My eighth birthday party. I am in the middle. The cake is on the table (my mom let us decorate it ourselves, per my wishes). The frosting is on our faces. Makeovers!
I didn't grow up hearing I was pretty. This was partly by design and partly by accident, or an accident of memory: My parents made a conscious decision to not emphasize the role of appearance in my life, ruling out pretty as a household word. The rest of the world? Well, perhaps I wasn’t a terribly pretty little girl, or perhaps my chubbiness became the overriding factor about my looks, or perhaps I heard it and just don’t remember.
Whatever the case, my childhood means that I’m particularly interested in this Lisa Bloom piece about how to talk to little girls without lapsing into “you’re so pretty!” The gist is that we as adults have a responsibility to girls to encourage other parts of them to shine, and to act as role models for the same, which seems like good common sense to me. Hugo Schwyzer agrees, but notes that by avoiding the subject entirely as Bloom illustrates, we set girls up for thinking that their interest in the subject is shallow, forcing a divide between brains and beauty: “Let’s lose the false choice that says we either validate little girls for their brains or for their beauty," he writes. "We need to be fearless about praising both.”
I agree with most of Bloom’s argument, though would argue that we needn’t steer the conversation away from things like appearance and pink and fashion if they come up of the girl’s own choice. That’s where Schwyzer and I agree; we disagree on one part of his remedy, which is to recommend that in addition to reinforcing the “serious” aspects of our girls, we also compliment their appearance.
We must give our girls tools to navigate a beauty-obsessed world. I don’t think praise on their looks should be one of them. It’s engagement that will help her with that navigation: Listening to her thoughts on the matter, picking up on her cues, asking questions and paying close attention to the answer. Wallpapering her self-esteem with “you’re so pretty”—even alongside “and strong and kind and you sure can draw well!”—doesn’t get at the heart of the issue.
For unlike kindness, you can’t cultivate beauty. (Rather, the things we do in adulthood to cultivate beauty—wearing makeup, dressing well, adopting certain gestures or methods of interaction that signal we wish to be seen under the light of prettiness—we find creepy and inappropriate in a child.) Hearing “you’re so pretty” every day becomes a pronouncement about something she has absolutely zero control over. And being praised on something you have no control over—or think you have no control over—can ultimately lead to a vortex of self-doubt. I’m thinking here of intellectually advanced children who don’t respond well to challenge because they see effort as a sign that they’re not really as intelligent as everyone (including themselves) presumes them to be. It’s not exactly parallel—we hardly want to encourage girls to start putting effort into beauty, though we don’t want them to neglect self-care—but the principle is the same: Being praised for something you can’t help can feel hollow or even confusing.
Certainly, much of the time we’re tempted to tell little girls that they’re pretty, it’s not because of their classic bone structure; it’s because they are making an effort—wearing a pretty dress or ribbons in their hair or doing something else to consciously raise their prettiness profile. And many people will argue that all little girls are pretty—I mean, they’re kids, and kids are cute, right? But surely I wasn’t the only one who understood in second grade that some girls fit the classic definition of pretty more than others.
I wasn’t one of those girls. In another post I’ll probably write up some long drawn-out essay about the trials of being the smart-but-chubby-and-not-pretty girl, but for now I’ll leave it at this: Until adolescence, I was not particularly bothered by not widely being considered pretty. I understood that the prettiest girl in the class—and it was clear to me, at age seven, who the prettiest girl in the class was—was such because she was fine-boned, with honey-blonde hair and blue eyes and a delicacy that chubby, weird girls like me could never attain. I understood that, I got it, and just assumed that prettiness was Jenny S’s destiny, just as mine was as the fast reader, the good speller, the one who always wanted to write on the chalkboard. That was how the world worked at age seven, and I didn’t covet her or anyone else’s beauty then. That would come later.
Here’s how I imagine things would have worked if my parents had made a consistent point of telling me how pretty I was: I would have thought it was nice. I would have pranced around in my blue ruffled Easter dress and thought I was pretty (okay, I did that anyway). I might have been better able to synthesize smart and pretty; I might have been somewhat better prepared for the enormous gap between the feminism of the Whitefield-Madrano household and the attitudes of society at large.
And I would have thought a helluva lot more about prettiness than I did, particularly about my relation to it. I mean, I already spent a decent amount of time thinking about appearance: I wanted to be a model (not because models were pretty, but because they got to make faces in front of the camera); I played with my grandmothers’ and aunts’ makeup kits anytime they’d let me; and, after all, I was secretly deeming Jenny S. the prettiest girl in the class. Despite my parents’ not introducing gendered play into the home (they made me buy my first Barbie with my own money, people), beauty was absolutely on my radar. Beauty was something I was observing as a value, and participating in as an activity. I was not participating in beauty as a value. That was a gift I returned to the universe with adolescence, and it’s a gift I may never get back.
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So what to do? How, without overstating its importance, do we responsibly lead our girls through the landmine of beauty so that they’re not left adrift with no guidance when they begin to enter the realm of performed femininity? How do we affirm our girls and their desire to be pretty without reinforcing the beauty standard—which, I might add, will likely be reinforced at every single turn for the rest of their lives? How do we value everything our girls bring to the table—their joys, their fears, their curiosities, their anxieties, their very selves, many of which might be filtered through prettiness—without either overvaluing beauty or denying its importance?
I’m not sure. I just know that we have a responsibility to them to listen. Rare is the girl who won’t bring her own thoughts on beauty to the table, and when that happens, we can ask questions. We can ask what she means when she says one doll is prettier than the other, or that only the pink pony can fly. We can sense her pride when she’s picked out her favorite dress and find ways to tap into that pride of self-care without lapsing into easy compliments. We can play with makeup along with her if that’s her preference, introducing silliness and fun, to model that beauty can be a place of joy, something she might remember fondly if it ever becomes to seem more like tyranny later on. And we can do all of that without placing the value of pretty upon her.
I should add that my perspective is one of someone who cares deeply about girls in the aggregate, and about a few girls in particular, but who hasn’t raised any myself. I have the luxury of being the family friend who gets to pop into a couple of girls’ lives and leave when time’s up, experiencing the joys of being with children and few of the trials. (Clever trick, eh?) So it’s easy for me to sit here from my child-free perch and proclaim that we should talk to children on their level about beauty, for when I’m with a child in afternoon-long spurts, being with her is the entirety of the activity and I can afford the attention it takes. I’m not trying to put dinner on the table, or working through my own exhaustion, or wiping snot from her nose, or changing her little brother's diaper. Parenting is a different matter, and with no intentions of ever becoming a parent myself, I’m not poised to speculate on how one can help a daughter over her lifetime develop a healthy relationship with appearance. It’s not a job I envy, and there are a zillion ways to do it well—including telling a daughter she’s pretty. Hell, maybe my insistence on this is borne from a buried resentment from not having heard it myself; I’ll never know.
What I do know is that in my limited fashion, I can offer a handful of girls in my life a safe haven from feeling like they are being examined—even positively—in any way. It’s my responsibility to offer them that space. And each parent or aunt or friend or babysitter knows the children in their lives better than some blogger yakking away in her living room; maybe the girl in your life needs to hear that she’s pretty more than she needs to engage in child-appropriate beauty talk. But I’d suggest that with creative effort, we can all offer them safe haven. I’d suggest that we should.