I hear myself saying "Oh, that looks very pretty" or "I love what you're wearing" or "You're very pretty" when I meet or see a little girl I know. It's a knee-jerk response conditioned from years of growing up around five women and one man (my dad) who worked in the garment business and knows how to speak to women. One of the first things almost everyone does when they meet a woman is compliment her appearance.
Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty.
You look great. Fabulous. Did you lose weight? I love your shoes. Where did you get that dress? I really like your mascara.
She's such a pretty girl. What a beautiful girl you are!
The next time you are with your daughter or meet someone's daughter or a young female child, note how long it takes for someone to comment about the child's looks. I guarantee, it won't take long. Typically with my daughter, people comment right away. And why is this a problem, you ask? It's nice to be told you look nice and that's certainly not a crime, right? What's the big deal about telling a girl she's pretty? Isn't that a compliment? Isn't that a great self-esteem booster?
Well yes . . . and no.
That's right, I just said, "No, it's not always great to comment on a girl's looks."
Before you ask why, let me explain.
If It's the First Thing Said, It's the First Thing Remembered
People say a first impression is everything, and indeed, it might just be, so if this is the case, don't you think that the very first thing a girl hears becomes the very first thing she remembers? And if she remembers the comments on her looks and clothes, she'll make a mental note that being pretty and well put-together is important. That's all fine and dandy — who wants to walk around looking like garbage? — but the problem is looks become too important to girls. If being pretty is the first thing said and noticed, it must be more important than how a girl feels, what she is doing, what she wants to do or DID do, and what's going on in her life.
What Happens When the Pretty Fades?
When we place such importance on girls and women being pretty, what happens when the pretty fades? And by that I mean, what happens when we age and society no longer finds us pretty? Do people then stop asking us how we are? Are we teaching our girls from the get-go that once we are no longer pretty, we are no longer worth speaking to? Are we then invisible unless we strive to be pretty, pretty, pretty?
You can Botox up your face until the cows come home, but you will never look like you did when you were younger. I'm sorry. When we teach girls that being pretty is an absolute vital adjective to add to their "describers," we teach them that if they are not pretty, they are not worth anything.
But It's Just a Really Pretty Dress
Sure, go ahead. Compliment the child on her pretty dress . . . right after you've asked her how she is today and if she's having a great day. Show her that indeed, you notice her nice outfit, but that more importantly you care about how she felt when she woke up today. You can put on a wedding gown and still feel like the saddest person on the planet. If people don't value how you feel as an individual, why should you?
If your daughter or her friends dressed up to look nice like Mommy, there's nothing wrong with giving praise, but make praise over appearance a secondary conversation in general.
Do We Do It to Boys? If Not, Think Twice
We don't comment on what little boys wear or how cute they are — most of the time. So why is it so essential that we even tell a stranger or our little girl family members how pretty they are all the time? Boys are asked about actions and goals. Girls are asked about appearance and social activities. Doesn't anyone think a girl has dreams of her own? That she did something today besides being born with pretty eyelashes?
Boys get to focus on being people. Developing interests. Having fun.
Girls get to focus on their looks and being nice.
This translates into men who base their self-worth on what they can do in the world and women who base their self-worth on how they are perceived in the world.
Count How Many Times You Say Pretty vs. Smart or Other Adjectives
I dare you to count this week how often you tell your daughters how pretty they are versus how often you call them smart, hard-working, and other non-appearance-based adjectives. Count them up. Which category is higher? What message are you sending to your child?
Is it a capital crime to tell your daughter she is beautiful? No, and in fact, it's a nice thing to say and every woman, man, girl, or boy should feel beautiful inside and out. The problem becomes when we teach our girls at a young age that being pretty is everything.
I'm So Wonderful
Some kids grow up to think a bit too highly of themselves when they are constantly told how gorgeous they are, and I'm sorry but . . . that's not an attractive personality trait.
Let's Do Manis!
It's fun to paint my daughter's nails, but it's not an everyday event. It's cute when my daughter wants blush for her dance recital, but it's a once-a-year thing. There's nothing wrong with being girlie or getting dolled up. I myself have written about beauty and am slightly addicted to shopping at Sephora. However, when we start girls young on makeup and other beauty-related items, they become not fun add-ons but rather necessities to feel good. Hey, if you're like me and hate chipped nail polish, I feel your pain, but it's good to teach our girls that dressing down is as beautiful as dressing up. That a barely made-up face is as beautiful as a made-up one — if not more so.
We are socially conditioned to tell each other we look nice from close to right out of the womb. I get it. I do it. Others do it to me. I grew up with a few people in my life who placed heavy importance on looks, and it affected my self-esteem greatly, so I speak from experience. We all want to feel beautiful, and for some of us, that feeling comes from foundation and lipstick and others, not so much. The problem is that we place too much emphasis on looks way too soon for girls and I truly feel that this severely impacts who girls become as women and in a bad way.
Remember: men often base their self-worth on what they can do in the world, and women often base their self-worth on how they are perceived in the world. Is this good enough for our girls? I think not.