It popped up on my Facebook feed last summer once, twice, fifteen times before I started seeing it discussed on prominent blogs. Entire circles of social media lit up at once in a universal Aha! moment at the idea that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we compliment their beauty. Lisa Bloom’s article is fascinating and powerful (if you haven’t read it yet, it’s well worth three minutes of your time!), and I am grateful that voices like hers are being heard over the endless glittery din of beauty propaganda. I appreciate her point that commenting on a girl’s beauty disrespects her mind and sets her up for a lifetime of body image issues. However, I also disagree.
I grew up within an extreme religious subculture that required parents to squelch their parental instincts in favor of specific protocol. Our lifestyle encouraged education and Colonial-era homemaking skills while discouraging physical beauty, so most of the compliments I heard growing up fell under the category of accomplishments. My parents freely celebrated my brains and talents, but what I heard even more acutely was the silence when I’d model a new dress.
We didn’t have a television and I wasn’t allowed to look at magazine covers at the grocery store, but some innate girlish part of me had an idea of what beautiful looked like, and I knew it wasn’t me. Few things throughout my childhood hurt as badly as looking in the mirror each morning and feeling sure that if I were even the tiniest bit pretty, someone would have mentioned it to me. I despised my fair skin, my strawberry-blonde hair, and my gangly legs with their perpetually skinned knees, and I absolutely loathed the freckles splattered across my cheeks. In fact, I carried such a low view of my appearance with me to university that I had no response the first time a classmate told me I was beautiful. Clearly, the man was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. (Love you, dear!)
Self-esteem is an ongoing issue for me, but I determined early on not to pass my history of mirror-hate on to my two daughters. The first half of my strategy is by far the hardest: appreciating myself. Every disparaging comment I make about my figure, every gesture of disgust or embarrassment, every dismissal of compliments is soaked up immediately by my girls’ big blue eyes, and it’s scary as hell to remember that I am their introduction course to womanhood. My words about myself will affect what they see in the mirror for their entire lives, and you know what? That day when they survey their own stretch-marked mama bodies and feel like someone rearranged them without their consent and consider the merits of muu-muus and wonder where to even begin with the concealer, even then they will be radiantly beautiful. Which means I have to accept the possibility that I am too.
The other part of my strategy is less about reversing thought patterns and more about giving my instincts permission to love unabashedly. My girls are both artistic, imaginative, curious, and kind; they do brave things and learn from mistakes, and I let them know how much I admire them for it. They are also beautiful. It’s the truth, and my defense against mother-bias is that I’ve never met a little girl who wasn’t beautiful. Their innocence and mischief, their uninhibited smiles, the darling gaps of missing teeth, the residual glow from heaven’s handprint… pure beauty, yes?
I can’t keep such precious, transformative truth a secret, so I tell them. I talk with my daughters about books and brains, but I also let them know how their loveliness fills my eyes to overflowing. It’s just a comment here or there, nothing pre-meditated, but when their daddy smiles proud and tells them they’re beautiful, both six-year-old Natalie and four-year-old Sophie respond in delight: “I know!” There is no trace either of self-deprecation or of conceit (though I’m working with them on a more socially acceptable response) and not even a whisper of wishing they were different. They are beautiful, just as themselves, and they know it.
I follow the same philosophy when talking to the girls’ friends. Their appearances are never the focus of conversation, but I also don’t ignore their new haircuts or sparkling smiles or the outfits they cheerfully cobbled together themselves. I am all too aware of the images and ads that will dog them their whole lives about not being skinny or tan or fashionable enough, and I hope that my voice carries more than its share of weight when it tells them that they are enough. Even in first grade, they are inside-and-out beautiful, and I want them to know this to their core before marketing campaigns try to convince them otherwise.
I believe that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we ignore any part of who they are in an effort to control their priorities. I believe that our instinct to celebrate their loveliness in addition to their intelligence and courage and talent exists because we are meant to be holistic beings—soul, spirit, mind, and body. I believe that beauty and brains are in no way mutually exclusive and that we need to stop perpetuating the myth of Either-Or. I believe that our children need to hear every bit of the good we see in them and need to hear it often enough to start answering from a place too far within them for media onslaughts to touch…“I know!”