This is my daughter. She was born at home in a blue blow-up tub three years ago. She is passionate and adventurous, and in the rare moments when she is standing still I will sometimes stare at her face for rather long periods because I am in awe that I could grow someone so beautiful inside of my belly.
She’s gorgeous, right?
The thing is, I’m going to need you to stop telling my daughter how pretty she is. You, and all of the other adults who pass her on the street or meet her in the Target checkout line or stop at our table as we eat sushi together. Please do not lead her to regularly expect initial greetings in the vein of: “Well hello princess. I love your dress. You are so beautiful.”
You must know, she is so much more than a pretty dress and a societally-approved face. If those are the things she consistently hears about, how can she ever really believe me when I tell her those aren’t the things that actually matter in the long run?
A few months ago my daughter turned to me in the kitchen and declared “Nana is nice because she is pretty.” I pushed back, but she was not having it. Currently her perspective and preferences revolve around tiers of pretty. Here I discovered that she believes beauty goes so far past skin deep that it is the root of all goodness in a human. She was very proud of herself for coming to this conclusion.
I think that many young girls are experience a crisis of confidence at some point in their life. I anticipate my own daughter will. I certainly did through my tens and teens and twenties. What deeply concerns me is that beauty is not only subjective, it is fleeting, and when we set up girls to think that pleasant looks are at the root of what makes them good we lay the groundwork for collapsed worldviews when the majority of them lose the looks society taught them to value so highly.
I have a son as well, he’s about three-years older than my daughter. When he was a baby he had a giant head and piercing eyes, and I was regularly stopped by strangers interested in letting me know how stunning his baby-blues were. His eyes have mellowed over time, and as they became more muted the comments about his looks faded away. My daughter can be wearing the cheapest polyester monstrosity and my son the nicest clothes he owns and still my daughter will be the one who is showered with praise about her “pretty dress”.
If my son doesn’t need constant praise for the way he looks I don’t think my daughter does either. There will always be magazine covers shouting about all the things a woman needs to change about her body. These messages sell, because early on in any given girl’s life she was taught that her looks are of great importance. She learns these lessons before she has the capacity to read those magazines, reinforced time and time again by the adults she depends on to understand the great big world around her.
You can’t sell what people don’t value. Adults make known how much they value pretty looks in little girls, little girls internalize those messages, and another magazine is sold with the promise to reshape a life using the perfect shade of lipstick.
Let’s teach girls to value something different. This can start with greeting the girls you meet using a salutation regarding something other than their looks. When stuck, think about how you might greet a little boy. If nothing comes to mind, start with my favorite “Hello, what’s your name? It’s so nice to meet you. I like sunsets and popcorn. What are some of your favorite things?”