I have a daughter. They are beautiful; this is something that I know. On the surface (for Eleanor) this is because she has gorgeous big blue eyes, eyelashes that would be exceptionally long on a grown woman, and a head of curly blond hair that she wears freely. When she was just a few months old a friend commented on how pouty her little lips were. The other day, while at a department store, a man told her that he liked her rain boots: ” Very stylish,” he said. Even our crotchety old German neighbor- who yells at everyone and likes no one- told her that she looked beautiful (in her poppy-covered dress) yesterday morning. She is beautiful. She is also 2 years old. Which is why all this praise terrifies me.
Why? Who cares if she is praised for her looks? It will build her self-esteem, won’t it? Make her feel good about herself?
I recently read an article from The Huffington Post, which sited the frightening statistics that nearly half of all 3- to 6-year-old girls now worry about being fat, and that the sexualization of children has led to eating disorders in those as young as 6, and that children rank body image among their highest concerns. (I ask you to try and remember what your biggest concern was when you were 6.)
Lisa Bloom*, author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World, writes that 15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 years old wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly, that eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down, and that 25 percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize.
Aside from the messages these comments send Eleanor about the importance of being beautiful, and the focus on this above all other characteristics one might praise her for, part of what makes me so uneasy about all this “beauty talk” is that I do not praise Eleanor for this. Not that I never do, because occasionally I cannot help myself and a “don’t you look nice today” finds its way from my lips out before I can cram it back in, but I am really trying to watch how often I let things like this slide. So my fear in her hearing all the time, from other people, and especially from other people she trusts, is that she may come to (1) resent me for not praising her for it and/or (2) seek it out over the things for which I do praise her. Of course, in an attempt to preempt her from resenting me without telling me about said resentment I can talk to her about this issue (Eleanor, how to do you feel about people telling you that you look beautiful?), but what do I say when she responds “Great. It makes me feel really good about myself. Why don’t you tel me that mom? Do you think I’m ugly?” Or worse yet, she just tells me to “Shut up”.
I’ve read that children, girls or boys, should only be praised for things that they can change (more on this later). I’m sure that a lot of people would argue that beauty is something one can change. I beg to differ.
In her recent Huffington Post article, How to Talk to Little Girls (which, if you have a daughter (of any age), or a granddaughter, or you talk girls or women on a regular basis, should be read in its entirety), Lisa Bloom says “Try this the next time you meet a little girl. She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it. Ask her what she’s reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? There are no wrong answers. You’re just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain….Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.”
I have a daughter. And she is beautiful. But I promise to see her, and help her see her, as so much more than that.
* This should not necessarily be taken as an endorsement of Lisa or her work. I do not know much about her, beyond her story in the Huffington Post, and what I can learn on her website which is entirely self-promoting. What I do know, is that I agree with the way she encourages us to talk to young women. That’s all I’ll vouch for.