This is not to brag, but here are some of the words that people regularly use to describe my daughter: cute, adorable, pretty, gorgeous, stunning, beautiful.
Again, I’m definitely not bragging. In fact, I’m complaining.
I find it disturbing how much we focus on girls’ looks, while we talk about boys’ behavior, skills, and interests. This isn’t news, of course; it’s well documented that people tend to treat and talk to boys and girls quite differently, and that this affects girls’ beliefs about themselves and their self-esteem.
But I was reminded of it afresh when I asked my 29-month-old daughter about a girl who fairly recently joined her room at nursery.
“What is she like?” I wondered. My daughter thought a moment and then said, “She’s pretty!” I was, frankly, aghast. “Pretty?” I repeated. “It doesn’t matter what she looks like. I meant, is she fun to play with? What does she like to do? Is she nice?”
My daughter shrugged and again said that the girl was pretty, as though that was all we needed to know.
My wife and I try quite hard to not praise or critique our daughter or anyone else based on their looks. When people mention our daughter’s appearance, we tend to reply, “Thanks for the compliment, but more importantly, she’s a beautiful person on the inside.” Depending on how the conversation goes or how well we know the person, we might add some information about a skill or trait we particularly appreciate. “She is very helpful and likes to help set the table for meals,” for instance, or, “If Mama’s hands are cold, she likes to hold them and warm them, which is so kind”—or even, “She loves going to gymnastics class and jumping on the trampoline. Isn’t she strong?”
Now, we’re not perfect, and sometimes we mess up. When I heard our daughter say about someone, “What is she wearing?” I realized that I’d said that very thing myself recently, and my daughter quite naturally thought it was an acceptable thing to say. And sometimes, she has chosen an outfit to wear that’s so adorable (and often so clashing in regard to patterns) that we can’t help but comment on how lovely she looks. And with much chagrin, I heard myself tell another woman how cute her baby was not long ago (What can I say? There was an awkward silence and my mind went blank). But we do try to restrain ourselves as much as possible and to be conscious in our choice of topic and words.
Unfortunately, most of society doesn’t seem to. I was quite annoyed when a worker at the nursery saw my daughter wearing a slightly different hairstyle than usual and began gushing about how “beautiful” it was and how “fantastic” she looked. My daughter beamed and patted her hair self-consciously. I know the woman had good intentions, but it moved the focus to my daughter’s appearance, whereas just a few moments before, she’d been happily chattering about what books she wanted to read that day and what toys she was planning on playing with.
When a boy walked in with a new haircut, it wasn’t commented on, and he simply went over to play with some toy cars. Although sometimes, our societal obsession with kids’ looks can extend to both genders (“he’s a looker,” “he’s a charmer”), it’s more likely the first thing we say about girls—and the damaging effects are more likely to linger with girls, too.
Sure, I think my daughter is absolutely gorgeous, but this beauty is both inside and out. And I don’t want her to ever feel that her looks are what matter most about her. My wife and I can continue to focus on our daughter’s behavior and hobbies at home, and we can gently correct those who insist on talking about her looks, but we can’t keep the pressures of society away from her completely. There needs to be a culture-wide shift in how we talk to and about girls. They’re much more than their appearances, and they deserve to know that.