Quite a while ago now, Lisa Bloom, blogger for the Huffington Post, wrote a piece outlining why we need to stop focusing on appearance in little girls. She made a lot of good points, and it gave me a lot to think about.
"ABC News reported that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat."
"15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and 25 percent of young American women would rather win America's Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize."
I thought about these statistics, and I decided that I am not part of the problem, but part of the solution.
Bloom then stretches those statistics and comes up with this:
"Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23."
I don't agree with this. I don't think that complimenting a little girl on her looks chips away at her self-esteem. I cannot see how simply telling a girl she's pretty somehow translates into telling her she's not pretty enough. The problem, as I see it, isn't that parents or family or even strangers are remarking on physical attributes positively. The problem is beyond that. It's entrenched in a society that shows women with botox and boob jobs as prettier than the average girl. It's in the magazine spreads and celebrated celebrity lifestyles. It's in the television, as reality stars spend hours in the bathroom to get themselves ready for the next random hookup. It's not us. If anything, I think, our daughters need us to tell them they are pretty more now than ever.
When I say tell them they're pretty, I mean just that. If they look nice that day, if you like the way their hair is done, if they're your daughters and you just want to squish them up into you because they are the most beautiful creations inside and out to bless your world, you tell them that.
I don't mean saying things like, "You'd be prettier if...", or "Let's try to do your hair this way to make you pretty." I also don't mean dwelling on it. Once is enough, per surge of emotion. No need to repeat it a thousand times. That makes the words lose their meaning. They lose their context. If you are a broken record, your compliments cease to be compliments and they tread on the territory Bloom is talking about. Your compliments lose their object, the girl herself, and she begins to only hear, "pretty, pretty, pretty." This is what Bloom is scared of.
But there is another side of the coin that cannot be ignored. Our society, as it stands right now, is not blind to physical looks. To turn away from this does nothing to solve the problem. It will not help your little girl's self-esteem as she grows older. Yes, it's important to focus on her inner beauty and her skills, but there's no reason to pointedly ignore the physical. Because if you do ignore it, you'll be the only one. And you'll be leaving a gap where your daughter needs you most as she grows.
Because people are going to call her ugly. I don't care if she is the most beautiful, well-coiffed, poised young woman in the world, some jerk is going to come along and try to make her feel bad about herself. And while the thought that "looks aren't important, it's the beauty on the inside that counts" is true and important for her to know at every age, that's only going to help her when she's already a fully grown adult, when she's already determined who she is and what her personality is like, when she's already stable in her place in the world.
Looks aren't important, it's the beauty inside that counts. That's not going to help her when she's 9 or 12 or 15. At those ages, how the outside world perceives you is important, and a parent ignoring looks will become just another example of how "mom doesn't understand me," or "mom doesn't want me to be happy."
These are treacherous years. During them, your daughter is going to need to know in her subconscious that she is beautiful, inside and out. The way to give her that nugget of truth is to tell her when she is young. So that when that a-hole comes along spouting filth about your daughter's looks, she doesn't have to rely on a philosophy too complex for her years to get her through. No, she'll be able to draw strength from a subconscious well of knowledge that she is, indeed, pretty. You told her so. Your friends told her so. Everyone she met from age 2 to now who is not this person (or these people, as the case may be) told her she was pretty. Her own self-esteem isn't developed enough to get her through the attacks unscathed, but with help from you in her growing years, she may find strength -- the source of which will not be clear in her mind.
Bloom is right. Little girls, teenaged girls and women in general should not have to worry about their looks, especially not obsessively like we've begun to do. But that doesn't change the way of the world, and your daughter needs your support in the world in which she lives, not in the ideal world in which you wish she lived.
So, yes, I will continue to tell my daughters they are beautiful. I will tell them every day. Because I feel it every day. And there will come a day when they no longer believe me. But my words to them now will be lodged in their subconscious minds. My words to them now, I hope, will form a base of knowledge from which they won't have to waver. I can only hope that they'll understand that looks are not everything, but that even so, they look beautiful. Always.
You know how my mother did that for me? She said "Looks are not everything, honey, and I think you might spend a little too much time caring about what other people think. You don't need to. You're beautiful on the outside. And more importantly, you're beautiful on the inside."
So, why not be honest with our daughters? Instead of ignoring an ugly side of society that we don't like, hiding in the sand, why don't we face it head on, acknowledge it, and give it its proper place in our daughters' perspectives as they grow? Because without our guidance here, without our acknowledgement and understanding of this part of life, our daughters will be forced to figure it out all on their own. And the only people they'll have for help are those magazine spreads filled with botoxed beauties. The only people they'll have for help are those kids at the bus stop calling them names.
We need to be a positive force in our daughters' lives as they live, not as we wish they could live.
Photo Credit: kkoshy.
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