The day the social worker brought my daughter home, she was a filthy mess. Her hair was matted and dirty. She wore a stained, white crop top with a denim mini skirt. She had on grungy, white heels that were so high I was surprised she could walk in them. She looked like a mini hooker but she was two. I looked at this tiny, broken child and my heart broke for her. The first thing I did with Alyssa was get her into a bubble bath and some clean clothes. As a foster parent I had a closet stocked with various sizes of clothes I might need but I didn’t have any shoes that fit her. The next day we went shopping for some age appropriate flats and she never wore heels again until the week before Christmas.
Many parents think it is cute for little girls to play dress up in heels or wear the kind of clothes that an older teen might wear. For a typical child, there’s probably no harm in that. I am personally not a fan of that kind of wardrobe for a little kid but I would never judge another family’s choice on the matter. Alyssa has never been typical though. She understood, even at that young age, that her value and beauty were intricately linked to her body. She would prance around in a very adult way looking for reinforcement and would lift her shirt while asking if she was pretty.
Initially I didn’t know how long Alyssa would be staying with me but I knew that I wanted to spend whatever time I had teaching her that her value is not defined by her body. I bought her outfits that were modest but cute enough that people would stop to comment about how pretty she was. I purposefully praised her when she made good choices or figured something out. It was never about shaming the behaviors or dress from her previous life; it was all about expanding her definition of beauty to also include intelligence, compassion and perseverance. Even after the adoption we have continued working to instill those values.
This year, on Small Business Saturday, I bought Alyssa a beautiful holiday dress from one of my favorite little shops. She had a lead role in the church Christmas program as the person holding the letter N in Noel. (Her performance was magical by the way.) I really meant to find her some new shoes to go along with the dress since all of the ones I bought in August are too small now but the chaos of life won out. That’s how I found myself frantically trying to find dress shoes at one of the two stores in our little town on the Saturday night before the show. Of course, since I was in a bind there was almost nothing in her size that wasn’t hot pink or just strange. I finally found a pair of shiny black shoes with a bow on the toes. The problem was that they were heals.
I stood in the aisle holding those little shoes and flashed back to the exploited little girl who came home to me four years ago. I tried them on Alyssa then took them off, disappointed that they fit. When my husband returned from his wandering, I showed the shoes him, expecting an equally distraught reaction. I hoped that he would at least think that she was far too young to be prancing through the church in half inch heels. Instead he questioned whether she would fall wearing them. I explained what the shoes represented but they didn’t mean that to him.
In the end, because there was literally no other option, we went home with the shoes. I planned to leave early enough to stop someone in the city on our way to church the next morning for something, anything, else though. Unfortunately, I am horrible at mornings and we barely got out of the house in time for the service. In front of God, my parents and the 100 other people in the congregation, my little girl stumbled to the stage wearing heels.
The performance was fantastic. My kids were off beat but proud. After the service, we had a church potluck where Alyssa eventually ditched the shoes because she couldn’t run 10 feet in them without toppling over. In spite of the dreaded high heels, it was a really good day.
It’s weird how sometimes the things we think represent everything evil end up being completely benign. Alyssa was no less innocent wearing heels than she would have been barefoot. (If I wrote a political blog, I could expand that analogy to many other topics but we’ll stick to shoes for now.) What happened to her was wrong. The path that brought Alyssa to my door that day is one I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The shoes, as distasteful as they were, were only bad because I associated them with the people who put them on her.
It was easier when she was little and simply wore whatever I put her in. I bought frilly dresses and she twirled. I told her she was beautiful and she believed me. I think that this is where the real work starts. I can’t rely on simple rules, like only flat shoes and one piece swimsuits, to teach her to be the kind of lady I hope I’m raising. We have to go farther and talk about the actual qualities that we are working towards and how we know if we have achieved them. I want her to grow up believing that she is beautiful in both body and spirit, that she can be proud of her looks while not being defined by them. I want her to feel free to express her personality through her style while understanding that clothes can only say so much. I want her to know that she was radiant on the stage that Sunday because her smile lit up the sanctuary, and the heels were just an accessory that I’m learning to live with.