beautiful girls

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.”

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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.

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9 thoughts on “beautiful girls

  1. Interesting post, as most are. Love your blog. I’d like to contribute to the discussion. I am not sure its the same for girls and boys, but I think praise, even just for appearance, can be good. It certainly beets the alternative. I was a kid who lived (barely) thru lots of ridicule for my looks. I have congenitally deformed hips and legs and took hell for the as a kid. Also they kept me the last picked in sports despite my size (over 6′ in 9th grade). Also I was clumsy, due in part to my legs and feet. It still hurts – for example in my Pilates class – when even I think they are ugly.
    So even with a PhD, great wife, and great life nearly at age 65, I am apprehensive about my looks. Praise Eleanor’s qualities, but don’t avoid comments on her appearance (she is so photogenic). It’s amazing what sticks over a life.

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    1. Tom,I really appreciate your comment: your openness and honesty. I think you are absolutely correct about being careful not to purposefully *avoid* comments/praise about Eleanor’s qualities- any of them. Seeing her for who she is- ALL of who she is, including that beautiful (and photogenic) little lady- and not who we want her to be, or who we want her to focus on being, is very, VERY important. And like I said in my post, there are times when I just can’t help myself and comments like that just come out. Because they are true.
      And I guess that is the heart of it- I want my comments, discussions, praise of her to be true. And for me, that means seeing beyond those that are most apparent and, as “dad” (my dad) commented above be present and intentional with her (and everyone) every day.
      Thank you for participating. It means a lot to me.
      Kiyah

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    2. You raise an important point, Tom. It’s not to AVOID acknowledging the beauty of each child for who they are (or how they look), just not to have that be what defines them; or at least not the ONLY thing to do so. Enjoying the exchange . . .

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  2. Both you and Lisa Bloom give us something important to think about, Kiyah. It’s important to see ALL that any child is, and especially to see all that is beyond what is immediately evident. Yet another place in which the struggle to find the right balance challenges us daily, but the intentionality of tackling it keeps us focused on what matters.
    Ms. E is fortunate to have you as parents who are concerned with helping her to know all of this . . . and an important reminder to those of us who care about her.

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    1. So true dad, it really is about staying present, all the time, everyday. And not just with our children; imagine if we all approached every interaction we had, each and ever day, with such intentionality. With our kids, our spouses, our classmates and teachers, our friends…even the person at the cash register in the grocery store. If we could all BE WHERE WE ARE, in any given moment, giving it our fullest attention, imagine how great we would all feel.
      Thanks for your thoughtful participation, Dad.

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  3. Tom – you forgot to add “scores of loving students” to the list of things you can be proud of.
    Don’t forget those!

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    1. Tim,
      Thanks! Of course I am VERY proud of my students. Best work I ever did. And you and the others really make me proud and happy.
      Tom

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  4. My daughter will be 2 next month. She is admittedly adorable and I do dress her in matching outfits that are pretty cute (although far from “girly”). Her aunt works at Carter’s so much comes from there. We rarely walk into a store without someone telling my daughter how cute she is. This bothers me. Since I can’t stop it (although I could put her in uglier clothes) I focus on what we should do when we receive a compliment: say “thank you.”
    Why does this bother me? Because it happened to me and it wasn’t good. I was a curly haired “adorable” child and was always told how cute I was. But the compliments grew thin and pretty much stopped as I grew older. I started to wonder if I was ugly. I wasn’t – I just wasn’t “adorable” anymore. The expectation was already set though and the change had a negative effect on my self-esteem.
    The same thing happened in other areas of my life causing me problems as an adult. My parents and teachers praised me for lots of things (I was a bright child and given lots of encouragement / education). The older I got the fewer comments I received. I assumed that I was doing well enough. I had already begun to rely on praise for my self esteem. This doubt continued far into adulthood. I am almost 40 and finally realizing that just because someone doesn’t say something doesn’t mean that I am not doing a good job.
    I am now a parent and a Montessori teacher. I work hard to be objective with my daughter and students. It doesn’t mean that I don’t encourage them but it does mean that I try to get them to judge themselves and feel proud of themselves (not relying on someone else’s approval). Event in artwork ( a tough place to so this). I say things like “I see that you used green and blue in this piece.” When a child that I am working with does something well I tell them that they should feel proud of themselves or ask them how they feel about their work.
    This doesn’t mean that I never give positive feedback – I do. I just keep it very limited and try to be subtle: a smile, a handshake, a comment about how much progress has been made. I can understand insecurity caused by never thinking that parents are proud of you. This can be damaging as well. I just think that sometimes we work so hard to give positive feedback that we don’t realize what this can mean when someone becomes an adult.

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    1. Montessori Mom,Thank you for such a thoughtful and heartfelt comment. I, like you, experienced a lot of praise for things in my childhood/youth and grew to rely on it as a measure of my worth. Through college and graduate school this continued (and that only ended a few years ago!), with me measuring my worth (to some extent anyway) based on the – very external and “visible”- feedback I received from people who were “above me”, those with experience and expertise.
      And then, after a year away from it all, with the space and freedom to really examine myself – what I really love and value and feel confident about – I realized that I don’t want that kind of praise. It doesn’t feel good; it doesn’t fill me up.
      I try to remember this when I’m talking with Eleanor, or any child. I try to remember how good it feels to have internal peace and recognition of my own worth without needing anyone else to reaffirm it for me. I want to give that to my children – to other people’s children – because it is such a wonderful gift. It’s hard to do, (very hard at times) – not to tell them that they’ve done well or that they are beautiful or talented or intelligent – but, in my opinion, totally worth the effort. I agree that no praise is not the way to approach parenting, but I do hope to be mindful about it. It’s really nice to know that I am not the only out there trying to do the same thing.

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