I have to say I disagree with all those experts in magazines and on talk shows who say we shouldn’t tell our girls they’re beautiful, or those moms who warn, “Don’t tell my daughter she’s pretty!”
A very important word for me, particularly after my switch to the kindergarten program this year, is balance. Yes to play-based learning, and yes to exploring letters and sounds. Yes to student interest, and yes to teacher professional judgment. Don’t swing too far in one direction.
In this context, that means yes to telling girls that the inside is what counts, that their efforts and achievements in all other facets of life matter more than their looks, and yes to telling them that they’re beautiful.
You know what? I think I’m beautiful. I mean it still takes me 20 tries and a great filter to get a selfie that I’m willing to post publicly, but in the way that it matters, I’m content with my appearance.
By superficial standards I’m pretty average looking, and was so as a child as well (with a significant dip from 1991-1994 but we don’t need to talk about that). Based on magazine standards, I have tall, thin and white going for me (and there have been a couple of short-lived bonus-points blonde periods) but there are a lot of my physical features that wouldn’t make the cover of a magazine. If print magazines really still existed. (And no, I’m not going to tell you what I think those subpar features are!)
So why do I believe I’m beautiful? Because my parents always told me I was. They gave me compliments about specific features (looking back, I think they both made a conscious effort not to mention weight, mine or theirs, as I grew up), as well as general comments about how pretty I was. (One of my mom’s best friends always called me “pretty Katie” and I still have a soft spot for her.) They didn’t even blink an eye at horribly mismatched outfits or ridiculous hairstyles (though my dad has always made it clear that my natural hair colour is best). I knew that they thought I looked just right. (Mom even thought I looked good with a tight, brushed out perm…which is why it was my hairstyle of choice for many pivotal years. Wait, am I thanking her for this?)
Just to be clear, they were also appropriately critical (you know what I mean, mom!) and kept me in my place in many ways. It was not a house of constant, empty praise, and I loved earning my parents’ approval (I just used the past tense there as if somehow implying that has ended) for a huge range of reasons, somehow realizing that even though they consistently told me how beautiful I was, it mattered less than anything else.
Perhaps because I was blessed in other ways: academic success, involvement in drama and public speaking, an exceptional talent for athletics (ha ha; just put that in to see if anyone I went to school with – or, let’s be honest, anyone who’s ever met me – is reading), I didn’t think looks were the be-all-and-end-all of life. That didn’t mean I didn’t want to look good.
I tell my girls (currently ten and eight) all the right things we are told to say these days, especially to instill a growth mindset, praising effort over fixed qualities (you studied so hard vs. you’re so smart), and in our home school work and music are high priorities, and we greatly value our daughters’ independence, creativity and compassion. That said, I’m not ashamed to admit that I also tell them regularly how beautiful they are. Olivia with her big eyes and what I call her Angelina Jolie lips, Eva with her kissable cheeks and infectious smile. (I’m not excessive; I don’t compliment their clear skin or small waists – as adult women we know now what the years and hormones can do to some features.)
When discussing the accomplishments and talents of other women (and men) with my children, I’m also quick to point out a beautiful feature of someone who is black, Asian, red-haired, short, media-defined-plus-sized or in any other way different from my girls as well, to make sure that their definition of beauty remains as broad as possible.
While I often rolled my eyes as a child and threw out an accusing “You have to say that, you’re my parents!” I needed and wanted them to tell me I was beautiful, and as with many aspects of parenting, I am following their lead.
I don’t imagine that in our lifetimes first world humans will decide that outward appearance doesn’t matter. I do, however, think we are in the middle of a movement – and can propel forward that movement – which redefines what outward beauty is. And it’s not that it doesn’t matter, it’s just that everyone has it.
I promise if I teach your daughter, I will help shine light on the gifts she has, encourage her interests, and make her see the value of her efforts, both academic and social, to make her a better person and open up her world. But I warn you, I will also be telling her how beautiful she is on the inside…and the outside.