Virginia Ironside: Dilemmas

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Dear Virginia,

My daughter’s only 13 and I’m worried she’s too preoccupied with her looks. She spends so long getting ready for school that she’s often late, and her teachers say she spends breaktimes discussing hairstyles and make-up with her friends. She spends all her money on beauty magazines, and I’m worried it’s becoming an obsession. I know her work is suffering. She’s not stupid. But how can I persuade her that she’s got to work hard to get on in life?

Yours sincerely, Erica

It seems to me your daughter is actually working very hard indeed – just not on the subjects you want her to work at. It takes, time, concentration and real obsession, as you say, to spend so much time on make-up, beauty and fashion. So rather than try to stop her – which will be futile – couldn't you ask her teacher to try to incorporate this interest into some of her lessons? What about suggesting that your daughter does a project on the history of make-up? There's a lot of interesting stuff – from Saxons using woad to cover their faces, to hundreds of men in the 18th century dying from getting too close to their wives, who used arsenic in their make-up to make them look paler. Or ask the science teacher to look at various cosmetics and find out exactly what ingredients they're made of.

Could you write to a cosmetics factory and ask to take a group of schoolgirls round it to see how it's made? Or ask a hairdresser if your daughter could sit in on a haircut and ask why the hairdresser cuts the way she does and how dying and bleaching works, and what shampoos really do for hair. Or perhaps you could get her to write about the history of a garment she wears – from the shop to the sweatshop in India where it's made (if it is), to how the fabric is woven and where it comes from.

I can think of a million ways you could make fashion and make-up highly educational and as long as you could get the teachers on side you could be in for some really imaginative and exciting stuff.

It's not really very odd that your daughter's interested in make-up and clothes. She is 13, after all. Boys at that age tend to be interested in girls, and girls are interested in attracting boys. That's how we're made and I bet you spent quite a bit of time in the same way when you were young. At least she's interested in something and she's not just spending her time eating pizzas in front of the telly. You could, of course, bribe her. If she gets better marks, you'll take her shopping. You could get interested in the subject yourself and ask her to give you tips, and perhaps make up your face for you, so she feels grown-up and valuable.

You're lucky you've got a daughter who feels involved with a subject. Instead of dismissing the interest, nurture it, develop it into other areas, and use it to help your daughter enlarge her world. She's got a seed of interest in something. Don't stamp on it. Water it and let it grow.







Give her some space

I'm 13 and over a year ago, I too was obsessed about my make-up. I used to bring it to school with me to top it up with my friends at break and lunchtimes. Everyday I would spend at least half an hour each morning putting on makeup, which would make me late for school. I'm quite sure that everyone has experimented with make-up, trying different looks, seeing if the details make a difference and seeing how long it lasts.

I guarantee you that this is only a phase, not an obsession. She is buying the magazines just to see how other people look and how to copy them. If she's late, that's her responsibility. How would you know if her grades are "suffering"? Just because you don't see her working all the time doesn't mean she's not on top of it. Why don't you just ask the teachers how her work is doing? Though it would be better to ask her.

You know she should work hard to get on in life, but it's not much use telling a 13-year-old that. She will have to understand it in her own time, but until then just leave off, give her some space! She's got enough time to sort herself out. Perhaps she is self-conscious about her looks, in which case you should reassure her, not criticise her.

Phoebe Davey

Winchester, Hampshire







She needs confidence

It might be a slightly different problem to the one you think you've got. On the one hand, you say your daughter is only 13, and then you are anxious for her long-term career. My guess is she might be overdoing the self and beauty aspect because she is at the stage of ordinary teenage awkwardness. Most of us get through our teens with a lot of blundering astray, and it's sometimes difficult for parents to apply the right shade of panic.

It could be a lack of confidence rather than obsessive self-regard. She needs to broaden her range, find some other interest she can get involved with, but she is never going to be able to do that in a fretful house.

There is a clue where you mention her conversation among friends in the schoolyard. She's 13: what do you expect her to talk about on break? The Bank of England base lending rate in the next financial quarter?

She has to know the law, when to get out of bed and how long it gives her to get straight in the mirror. If she does that side, you do your side and tell her that she can be interested in what she likes. Loosen up, and I'm sure she'll be just fine.

Greg Whitehead

Northampton







Reassure her

I wonder what you were like at 13, Erica? Because your daughter sounds entirely normal to me! My own three daughters were just like yours – and they are all now grown-up with good degrees behind them and good jobs.

The early teens are difficult and exciting times for girls. Making yourself look as nice as you can is quite normal. Perhaps you could feel happy that your daughter has friends who share her interests. Could you reassure her that she looks beautiful to you, and have a look through magazines with her, and make this whole thing seem entirely normal? Perhaps then she'll settle down and attend more to her school work – after all, it's not an either/or situation: she can be pretty and clever!

Ros Napier

By email



Next week's dilemma...

Dear Virginia,

My husband and I have been growing apart for three years, since the children grew up, and haven’t made love for a year. I thought he’d lost interest in me, so when I started an affair with a man at work, I thought he’d be relieved to end our strained marriage. Instead, he burst into tears and said he loved me and thought I’d lost interest in him. He wants to give our marriage a second chance - but my lover wants me to leave to be with him. What shall I do?

Yours sincerely, Yasmin

What would you advise Yasmin to do? Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas@independent.co.uk, or go to www.independent.co.uk/dilemmas. Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucher from the wine website Naked Wines( www.nakedwines.com).

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