As a mother, I am constantly trying to question our society’s conventions of conformity. As I consciously and unconsciously teach my four girls about beauty, what are the seeds that I am sowing into my daughters’ minds?

Brioni, 3yo, August 2010

We’re going out — just to the shops mind you (this isn’t some grand sparkling adventure) — and I’ve instructed the girls to dress in “going out” clothes (as opposed to “digging in the garden” clothes).

Four-year-old Brioni emerges, dressed in mismatched stripes three times over. Shoes, pants and shirt — they’re all striped in lollipop colours, but they don’t match. If there’s anything that I like, it’s matching.

I explain to Brioni that she needs a solid-coloured top to tie the outfit together. “Your pants are fine, and you can even wear the dancing skirt, but you need a different shirt.”

I feel benevolent in offering her the chance to wear something outrageous from the dress-ups box when leaving the house. Aren’t I an indulgent mother?

As Brioni runs off, happy to change, eager to please, willing to conform to the standard I have set, I realise what I have just done. I have said to her, “Your clothes must conform to an arbitrary definition of what is good. And because they don’t, you aren’t properly attired to be taken into public.”

She’s in the bedroom, searching for a shirt to match the pants. I call Brioni to me and apologise. “I was wrong to ask you to change. Your clothes look good because they are on you, and you are happy and beautiful. I would love to take you out in those clothes.”

It was a close call. If God hadn’t prompted me to rethink my philosophy and the implications I was passing onto my children, I would have formed a foundation of insecurity, reliance on physical beauty and obsession with conformity.

These things are infamous in teenagers and I suffered greatly from them — a girl with a muscular build, pale skin, freckles and glasses among twig-thin, tanned blondes.

Bissetts and McBrides, 1990
Circa 1990: I'm in the front, with red hair and glasses. The two other girls with glasses are my sisters (we were a family of glasses-wearers), and we were with friends from Northern Ireland.

What have I done in passing on our society’s lie that certain colours and patterns can only be worn with other certain colours and patterns? I have stifled my children’s creativity in the expression of their dress and taught them a lie — that their beauty comes from how they look and how they drape themselves with swaths of fabric.

Shouldn’t I be focusing on applauding independence of dress instead of insisting they adhere to a code which in its essence is ridiculous and changeable. This conformity to fashion and culture creates a dependence on material wealth that is empty and hollow. Chasing after it doesn’t produce the happiness that we all desire, but a greater discontentment as we strive to purchase more, achieve more, get more, conform more.

Perhaps it’s my fundamental weaknesses that I am passing on — perhaps I haven’t fully realised that the truth of relationships are always below the surface. Am I always judging people on how they look or behave instead of stopping and asking questions to discover the real person behind the clothes, what drives them, what their values are, who they love and how they have fun?

Or is it about a deeper insecurity? Do I feel more successful as a mother if my children are in matching outfits? If they draw admiring glances from strangers because they’re dressed alike?

I’m pondering these things as I stop to admire my happy, un-matching girls and their mismatched outfits. David and I are wondering about the value of mirrors in our lives and thinking about phasing them out. God is teaching me about the beauty of holiness.

In the future, there are likely to still be times when I dress my daughters in carefully matching outfits — but I’m going to be careful not to teach them that this is what counts. That “clothes make the man”, that you can “judge a book by its cover”, and the lesson has to start with me. I have to change my heart, model what I want them to know, live the values I want us to share.