Almost HALF of little girls age three worry that they’re too fat. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Yet, I keep seeing these pushback articles from moms that are all, “But I love calling my daughter pretty, I’m just boosting her self esteem.” That if we don’t give our little girls appearance based compliments, when they hit middle school and get acne their self esteem will take a hit because we didn’t give tell them they’re beautiful enough for them to believe it. It’ll be our fault they didn’t form the necessary confidence to resist these tumultuous years.
I want to tell Ayla that she’s stunning, gorgeous, pretty, all the time, because she is most beautiful child I’ve ever seen. But, I think that the best thing I could ever do for her, is give her confidence in her abilities, the things that she can control — she can practice being coordinated, she can be curious and study and learn to be smart about the topics she’s interested in. In contrast, she cannot control how well she fits into the mold of what the patriarchy defines as pretty.
These pushbacks say that telling daughters they’re beautiful is a natural compliment to give little girls.
It is natural. It’s natural in the sense that that is what society conditions us to focus on in females — appearance.
So what kind of compliments can you give little girls, besides, “You’re cute,” “You’re beautiful” etc.?
My friend Nessa and I had this conversation because she said at weddings she sees flower girls and people telling them they look like pretty princesses so she wondered what she could say in order to not reinforce patriarchal stereotypes.
I suggested things like, “I love how curious you are playing with that ____,” or “Wow, you worked very hard to climb up onto that table by yourself! I’m impressed!”
People’s reactions to Ayla as a little girl (when she wears the occasional dress or pink outfit) are vastly different than they are when they think she’s a little boy (when I dress her in what I consider to be gender neutral clothes).
Brave! Strong! Curious! Independent! Fun! Funny! Clever! Silly! — when she’s a boy in their eyes.
Beautiful! Lovely! Sweet! Precious! Gorgeous! Beautiful! — when they know she’s a girl.
Every time a strangers tells Ayla she’s beautiful, I always respond, “Thank you, and this week she learned a lot of new words too, she’s incredible!” or something along those lines. Even though I know that no matter how hard I try, I can’t shelter her from outside influences. But I have to think that the way we talk to her and parent her makes a difference, otherwise why even bother?
When we call little girls “pretty,” we are reinforcing what society expects of them. By age 2, children have developed a gender identity and know that little boys and girls dress differently and supposedly do different things. I try as hard as I can to keep Ayla neutral when it comes to clothing and toys and language. Hopefully this will help her explore what she wants to do without feeling as much of a constraint of our expectations (little girls play with baby dolls and learn how to nurture, little girls play with play kitchens and learn how to be domestic, little girls play with Barbies and learn that they too should be physically attractive). We give little boys toys like legos and blocks, developing their spatial skills…and then when they’re tested a little later in life and boys have better cognitive skills we start falling into stereotype traps such as “men are naturally better at science and math.”
And on the flip side, when boys are only exposed to “masculine” toys like robots and trucks and power rangers, they are conditioned to believe that aggressive, risky, competitive behavior is what’s expected of them. The patriarchy hurts everybody and if I had a son I would absolutely be fighting so he could be free to be emotional, to cry, to play with both masculine and feminine toys too.
I’ve talked about this before as well, but we are FOUR TIMES more likely to tell little girls to be careful than we are to tell little boys. We are also more likely to assist little girls with physical play, whereas with little boys we’re more likely to explain them how to do something themselves.
I read that study when Ayla was very young and I’ve been putting it into practice on the daily with her at the park. It’s absolutely fascinating to see the results. Rather than yell out, “Be careful!” when she gets close to an edge I try to say something like, “Ayla, look to your left, it’s a long way down if you step off it,” in order to let her calculate out her risk taking and decide whether or not she does in fact, want to be more careful (and I obvs do not do this if she’s actually in physical danger). As a result, in my non-scientific study of Ayla and other children at the playground, she cries less when she falls and picks herself back up with no fuss, she started doing things like climbing up the stairs by herself or going down the slide by herself at a younger age. When she wants to try something new, she doesn’t look to me before trying it, she gradually test the waters herself in situations where I often see other children, both boys and girls, calling out for their parents. Hopefully Ayla is learning, little by little, to take risks.
I get it, I really do. Every day I’m battling “The Maternal Instinct Myth,” (a term I hate so strongly I’m writing a book about it) as I watch her sprint across the park by herself…her tiny little silhouette hurtling full speed towards big tree roots sticking out that could trip her, dogs that could bite her, gravel that could skin her knees. Inside I’m screaming, “Ayla watch out, Ayla don’t fall, Ayla BE CAREFUL!” because every bone in my body wants to protect her.
But, as the above linked NYT article points out, when we condition our little girls to constantly be careful, “Fear becomes a go-to feminine trait, something girls are expected to feel and express at will. By the time a girl reaches her tweens no one bats an eye when she screams at the sight of an insect.
When girls become women, this fear manifests as deference and timid decision making.”
Teaching women how to “lean in” starts from birth. We cannot ignore our physical differences with men, we cannot ignore that society treats us differently, expects them to be more physical, expects us to be more fearful. But we can counter this with our actions and also with our language. We can explain, “Yes, you’re pretty, but I’m really proud of you because you are also very strong and independent.”
In the same way that what people say to us as adults matters, and shapes who we think we are, you shape children’s narrative with their very words.
I let Ayla climb up onto the big girl swing, even though I know she’ll fall right off of it, because she wants to try by herself and I don’t want to discourage that. We let Ayla play in her room by herself where we can’t see her, without checking up on her every two minutes, because it’s human nature to long for independence and have your own space. We want her to feel comfortable by herself, not scared.
Dani’s family tells me all the time that she must’ve gotten her energy and independence from my side of the family. Genetics are probably also a factor, but surely that independence has also been cultivated by us, by the way we’ve shaped her narrative. As she runs across the open grass, away from where Dani and I are sitting, we smile at each other proudly and say, “She’s so independent,” though we have no way of knowing whether she’s that way because we’ve fostered it in her or because she was born to be wild. Probably a little of both.
I don’t think I have it all figured out. I’d like to find a way for her to learn independence and risk taking without constantly running around with big ugly shiners on her head. I’m terrifying of the day she’s old enough to ask me if she’s fat or to even know why that matters. I know one day she’ll discover Disney princesses and maybe be fascinated by them. I know I can’t keep her in a feminist bubble forever, where she’ll always be an equal peer of her male counterparts.
But for now, I’m doing the best I can to learn every single way I can counteract the patriarchy to help her grow strong enough to not be confined by it.
Anyways, I went off on tangents of about five deep child-rearing topics, but my whole point and what I originally wanted to start writing in this blog post is the following:
The next time you compliment a child, boy or girl, take a moment to think about the weight of your words. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, language matters.