beatrice’s head that she was cute, that cuteness was desirable, and that some girls were considered cuter than others. But for now, at least, it seemed to bounce right off her.

She did, however, love the dresses. Beatrice entered the room wearing what I can best describe as layers upon layers of semi-translucent rags. It looked – well, it looked like something a five-year-old would love.

“It’s rainbow!” she breathed delightedly.

Beatrice cycled through several more outfits, each more outlandish than the last, while I waited in the studio flipping through past issues of their catalogs. There were indeed a lot of blondes. The company had several different clothing lines arranged around broad categories like punk, retro, and what I could charitably describe as “bohemian.” The older girls had another section devoted to prom wear.

Joanne brought Beatrice back in and declared her fit to serve.

“She’s a natural!” Tracy said.

I figured she said that to everyone but I was surprised all the same. Beatrice is a lot of things, but I wouldn’t have guessed a natural model was one of them. Joanne also gave Beatrice the rainbow dress to keep, to her great delight.

The morning of the photo shoot, I was instructed to bring Beatrice, freshly washed and with clean, unstyled hair, to a house in Altadena. The email suggested we bring the girls in sandals or flats, but feeling like an overachiever, I packed a tote bag with one pair of purple Converse tennis shoes, one pair of black Mary Janes, and two pairs of sandals in different colors, just in case.

On the way to the shoot I tried to explain the concept of money to Beatrice, conscious that it was a topic even more fraught with ideological and moral hazard than beauty. I wasn’t ready to tackle patriarchy and capitalism in the same day, so instead I explained to her the mechanics of banking, and the difference between cash, checks, and credit cards.

“And so,” I concluded my lengthy explanation, “they are going to give you a check for $100 for helping them with their photos.”

“I’m going to use it to sell my toys,” Beatrice declared proudly, “and give the money to Haiti.”

There definitely wasn’t time to get into that.

We arrived early at the house, a sagging Craftsman buckling under the weight of an ill-considered second story addition. The interior walls were painted in bright colors, a different color in each room, and the French doors were traced by an amateurish Rococo mural. The rooms were absolutely stuffed with ornaments of all kinds, from leopard-skin ottomans to silver tea trays piled high with seashells. The owner wandered about distractedly, cradling a little white dog who had been dyed all over with yellow spots except for his head and ears, which were bright pink and tied up into pigtails. She also seemed to be running a home distillery business out of her kitchen.

We stepped into the living room, stuffed with racks of clothes and bags of accessories. Two stylists were installed in the breakfast room with curling irons. All of the models had their hair curled, whether to style into ringlets or just to give straight hair more volume and fullness. (None of the children wore makeup.) At their feet were piles of accessories – hats, hairbands, sunglasses, and shoes. The house had the same feeling of comraderie and squalor I associate with women getting ready together before weddings or dances. I added my small bag of shoes to the mix. One of the stylists called Beatrice over to curl her hair.

“What is that?” Beatrice asked guardedly about the curling iron, but she sat dutifully and allowed them to use it.

While Beatrice sat on the dining table bench having her hair styled, her little feet dangling in their white Saltwater sandals, with a vacant and slightly ill-at-ease look on her face, I went back into the living room and sat on one of the many impractical, uncomfortable sofas, one with a sag so pronounced that I immediately tumbled into the center of a deep well.

Two more models from Beatrice’s group came in, a pair of sisters, with their aunt and grandmother dragging a large wheeled suitcase filled with shoes and sunglasses and a garbage bag stuffed with hats. The older daugher was almost ten years old, her hair already up in curlers she’d set at home, and she sat beside me on the same sagging sofa, rolling down into the same well until we were thigh to thigh.

The other models in Beatrice’s group were three pretty blondes whose unconventional first names used an injudicious number of v’s, x’s, and z’s.

All of the photos were taken outside. The house was set on a large property of overgrown gardens, ramshackle outbuildings, fountains, and ponds, a trellised arborway, a small lap pool, a large orange and white cat, a raft of dragonflies, and a series of odd tableaus, including a carousel pony beside a clawfoot bathrub, an upright piano under a wooden pergola, and a rusty old pedicab.

Tracy wanted the girls to seem natural and unaffected, and so she mostly refrained from giving them directions, though occasionally I would hear her suggest something like, “Do you want to try sitting on that chair?” or “Would you like to stand on the stairs?”

It was frankly more relaxed and less coercive than most of our family photo sessions. I thought back to our failed attempt to get a nice photo of all three children at Easter – propping them up against a tree in the park, dressed in their spring best, and then cajoling and bribing and threatening them all until at most two of the three would be smiling while the third scowled or wept.

Occasionally I heard Tracy gently admonish someone for fidgeting with their dress and I was sure she was talking to Beatrice. I felt tense, afraid of her failure to stand still and smile, then embarrassed that I wanted a daughter who was good at standing still and smiling, then defensive because really, what’s so bad about standing still and smiling?

It’s not that I think modeling clothing is wrong, but I’m just not sure it’s right. I’m not sure it’s right to curl your hair. I’m not sure it’s right to exchange work for money. I thought I’d have more time to figure everything out first and then I could present the One Big Answer to Beatrice. But in the meantime life keeps happening, and decisions have to be made right now, and she either does or doesn’t model sundresses.

Beatrice was not a perfect model. She couldn’t walk in the high-heeled sandals she was wearing and so an assistant had to carry her from place to place, then set her down where she was supposed to stand. She wouldn’t stop talking. She kept pulling her dress up over her face. At one point, they tried to get her to pose on the piano bench but soon gave that up when it was clear she didn’t understand the difference between playing the piano and pretending to play the piano.

Beatrice kept up a running commentary on the garden, on her dress, on everything. At one point, eager to make a friend, Beatrice leaned into Xena and said brightly, “Would you like me to give you a brief quiz about foxes? My brain knows a lot about woods and foxes because he went camping with me. I didn’t see a fox, but my brain did.”

Of course, Xena didn’t respond, but this didn’t bother Beatrice, because no one ever responds to anything Beatrice says.

I was not a perfect parent. I brooded in my sofa depression and hoped someone would say something awful so I could go home and write about how awful everyone was. I wanted Beatrice to be bad at modeling to prove that she was free-spirited; I wanted her to be good at modeling to prove she was a team player. In fact, she was just all right at modeling and that didn’t prove anything at all.

I wandered back inside to hear one of the stylists compliment Zuzu. “She’s blonde, but not blonde-blonde. What’s her mix?”

“Oh, you name it!” Zuzu’s grandmother answered proudly. “She’s British, French, Russian, Latino, Middle Eastern . . . a mutt!”

“She’s great,” the stylist enthused. “Very ethnically ambiguous.”

“Yes, that’s what they call her. Ethnically ambiguous!”

“I saw a girl at one shoot who was Finnish and Namibian and Persian,” said the stylist, and everyone took a sharp intake of breath.

The day got hotter. The house was not air-conditioned but there was a cooler with small bottles of water sweating on the porch, and a collection of mostly-empty Starbucks cups on every flat surface. One of the preteen models lounged across my sofa, her feet almost in my lap, snacking from a giant jar of M&Ms.

No one was as bad as I wanted them to be. I came in filled with preconceived notions about what child models would be like, the precocious sexuality and pushy stage moms. I’m sure there are photo shoots like that, particularly higher up the ladder of fame, but in all the hours I spent wallowing in that couch I didn’t hear any talk of diets or preteen surgery. The mothers were all perfectly friendly, chatting pleasantly with one another while I sat on the couch fretting about what important lessons we were all supposed to take away from this unimportant day.

We took a break for lunch: Subway sandwiches, chips, and soda. The other mothers compared notes. Several of them had driven as much as fifty miles to get here, which hardly seemed worth it for only $100. Finally someone addressed me.

“She’s so cute,” she said about Beatrice. “Do you have any other daughters?”

I told her I had two boys.

“What a shame! And she’s so cute, too!”

Everyone sighed over the disappointment of having sons who couldn’t model dresses and weren’t good for anything.

“Well, I guess boys can model boys’ clothes, right?” I hazarded but no one responded.

From boys, the conversation turned to their boyish daughters.

“I said I’d do her room in pink, but she wanted blue and red!” exclaimed Xena’s grandmother in fond disbelief.

“Oh, Zianne is just like that!” her mother chimed in. “She is definitely not a girly girl!”

“Neither is Zuzu! She is such a tomboy,” a comment somewhat undermined by that trash bag full of fanciful hats.

Of course, no one ever boasts that their son is “not a boy at all.” This is because “boyish” has come to mean “like a playful child,” and “girly,” “like one of Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters.” The “girly girl” doesn’t like to get dirty or have fun. She’s not likable and game, not like the tomboy, who is also very pretty but doesn’t even know she is beautiful.

I considered, if Beatrice turns out to be beautiful, don’t I want her to know it? No, I didn’t want Beatrice to be unaware that she is beautiful; I wanted her to be unaware of the concept of beauty. I also wanted her to be unaware of the concept of money, and preferably also violence, cruelty, and death. Of course, by the time she’s an adult I want her to be wise about the very things I’d prefer she not learn about today. But how do you get from here to there? I have no idea, but I feared that paying her $100 to model sundresses was going about it rather badly.

The photos turned out nicely. Somehow the Craftsman house, so tacky in real life, looks delightfully eccentric in catalog form. In one photo Beatrice is skipping hand-in-hand with the other girls over a sun-dappled lawn. In another she sits under a spreading live oak tree, barefoot, wearing a crown of plastic daisies and a dress that looks like a football jersey designed by Laura Ashley, with the exhausted smile of a child happily worn out playing. In the nicest shot Beatrice is sitting on an overturned trash can with a giant pink plastic flower in her hair, but somehow she makes it look good, which is probably the definition of a born model.

We won’t do it again. “Once a philosopher, twice a child model,” as Voltaire might have said. We have some nice pictures to show for it, and a $100 check she’s long forgotten about, and an essay whose lesson is that there isn’t one. It was just one day of Beatrice’s life, one day chasing dragonflies through an overgrown garden while dressed like Stevie Nicks’s crazier cousin.

I know I don’t want Beatrice to submit, but I do want her to get along. I don’t want her to worship money, but I want her to know how to handle it. I don’t want her to rely on her beauty, but I want her to be comfortable in it. Ideally I’d also rather she not become the kind of person who agrees to participate in a modeling shoot full of perfectly nice people just so she can make fun of them later. I’d like her to have experience without mistakes and wisdom without suffering. I hope by the time she’s my age she’s gotten it all figured out, and then maybe she can explain it all to me.

Summer Block occasionally writes essays, short fiction, and poetry for McSweeneys Internet Tendency, The Toast, The Rumpus, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, and many other publications. Some people follow her on Twitter @teamblock.

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Writer for Catapult, Longreads, The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and so on. Owner of After-Party Taxidermy. Working on a book about Halloween.

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