The self esteem of our daughters may be statistically lower than at any other time in history. Women’s happiness and well being has been on the decline since the 1970s and it is possible that our current standards of beauty along with our sociological situation is to blame. This may be why, in recent years, I have had a number of women ask me in session whether they are messing up their daughters by telling them that they are pretty.
At first the question confused me. But no, they insisted, they had heard that telling a girl she’s beautiful is akin to sin, something you should never do or you might end up damaging them.
And then I heard it everywhere, this debate about whether telling girls, “You’re so beautiful!” is really a good thing. Will she grow up to think that her worth is based on her physical appearance?
“We don’t want that! Tell her she’s smart, not pretty!”
The argument usually ends with someone saying, “If we tell her to put all her energy on being pretty, if we push the idea that the physical matters, she’ll end up relying on that to get what she wants.”
AKA: Tell her she’s lovely and she’ll surely turn into a gold-digging whore.
That, or we think that if we tell her she’s beautiful she won’t focus on being smart.
AKA: Tell her she’s lovely and she’ll become a bimbo instead of an engineer. Fuck all that Toddlers in Tiaras bullshit. Without us pushing her to be smart, she’ll never aspire to it. Obviously.
Perhaps instead you have heard the argument that later damage and disappointment may occur if she sets her expectations too high based on an inflated sense of self that isn’t reflective of reality.
AKA: Tell her that she’s too pretty, and she’ll be crushed later when the world tells her she isn’t. Or she’ll end up a goddamn narcissist.
We could also argue that it is better to focus on those things a child does, putting forces squarely on elements we want to nurture. “I love how hard you worked at putting your hair into that ponytail,” as opposed to, “Your hair looks beautiful.” That way we bolster the actions leading up to it, giving them something to strive for.
AKA: If she thinks it just is, she will stop trying so hard and turn into a lazy asshole.
While I am an advocate for focusing on things children do to encourage a growth mindset and a sense of empowerment, there is no shame in telling a child that they are beautiful as well. Clearly, telling anyone that the most important thing is beauty has the potential to be damaging, as does putting all the focus on things someone “is” instead of things they can become. But most parents who give their child compliments of this nature balance it with exclamations praising intelligence or kindness or creativity, often in ways that encourage competence:
“I love how hard you worked on that picture! It’s awesome!”
“Thank you so much for apologizing to your brother, it was very kind.”
Some also argue that there exists a double standard of, “We don’t treat boys the same way!” This is true in many cases. But that is an easy fix that starts with us. My sons have beautiful eyes and I would be remiss if I did not alert them to this fact. It doesn’t mean that I will be changing their names to “The Long Dong Ranger” and “Johnson Freeballer” and pushing them into the Chippendale trade in the near future.
Why would we assume that this is what we are doing to our daughters? Give them some credit. Our girls are just as strong, just as resilient, just as smart. They are just as able to take a compliment and understand that, while we are complimenting a physical attribute, this is not all there is to her.
Hell, I know I am awesome in ways besides my outward physique, but I like to hear that I look nice sometimes too. It’s not a crime. And if we want her to be able to take compliments well, we better show her that being complimented is something she is worthy of, whether we call her “smart” or “hard-working,” “funny” or “pretty”. Plus, we know we’ll be upset if she ends up with someone who refuses to tell her she’s beautiful regardless of his reasons. Because she fucking is. And she deserves to hear it, dammit.
And as much as we don’t want it to, beauty does matter. Our daughters will be bombarded with this notion, through triple-zero clothing sizes and photo-shopped ads. She will be forced to see idealized notions of what beauty is and find that she doesn’t fit into it, at least at some point.
We cannot make her not care about her appearance, just as no one else can make us not care about our stretch marks, our weight, our wrinkles. Telling her she’s pretty shows her that regardless of this “you’re not pretty enough” media pandering, there is someone who thinks she is beautiful. Reminding her that she is beautiful to you won’t condemn her to a life of prostitution, gold-digging bimbo-ness, or entitled laziness any more than telling our sons that they are beautiful encourages man whoring. For in a world where she will be reminded often of her shortcomings, a word here and there may help her to see herself the way you do, if only for a moment. For it is through our eyes that we hope our children can one day see themselves: as the beautiful, wonderful people we see in them, who are amazing and perfect just as they are. Our perspective will shape hers. And that perspective matters.
Let her see her beauty through your eyes. So that one day she will be able to see it through her own.
Related post: How Can I Make My Kid Happy?