Work on bonding with daughter instead of trying to fix her
Q: My brilliant, beautiful 23-year-old daughter is the middle of three girls and has always been a little kooky in her dress and manner. I don't expect her to be a cookie-cutter version of me or the other girls, but her hygiene habits have been lacking since she was in college. She doesn't smell bad, but she doesn't smell nice, either.
I know this acting out is an expression of being who she is, but she was brought up to know that good hygiene and first impressions count. When she visited I brought it up once and she put me off immediately, saying things like water dries out your skin, and that she doesn't smell. Please tell me how to discuss this rationally with her. I know this will be a problem when she gets a real job or goes on dates.
A: Attempt to "discuss this rationally" with her for a second time, and you underscore, again, what a clear and disappointing deviation she is from your expectations — thereby, to oversimplify it somewhat, putting her off soap for good.
I think your passing reference to her middle-child status is telling. It suggests that you regard her eccentricities not as legitimate expressions of self, but, collectively, as a desperate attempt to stand out.
Pair this with the first rule of parental opinion — if you think it, then your child knows it — and you have a daughter who has built her sense of self on being the family letdown.
You aren't the only one to blame, of course; her nature and her other family members and her circumstances all undoubtedly played their own roles.
However, you are the only one who can change your role in her self-image. You can embrace her, respect her, not judge her, not presume to "fix" her. You can love her resolutely "as is." You can care about her, versus caring about how she appears to and reflects on you.
Not coincidentally, if you had that foundation with her already, you could say, "Yikes, you're getting ripe," without tripping all her defenses. Since you don't, then that foundation is what needs your attention more than anything else. Such a foundation of trust could become crucial if, over time, your daughter's "kooky manner" turns out to be the early warning of a serious emotional problem.
If it turns out to be nothing more than an affectation, then her hygiene might well become the obstacle for her that you fear, leading to both romantic and professional frustration. However, those are hardly life-and-death stakes — except perhaps socially, and even that is a stretch.
Should that happen, though, those exact people you cite — potential mates and employers — will be the ones who deliver the message themselves that she's not welcome in such an unhygienic state, simply by isolating her. That collective verdict, even if it's a silent one, will be both more persuasive than any from you, and less hurtful.
That's the second rule of parental opinion: Unless your children are actively seeking your advice, assume they'd prefer validation. This applies if they're 2 or 72. If you have nothing validating to say, then please see that as another indication that it's time you got to know your daughter beyond disapproving skin-depth.