By Kate Cohen
Family legend has it that when my grandfather, an obstetrician, delivered an especially unattractive newborn, he would grin up at its parents and declare, “That’s some baby.”
I love the way that story captures Granddaddy’s peculiar blend of great warmth and sly humor. Love of life, lack of sentimentality. But when my nephew Spencer was born, I realized the story shows something else altogether: how hard it is to think of things to say about a new baby.
Not that Spencer was ugly or that we, his new family, were speechless as we crowded around him in the hospital. We gazed at him—tiny, swaddled, serene, and sporting the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen. We said, “He’s beautiful.” We said, “Isn’t he cute?” We said, “What a good-looking baby.” We said, “Adorable.”
But what would we have said if he weren’t? And why, on his first day alive, could we think of nothing to exclaim over but his physical attractiveness, as if that were the most important thing about him?
I was particularly concerned with this question because I was going to have a baby, too, in another few months. From girlhood on, I had been an unhealthy combination of insecure and conceited about my looks; I mostly blamed American culture for my messed-up body image, but I also blamed my parents for not protecting me from it. When I am a parent, I told myself, I will protect my child: I will never comment on her appearance. I will call my baby squirmy, cuddly, lively, smiley, delicious, scrumptious, and yummy; I will say she makes me happy, fascinates me, opens my heart. I knew that if she turned out to be beautiful, it would be hard not to praise her beauty—especially when she was too young for me to praise her brushwork or her chess game. But I was determined: I would love her immeasurably and tell her so often, but I wouldn’t take note of her looks.
At first, it was no problem. “She” turned out to be a boy, a squinty newborn with hair that stood up and no discernible eyelashes or neck. I was not overcome with the urge to praise his beauty. Two months later, he had acne, four chins, and the expression of a suspicious middle-aged man. None of which I was moved to say to him. Instead I said, “You’re my sweet little bunny”; I said, “I just want to kiss you all over”; I said, “What a tasty nose you have.”
Then it got complicated. At three months, a slate blue shirt brought out the color of his eyes, and I said, “My, my, blue is your color, isn’t it?” At four months, his smiles gave him cheekbones and charm, and I said, “What a happy boy!” On both occasions, I had really wanted to say, “Aren’t you cute?” But I managed not to. It takes a little work, I thought, but it’s not so hard to love and praise your kids while avoiding the question of beautiful or not, handsome or not.
It’s not so hard if you live on a desert island. What I had failed to take into account was other people. As Noah’s smile quickened and his neck lengthened, strangers in grocery stores began to say, “He’s so cute.” Then they’d lean over to meet Noah at bright-blue eye level, smile and cock their heads to the side to match his smile and the cock of his head. They touched his chubby cheek or tickled the soles of his feet, which pointed out bare and bitsy from the plastic seat of the grocery cart.
One day when Noah was about seven months old, some friends brought their baby girl over to meet us. At three months old, she was quiet and looked around with interest; she was warm and sweet-smelling and unafraid. And she was ugly. She had an oversized, bald head mashed flat and to a point by the back-to-sleep rule, narrow slits for eyes, ponderous jowls. I knew this shouldn’t matter, that I should be excited about her as a person; I knew that her disposition crossed with her upbringing would make her into a sweet, considerate woman one day. But still I had to remind myself to pick her up, to coo over her, to make contact with those squinty eyes.
When they left, I felt horrible. However hard I had tried to make myself engage this baby, I knew I didn’t smile and coo and play with her as much as I would have if I were genuinely attracted to her. And I knew that I wasn’t attracted to this baby—not because of her personality but because of her looks.
I am not alone in my shameful behavior. Research shows that everyone treats attractive babies differently from unattractive babies. When I told my husband this, he said, “Well, it’s a good thing everyone thinks their own baby is the most beautiful baby in the world.” But he’s wrong. Even mothers treat their babies differently based on looks. A study from the mid-nineties made headlines because it showed clearly that moms of attractive first-born infants were more attentive and affectionate than moms of less attractive first-borns. Of course this distinction was totally unconscious. As the lead researcher wrote, “All the mothers denied that attractiveness should matter in parental treatment of children but their behavior belied their beliefs.” Apparently, for everyone, not just for me, knowing that looks shouldn’t matter isn’t enough. It keeps us from grimacing and saying, “Yikes, is that a girl or a gargoyle?” but it can’t make us treat an ugly baby the same as a beautiful one.
Back in the grocery store, carting around my little charmer, I wondered what effect this could have on a baby as he grows. A cute baby is smiled at, so he smiles back, so he gets a laugh or a blown kiss or even a caress. A cute baby becomes more social; a social baby, a baby who knows how to flirt and mug, becomes cuter; and so on. Victorious cycle for the cute baby; vicious cycle for the ugly one. Who knows how much these early interactions affect a child’s idea of himself, a child’s life?
After I met that ugly baby, after I watched my own baby flirt his way through the produce aisle, I decided to stop trying to pretend that looks don’t exist. It’s like trying to pretend race doesn’t exist, or gender. Your kid might have an easy way with strangers and a happy, playful demeanor not because of excellent parenting, but because he happened to have sprouted a full head of honey-colored hair at an age when most babies are still working on peach fuzz. It’s not fair, and the rewards that come from it should no more be a source of pride than the rewards that come from being born white or male.
And there are rewards, however great or small they might finally be. The best we can do, I guess, is to be aware of it, to try hard to treat every baby as if that baby were a beauty, and to treat beauty as the lucky accident it is.
One of the things the researchers noted in that study—one of the signs of affection lavished on more attractive babies—was how many times a mother would say something like, “Oh, you’re my cute little baby.” Maybe part of the problem is that, unable to praise their babies’ looks, mothers of unattractive babies just don’t have words to express their pleasure in their babies, their joy in holding them, their love. Raised in a culture that values physical beauty so highly, they just don’t know what to say.
To them, and to all parents who’d like to keep the question of beauty at bay just a little while longer, I recommend the loving declaration, “You’re some baby.”
Author’s Note: I’m trying to write a book on pregnancy and childbirth, but my children keep getting in the way. Literally (toddler toys and baby gear trip me up on the way to the computer) but also intellectually, because they and their interactions with the world present such immediate and fascinating brain fodder. So this was an idea I simply had to work through before getting back to work. One thing I have noticed since writing it is how much less Noah’s appearance matters to me now that he can speak, now that his engagement with people is no longer strictly physical. But the question of praise—when and what kind and how much—persists.
Kate Cohen is the author of A Walk Down the Aisle: Notes on a Modern Wedding (Norton, 2001), a book of personal essays on getting married and The Neppi Modona Diaries: Reading Jewish Survival Through My Italian Family.
Brain, Child (Summer 2003)
Photo by Gina Kelly
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.