I recently ran into an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in ages. She was walking with her six-year-old daughter, whom I’d never met. So after an excited hello and a big hug, I turned to the little girl to say hi. “You must be Lily,” I said. “Look at how pretty you are!”
Now back up a second… remember that commercial from the ‘80s where the dumb guy at a fancy restaurant calls the Polaner All Fruit “jelly” and the waiter drops his tray and the old lady faints, and everyone’s all kinds of appalled in dead silence? It was sort of like that.
I knew I said something wrong, but I wasn’t sure what. Until her mom snapped “And she’s very smart and a good person too. And she plays the drums.” Then I knew what I did wrong. I called her pretty.
And it wasn’t just that I called her pretty, it was the first thing I pointed out about her. I made it clear it was the only thing I noticed and the most important thing I wanted to say. I defined her by her looks.
And the thing is, I don’t think that’s so bad.
There’s a growing movement right now to stop telling little girls they’re pretty, and I can understand why. With a society that constantly judges females based on narrow standards of beauty, telling little girls they’re pretty conveys the importance of meeting those standards. In today’s image obsessed culture, we need to be very careful about reinforcing the message that a girls’ looks are her most significant attributes.
By pointing out their looks, we are putting pressure on girls from a young age to be, and remain, beautiful. This may fuel a rise in body image issues throughout adolescence, which can eventually result in troubling psychological problems. Obviously that’s the last thing we would want to do to our daughters.
By judging a girl’s appearance, we are setting her up to crave those types of comments, and to be disappointed when she doesn’t hear them. And studies have shown that young girls often link happiness with body image.
We should be pointing out the things that will raise a young girl’s self-confidence. We should tell them how great they are at math, how kind they are to strangers and how awesome they kick goals in soccer. And I completely agree! I mean, how can you not?
But the problem is, I don’t know any of those things about her. I only know what I see, and that’s how cute she looked. So here’s what I think.
We can’t shelter our little girls from the reality of the world we live in, a world that clearly emphasizes appearance. Throughout their lives, other people will continue to comment on our children’s appearances whether we want them to or not. But as parents, we must do our part to make it clear that they are valued in much more significant ways. We must be the ones to point out how amazing they are in other aspects of their lives. And in an effort to prepare them for our looks-based world, we must also encourage our girls to feel good about their appearance by, in fact, pointing out what it is that makes them uniquely beautiful.
So if you see me with my daughter and you want to tell her she’s pretty, go ahead. I won’t snap at you and I won’t get upset.
Just maybe throw in how much she looks like her mommy.