Tradition was not limited to mirthful formalities on Christmas Eve. Against a backdrop of winking lights, simmering kitchen aromas and Nat King Cole’s wistful caroling, I watched my nieces participate in a familiar passion play that bore only a passing reference to the more sacred one we were celebrating, the one that began with a miraculous birth more than 2000 years ago.
It all started in the kitchen when my oldest niece, nearly 13, piped into a conversation about makeup. “I have terrible skin,” she declared to her aunts, under harsh kitchen lights that did not pick out a single blemish on her pained face. Okay, I figured, with the limited experience of a father who had never raised a daughter, she’s mimicking adult behavior at a sensitive, crossroads age.
Later on, while passing plates of steaming food in a cramped dining room, I heard the same niece complain that she needed to lose 10 pounds. When she left the table, having only pecked at her food, the figure revealed by her glittery black Christmas dress provided no evidence to support her contention. I was troubled that she would suddenly choose to disparage the same body that had earned her athletic favor and had forever defined her locomotive personality.
After dinner, we all gathered in the basement to open gifts and I watched my youngest, three-year-old niece rip open a package that revealed a tiny pair of pink roller skates. “Barbie,” she shrieked at the sight of the celebrated logo, fidgeting the whole time she waited for me to pry the skates from their cardboard backer. She beamed as I helped her slip them on, and I beamed with her.
In a detached, Scrooge-like moment of realization on Christmas morning, I recalled the events of the previous evening and watched them connect like a string of lights: one niece exhibiting a newfound, reproachful self-consciousness – finding flaws in a flawless face, growing ashamed of her muscles; the other stepping innocently into a tradition whose zoom focus on outward appearance might eventually delude her into similarly dehumanizing conclusions – two girls dutifully honoring traditions that may ultimately dishonor them by confusing their bodies with the people living inside them.
Although traditions can boast a feel of truth, particularly older ones that acquire layers of historic authenticity, real history informs us that traditions simply reflect the truths of the times, rather than larger, more abiding truths. We may still fear witches, but have reasoned that we don’t need to burn them for their beliefs anymore. The epilogue of other unwholesome traditions isn’t always as clearly written.
In the hormonal stupor of adolescence, boys and girls alike struggle to make peace with their erupting bodies. But unlike boys, girls seem to emerge splintered from the process, one half publicly declaring war on the other to the delight of a culture that will judge her first for how she looks. Even if she gets the hair and clothes down, she’ll never be able to pull off Barbie’s enduring smile.
Responding with a silence that preserves tradition, we all watched my niece bend toward this artificial ideal like a flower toward laboratory light. Aunts raised in a generation that venerated more domestic feminine ideals, and a grandmother in one that glorified big family fertility, either didn’t hear, or didn’t blink at the familiar sight of a woman being reined in by tradition. Then there was the additional hush of a holy night consecrating a virgin birth, an event requiring a miracle to explain away whole parts of a woman’s being.
If smooth skin and an agile body provide a 12-year-old grounds for self-loathing, then how have we misled her to seek this beauty beyond perfection? Until we find the words to fill our reinforcing silence, my niece may need to reclaim the muscles hidden under her glittering party dress.
She’ll need them to shrug off the centuries of confining traditions that come between her and the truths found in the full flower of her womanhood.