Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Should We Praise Little Girls For Being Pretty?

 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.

*     *     * 

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.


  1. This is something I have thought about before. My niece is a "pretty" little girl and she knows it - it's all she ever hears from her mother, her grandma and (embarrassingly) her aunt. I cringe when I hear it too often in one day, but then it just comes out of our mouths so easily. You want to say something nice and encouraging, and letting her know she is in fact, pretty, is easy.

    I never really considered how "being praised for something you can’t help can feel hollow or even confusing" but I am sure it must be. I think back to my own girlhood and the details are foggy, but as far as I can recall I lived to hear things like "you are so pretty" and when I didn't hear them is when I felt like I was doing something wrong.

  2. Great follow up!

    I can also relate to your childhood: my first and only barbie was a gift, one my mom was *very* displeased with, and we actually walked right out of "Peter Pan" when Wendy had to stay home to clean while the Lost Boys got to go play. I also do not feel there was much thought process around pretty...

    I have to bring up this point, which came to my mind from reading Ms Bloom's piece as well: what about the boys? I mean, I get that the context here is this societal construct of "pretty" and what it means for girls, but there are certainly societal constructs that are just as constricting for boys, too (case in point: one of my books growing up was "William's Doll").

    Should we be expanding this discussion to think about not only the confines we put on children simply in how we interact with them, to also discuss how these things are SO gender-specific? We don't tell little boys they're pretty, when maybe sometimes they feel pretty (and no, INHO, that doesn't "make them gay"). Should we be more focused on, as you say, *listening* to both our boys and girls, encouraging them in things they are interested in and enjoy. Providing safe havens for all children to be themselves - even if those havens only last so long. For, in addition, perhaps some children will move forward with those havens, and make change because they are confident in who they are as children, to continue to be who they are through adolescence and into adulthood, regardless of what their peers say. Perhaps that journey is where change happens...

  3. I was intrigued by that article too, and included it in the #fashfem link round-up. I completely agree that we shouldn't praise (or criticise) children for things that are beyond their control, perhaps only things they do or have done. For example, my sister was always told she was beautiful, and I never was; on the other hand I was treated like the 'clever' one. As a result she's insecure about how intelligent she is, and I've always been conscious of my looks. It's a tightrope, actually - neither of us should have felt our worth came from either of those things, and we should have felt loved just because we were. (sorry, that turned into a bit of a confession time, didn't it?!)

  4. You make a great point about _engaging_ with girls to help them navigate beauty. Because then our responses to girls in our lives are tailored to what they individually need rather than one size fits all. I have twin 13 yr old nieces who I'm very close to. Not identical twins tho, so they look more like sisters and one sister has always been more into consciously 'doing' pretty and fitting in with 'the girls' than the other one who is more of a reader/soccer player. So I try to support them differently in encouraging how they value themselves - listening, talking to them, trying to see them for who they are and what they each need. Though of course I wish I could armor them against all the hurts of the world(!)all I can do is support their parents in giving them the tools to navigate for themselves. That who they are can come from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

  5. I'm glad you posted on this because I read Bloom's article as well, and as the mother of 2 little girls, considered all she said. I feel I have a different look at some of these things. Like you, I don't think talking about beauty should be ignored. On the contrary, I grew up believing I was the most beautiful girl ever. And it worked. I still have a lot of confidence about my looks, and I was able to navigate the teenage years believing I was an attractive person, because that's what my parents told me, despite outside messages. But I don't think they "praised" my beauty, I think they taught me that I'm beautiful just for being me. I remember singing "I Feel Pretty" with my mom in front of a mirror while wearing a swim cap (one of the least attractive inventions EVER!) and actually believing it. And so my message to my daughters is that they are always beautiful. They wake up and I say, "Good morning beautiful". I don't constantly talk about beauty, and I do my best to acknowledge their many non-physical gifts. In that regard, I agree with you about following their lead: If my older one takes care to put on a special dress or outfit, I might tell her she looks pretty or fancy or lovely, and if she presents me with a drawing, I tell her how creative it is, because that's what she's looking for, and that's praising her effort. Where I agree with Bloom is that the first comment to a little girl doesn't have to be about looks, and I love her anecdote about reading books. But beautiful is different. I don't look at it as praising something out of their control, more teaching them they are unconditionally beautiful, whether knee-deep in the sandbox in their jammies, or dolled-up in princess dress. I don't know if that's exactly the right approach, but it sure worked for me...

  6. I'm dashing off three comments in other tabs right now, so I just wanted to say that I like this. It reminds me of my dad, who never, ever commented on my looks (at least not in my hearing) but who very openly valued me for other qualities.

  7. I think this is a really interesting post, and I agree with it. Although prettiness was not prioritized when I was a small child, it was often noted. My mother is still more likely to, unsolicited, compliment me on appearance.

    It's an interesting mix of ideas. Maybe little girls should be complimented on appearance because they can't control it, because, simply, they're stuck with their appearances. Appearance plays too large of a role in society to completely discount it quite yet, although hopefully society will evolve to where it is valued far less. It's likeveryman middle school sleepover where one girl expresses shame in her weight, the most common response from her peers (at least that I've seen) is, "You're not fat!! But it wouldn't matter if you were or whatever. But you're not." I've heard girls say that it would matter, too, but this far more frequently.

    Since I too read the article you referenced I've been thinking about this topic a lot, and will probably write a post on it myself, but these are just my thoughts for now :)

  8. I have raised three daughters and the issues were different with each daughter. The youngest happened to contract chickenpox the week before first grade began. She started school with a few spotty pox still on her skin--the children were merciless and for years, I had to work to convince her she was beautiful. Of my three, she is likely most confident now. And a talented musician.

    Daughter #2 has a stout build. Enrolled her in gymnastics and emphasized fitness. Had to ban Cosmo junior from the household during the teen years, though fitness magazines were fine. She was a state competitor in middle-distance running and the long-jump.

    Daughter #3 in middle-school ate so many fatty foods, I grew concerned. The pediatrician explained to her mother that she needed these fats to get through puberty. Mother shut up. I have tried to let all three make the majority of their choices about presentation, because of course the standards change from generation to generation. Parents are NOT in total control of the messages they receive. The thing to always emphasize is good health.

  9. I don't agree with a focus being placed on appearance when complimenting children, especially young girls. We should focus on their intelligence, their sense of humour, their athleticism, their spelling, etc.

    I agree absolutely that it's time for a paradigm shift.

    But I believe every single child should be told they are beautiful, and their positive features should be complimented. As much as it sucks, the world is concerned with appearance and until you become an adult and start to discover different ideas of beauty, you have to wade through the murky waters of 'mainstream beauty'. Children should go into the world with the knowledge they are beautiful exactly as they are, and know that that's only one of a whole bunch of things which make them a wonderful human being.

  10. Cameo, it is indeed difficult. Because little girls are pretty! And then there is the complicating factor of remembering what it was like to want to hear it and not getting that temporary validation. My parents were good about praising the effort that went into looking nice--like praising me for having selected a nice outfit or styled my hair well or whatever, so that certainly helped. I think there can as easily be shame about the effort we put into beauty and I don't think we should stay silent when it's clear a child has put in that effort--because, yes, it can so easily veer into feeling like you've done something wrong, when of course you hadn't.

    Women Are From Mars, I've had to confront some of my own sexism on this. A friend of mine told me that she tells her son every morning how handsome he is, and that didn't bother me as much, even though the root problem is the same--praising a kid for something they can't help. (He's also a toddler, which I think is different than even a slightly older child, but I digress.) I think you're spot-on about just listening to the individual child and finding their needs from there. (I'm remembering my parents' attempt to show my brother and me that chores weren't gendered, leading to my mother mowing the lawn even though she HATED doing it, whereas my dad is a gardener and loves being outside. They certainly weren't listening to their own selves, ha!)

    Mrs. Bossa, perfectly stated: "neither of us should have felt our worth came from either of those things, and we should have felt loved just because we were." This is part of why I'm similarly wary of overemphasizing intelligence. I think the push to alert girls to the power of intelligence is fantastic, and I also wonder what message it sends to girls who just plain old aren't that smart, but who have other attributes just as deserving as attention--creativity, intuition, empathy, athleticism, etc. I was smart and was constantly praised for it, which was a nice way to grow up but which led to some problems later on. (I was basically writing about myself with the bit on effort.)

    Lynn, the more I think about this the more I really think that responding individually is key. Complete abstinence from "you're so pretty" probably isn't for everyone, but neither is that the best blanket treatment. I love how you phrased this about supporting their parents in giving them the tools to navigate the world for themselves--that really is the best we can do.

  11. Catherine, I'm glad to read this because it's such a refreshing spin on what Bloom, Schwyzer, and myself are all getting at. There ARE ways to tell girls that they're pretty without it being about praise, and it seems like your parents hit it--do you happen to know if they were conscious about this, or if it was just how they were? In any case, it seems as though modeling confidence is probably the best gift you can give them, making "Good morning beautiful" almost an aside to that.

    Tori, thank you! As I've written in other comments, I have some conflicting feelings about compliments in general, but certainly feeling valued for our other qualities is essential to growing into the adults we'd like to be.

    Alexa, ha! Yes! That discussion of "You're not fat, but it wouldn't matter if you were! But you're not!" It's like, how do we manage to hit that balance? It's tricky, and it can easily seem insincere, when that's the opposite of the intended effect. I struggle with that very question on here sometimes, which probably comes through in my writing...

    Terri, excellent case studies of how different children need different sorts of encouragement and feedback. That's particularly interesting that your youngest needed the most convincing of her beauty, and that she's now the most confident--that was a precarious time, and perhaps the mix of extra attention at that crux and the very sort of attention provided a strong foundation for her. In any case, certainly health indeed must be the #1 thing to stress in this arena. (I'd put cleanliness at a close second. My mother always told me that Cinderella et al got the prince because she was "clean," not because she was beautiful. Ha!)

  12. Davinia, that's an interesting point about children needing to hear about their positive features. I hadn't really thought of that--certainly my parents did tell me that I had pretty hair, and my appearance-obsessed grandmother was always clear about my strong points (and my not-so-strong points, but I digress). And certainly my hair today is not something that gives me a lot of grief, though my weight certainly does (which was always what was the "not good enough" part). I'm retreating a tad from my original no-compliments stance based on what readers are telling me about their own experiences, and I think you're spot-on about needing to help children develop the tools to understand that there are different ideas of beauty.

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