“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.