“Look at you in your gorgeous dress!” I said to my friend’s five-year-old daughter, then remembered, too late, that I’m trying to avoid telling little girls that they’re beautiful. This was prompted by a Huff Post article I read a few months ago that suggested asking little girls about a book they’ve recently read instead of saying how pretty they look. Because of course if we continually focus on how little girls look, they will start to believe that looks matter above all else. That they need to be beautiful to succeed in life. That their appearance is their most valuable feature.
So when I chat to little girls, I am trying to start the conversation with something other than a comment on a pretty dress or a nice pony-tail. I can ask her age; her favourite thing to do at school; her most recent bedtime story; her favourite animal; what she wants to be when she grows up.
And this starts with my own two little girls. I do have a tendency to tell them they’re beautiful. This is partly an instinctive reaction – it’s like hugging or kissing or saying “I love you”. Like rubbing a cheek or pushing a curl behind an ear. It’s an expression of love, a sentence that often tumbles out before I think about it.
It’s also an attempt to build their confidence. I want to them to feel good about themselves, to feel secure. Equally I tell them they are smart and generous and fast at running and draw beautiful drawings.
I look at shows like X-Factor and wonder why nobody told the auditionees that they can’t sing, then realize that they might have had parents like me, telling them they are BRILLIANT at everything they do. Actually, unless I’m put on the spot with a direct question, I don’t tell my two girls that they’re great singers; they’ve inherited a certain tunelessness from both parents.
My six-year-old is already examining her reflection in my bedroom mirror; hesitantly and then more emphatically declaring that she looks better without her glasses. Of course, I tell her she looks great with her glasses and that they’re helping her with the reading that she’s starting to enjoy so much. But I don’t know if I can fully deflect my daughters’ attention from how they look and I’m not sure it’s the solution either.
Perhaps like most things in life, it’s about balance.
No little girl should ever be made to feel that how she looks is what’s most important about her. She shouldn’t have to listen to constant comments about her appearance, whether complimentary or critical, certainly not critical.
Adults should chat to kids about books and games and school and sports, and it’s a good habit to try to avoid saying “what a pretty dress” as an opener every time you greet a little girl.
But I don’t think I can fully resign from telling my children that they’re beautiful from time to time – my daughters and my son.
Quite apart from the instinctive outbursts, I think it’s my job to build their confidence in every area of life, and to me that includes helping them to feel comfortable with how they look.
What I can do is avoid commenting about myself. That one is much more clear-cut to me, and easier to follow.
We shouldn’t tell our daughters that we feel fat or ugly that we’re not eating bread because it makes us fat or that we’re on a diet or that we don’t like how we look in the mirror. We shouldn’t comment on our own body-image issues within earshot of our children – they will pick up on this and become self-critical and body-conscious in a way that will not serve them well.
That bit is easy. It’s the rest that’s not clear. But I’ll muddle along, trying to get it right and trying not to screw them up and definitely not letting them go on X-Factor.
19 thoughts on “Beautiful girls”
I absolutely love this post.
I think you just nailed it.
Hope the article it makes people think twice.
Thank you so much for your comment – I really appreciate it!
I’m all for telling my children and nephews they’re beautiful because, like all children, they are. I totally agree with you that balance is the key and it’s no harm to remind ourselves to mention books, hobbies, etc. when speaking to children. I think the people who go on those ‘talent'(!) shows and make fools of themselves can’t blame anyone but themselves.
Yep, definitely about balance. Re the talent show people: I reckon some of it must come from being told over and over that they’re great? Or maybe some people are just very confident and simultaneously so lacking in self-awareness that they just go for it, regardless of what they’ve been told as children!
This is such a tricky one – I was really interested to hear your take on it. On the one hand, I don’t want to be making girls think their worth lies in their pretty dress or their nice hair. On the other, I feel like commenting on a cool t-shirt or a nifty pair of runners is a good conversation starter with boys and girls alike.
Telling my daughter she’s beautiful doesn’t come naturally to me. My parents never said it to me either. I honestly don’t know whether it destroyed my self-confidence or boosted my sense of self worth. So I tend to fall back on the “specific praise” thing that they recommend in general rather than just telling your child they’re God’s gift to everything. I say “Now, your hair is beautiful and soft and shiny,” when we’ve just brushed it, and I do tell her I love her dress or I think it goes particularly well with her shoes, or whatever else comes to mind. So sue me, I don’t think it’s wrong. But I’m mindful of it, which I hope counts for something.
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Yes I’m trying to do the same – focus on specifics rather than a general but kind of absent-minded “you’re beautiful” over and over. I’d say it’s something we could over-think too!
I remember as a child getting all upset at one point thinking that I looked awful, and my mum telling me I was beautiful and telling me some great stories about when I was a baby, and it really meant a lot to me at the time, and stayed with me…so I’m conscious of that too (in a good way)
Great post, I think we must have read the same article as I am very conscious of using clothes etc as an ice breaker with younger patients. With my own children we emphasise that beauty is on the inside and if you are a beautiful person inside it will shine through you. My 7 yr old is at that stage of self awareness now so if she asks me if she’s beautiful I tell her to come close and then close my eyes, put my hand on her heart and tell her she’s the most beautiful person. She laughs at it but she really gets it because I overheard her explaining beauty to her sister and nearly burst with pride.
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oh Elizabeth that’s lovely – am implementing it tomorrow!!
It’s hard to avoid the ice breaker comments though – I still do it without thinking a lot of the time. All about finding a balance, like everything else I guess…
LOVE that, Elizabeth!
The biggest influence on our girls lives is ourselves, their mom. We can say all sorts of everything but it is what we do that counts.
I often tell my girls they are gorgeous and my son he is so handsome, but I do it in a general “I’m your mom and you are amazing” sort of way.
The other message I give is by what they see. I am not a makeup or girly sort of mom, so they do see I’m not overly concerned with appearance.
However I think it is very important for a child to hear from it’s parents how fabulous they are.
Overall if you have given enough messages letting them know we are so much more than how we look your children will hear it.
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I like the “I’m your mom and you are amazing” – similar to Sadhbh’s approach, definitely going to bring in some of that.
I am a girlie girl who does like clothes, so I’m mindful of that too!
I read something about this a while ago too… or maybe it was a video I watched?… anyway I tell my girls they are beautiful all the time, but I often quantify it with ‘to me’. “You are so beautiful to me.” And they are, because they are my babies. But not every person will see them the same way and I want them to be a tiny bit ready for that. I also praise them for their cleverness and their artwork and their good (beautiful?!) behavior because these are even more important qualities. I haven’t been so mindful of other people’s children and have certainly praised appearance without thinking, but I’ll be more aware now for sure. Though, then again, who doesn’t like to be told they look nice? Like all things- it’s about getting the balance right, I suppose!
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That’s a lovely idea, to say “you are so beautiful to me” – might try a bit of that too.
I’m kind of laughing to myself now, imagining all these kids who used to get loads of compliments being a bit peeved about getting none anymore since we’re all being so careful!
Think you’ve nailed it there that it’s all about balance.I tell the girls they re gorgeous all the time and my partner tell me I tend to give lots of compliments to my friends both male and female on their appearance.I hadnt noticed I do it but think its a nice thing to do.Yes it’s nicer probably to compliment a person on their personality but unfortunately it’s not the kind of society we live in,so I guess subconsciously I tend to go with that.Not sure if this post makes sense-severe lack of sleep is making the correct use of words hard for me!
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Yes it makes sense, and hugs for the lack of sleep!
I think I am definitely in danger of overthinking it – I think it’s grand that we compliment kids and at the same time no harm being aware of what we’re saying. That’s what I’m trying to do anyway…
I catch myself telling my daughter she’s so beautiful and then I quickly say how smart, good and helpful she is too. She has watched me putting on makeup and said she wants to be beautiful like me. I’ve felt like such a fool standing there putting makeup on. I went without makeup for a week but then gave in. I pray she doesn’t develop an obsession with her appearance when in her teenage years.
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I honestly don’t think seeing us putting on makeup is going to make them obsessed – well not any more obsessed than all their teenage friends (so, pretty obsessed I guess 🙂 ). Regarding them watching us, I think body image is the important one. Fair play to you going without makeup for a week though – I couldn’t!!
Good post, I guess it’s a difficult one, I equally say to boys and girls, if they’re outfit looks cool or gorgeous…especially if they have put it together themselves. I might talk about the matching colours and how they made a good decision in putting those items together plus don’t we get disappointed if noboby notices us, that’s what clothes are all about…we try to be individual…all children are beautiful.
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