Telling a little girl she's pretty seems like a harmless compliment. But this usually innocent observation can have long-term effects on a girl's relationship to her looks — should we refrain from making it at all?
That's the question Lisa Bloom, who previously alleged that talking about celebrities makes us stupid, poses in the Huffington Post. She writes about resisting her impulse to tell a friend's five-year-old daughter, "Maya, you're so cute! Look at you! Turn around and model that pretty ruffled gown, you gorgeous thing!" She stopped herself, she says, because,
Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What's missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.
Of course, whether women are really increasingly unhappy is an open question. But to some extent, little kids do look to adults to show them what's important — by telling girls they're pretty, we may be giving them the message that pretty is an important thing to be. And when adults — especially parents — comment on girls' looks, their words can have a lasting effect on self-image. Says Whitney,
I was always complimented in a way that sounded like "Some day you're gonna be pretty!" to me, anyway. I was definitely an awkward child, teen, and heck — still am awkward — but it always kind of left me longing for the days when I'd finally be deemed "pretty."
Dodai has a different take:
My mom called me pretty constantly. Pretty, gorgeous, beautiful, etc. and still does! [...] In a way it's like, um, these are your genes, I did NOTHING to create my own face, so you're not even really complimenting me!
Years ago, when I was in a very depressed place, it really annoyed me when my mom would say you look so beautiful, because I felt that it had nothing to do with how I felt inside, and was fairly useless as an asset. I even had a recurrent daydream about being burned with acid and living a life where my ideas and thoughts were all people could judge me on.
One problematic thing about calling someone pretty is that, ultimately, it doesn't mean all that much. It's not an accomplishment or a skill. It doesn't mean a kid will be successful, happy, fulfilled, or loved. Any child who thinks beauty is a guarantee of satisfaction in life will be at best disappointed, and at worst obsessed with an unattainable ideal. And a little girl who only gets compliments on something external she can't really control may undervalue those things about herself that she can influence. Maybe it's best for adults to acknowledge these things when they call girls pretty. We can still compliment a little girl who's twirling in her favorite dress — but only if we make sure she knows that while she may be pretty, that's far from the most important thing about her.
How To Talk To Little Girls [Huffington Post]
Image via Shutterstock.com