Recently, the kids and I were guests at our city’s beach club, where life is good and the people are good looking. While there, we shared the shoreline with another family that consisted of a 50-something mom and her 11-year-old son who was inexplicably (but thankfully!) content to muck around in the sand with my 5- and 7-year-old boys. Which was great because it freed me up to observe what happened when the family’s Cool Older Son showed up with his girlfriend.

The Cool Older Son had the kind of confidence and swagger that only handsome and hip teenage boys have. He looked about sixteen—and I got the impression that things tend to go his way. Like, if life were a 1980s teen film, this kid would have been the stunning varsity-jacketed team captain who was actually decent to the troubled protagonist. Upon arriving at the beach, the Cool Older Son swooped down to kiss his mom and swatted at his younger brother. Then he immediately grabbed a paddleboard and launched himself out onto the glassy water, where he noisily and unselfconsciously horsed around and hollering about the insanely cold water temperature! And the totally unreal view of the skyline from his vantage point! All while his girlfriend carefully—oh, so carefully—positioned herself on a beach towel she’d laid out on the sand.

Now,  the girlfriend was cute. She had straight auburn hair, slim legs showcased in shorts that referenced both Daisy Duke and a late 1970’s summer camp movie and she was tall. By almost any standard, she’d be categorized as a Pretty Girl.

Yet her face was caked in foundation that shone bright orange in the sun. She also had a fair amount of eye shadow happening, which might explain why she sat down on the sand to watch her boyfriend instead of cavorting with him in the water. Only the sitting down proved tricky because it challenged her shorts to actually do their job of covering her body.

The thing that struck me most about the girlfriend, however, was her intense discomfort. Or rather, her hyper-awareness. Awareness of exactly how she was sitting and what her clothing was doing.

She also seemed acutely aware of how her makeup was holding up, which was made obvious by how she continually swiped the back of her hand over her jawline and then checked to see how much foundation had melted off in the summer heat.

She was aware of making absolutely certain that all of her hair was swept to one side. All of the time. And of making polite, interesting chitchat with her boyfriend’s mother. In other words, she had a serious stuff to keep track of while her boyfriend…well, his only concern seemed to be enjoying himself.

So, I felt bad for the girlfriend. Because I remember being paralyzed by those same worries when I was a teenager. There were the camping trip invitations I declined because I wouldn’t be able to blow dry my hair. The end-of-school water fights I avoided so that I wouldn’t end up a sodden mess since my hair was too short to be pulled into an effortless ponytail like other girls’. There were also agonizing hours spent selecting and performance-testing entire outfits before day trips to the beach or boating excursions with boyfriends’ families. Looking back now, it’s painfully clear that I often sidelined myself because of the possibility of havoc being wrought on my carefully curated and composed outer being.

Sitting there on that recent day in silent community with the girlfriend, I looked over at The Cool Older Son—and then at my own two kids who were splashing about, totally oblivious to their matted hair and soggy kiddie surf shirts, and I felt jealous. Because there’s a decent chance that my sons—because they’re boys—won’t experience the body discomfort and hyper-awareness that the girlfriend and I know well. They most likely won’t be expected to look picture perfect no matter what they’re doing. In fact if the teen girls of tomorrow are anything like I was, they’ll think it’s totally hot when boys let themselves get disheveled and ruffled. After all, confidence is sexy.

The biases in our culture (and maybe hopefully my totally awesome approach to parenting?) have already started teaching my boys the importance and joy of doing. Of being involved and taking part. They’ve also de-emphasized the significance of appearance—at least for boys of a young age. So while my kids like to look cool in their favorite soccer jerseys or Star Wars t-shirts, they’re not defined by—nor do they define themselves by—how they look. And it’s already pretty clear that concerns about hair or clothing don’t and won’t stand in their way of fun.

The fact is, I don’t know any parents—of young girls or otherwise—who are teaching their kids to prioritize their appearance over participation in activities. Nobody does that except for maybe fans of those kiddie beauty pageant shows. My own parents sure didn’t. And yet somehow, at least for me and it would seem the girlfriend, too, the clear, strident messages in our pop culture regarding which girls are desirable and worth celebrating, and what one needs to do to look like/be one of those girls won out.

That’s not to say that body image pressures don’t affect boys. Unfortunately, they do. And I believe there’s much work to be done around reversing this trend. But at the moment, my boys seem like mini incarnations of the Cool Older Son: comfortable in their own skins and programmed to participate without hesitation or lengthy reflection about what their jumping in (literally and figuratively) might do to whatever look and outfit they’ve created for themselves.

I don’t begrudge them that. I don’t want them wasting their time and energy fretting, analyzing and over-thinking their appearance the way I did. I want them to be carefree and whimsical. As they become teenagers, I want them to feel confident and cool even if they’re an untidy, dripping mess.

Actually, I want that for us all.

Audrey D. Brashich is the author of All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and New York City. Follow her on Twitter @AudreyBrashich.

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