This past Christmas night, my wife, daughter, and I went visited some friends for dinner. When my daughter walked through the door resplendent in a new outfit from Santa, our host, Tom, exclaimed "You look beautiful, Heloise!" His partner, Kate, shushed him. "You're not supposed to tell little girls that they're pretty," she said, offering Eira and me an apologetic smile. "It gives them a complex."
As Heloise ran off to play with the other kids, my wife and I assured Tom and Kate that we had no problem with a friendly compliment on our daughter's appearance. But as she soon explained, like so many others, Kate had read and been influenced by one of the viral articles of 2011, Lisa Bloom's How to Talk to Little Girls. (According to Facebook, it was the 12th most-shared article of 2011). In her much-read piece, Bloom argues that the best way to inoculate little girls against poor body image is to focus on everything but their looks. Praise their intellects but not their prettiness, she urges, telling the story of her encounter with a friend's five year-old daughter, Maya. Bloom recounts spending an evening talking books with little Maya, forcing herself to stay away from any discussion of appearance.
Not once did we discuss clothes or hair or bodies or who was pretty. It's surprising how hard it is to stay away from those topics with little girls, but I'm stubborn.
Bloom suggests that this stubborn avoidance of "beauty talk" will constitute "one tiny bit of opposition to a culture that sends all the wrong messages to our girls. One tiny nudge towards valuing female brains." As a father to a daughter as well as someone who lectures and writes around body image, I'm all for pushing back against our society's toxic messages about women's bodies and their self-worth. But I'm not at all convinced that refusing to talk about fashion or beauty is the best answer.
For many years, I've offered a class at Pasadena City College called "Beauty and the Body in the Western Tradition." The course looks at the intersecting histories of fashion, faith, and body ideals from the classical era to the present. Every time I teach it, I hear from students who express excitement about being able to study beauty as an academic subject.
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Many explain that they were shamed or teased for having an interest in dress and hair when they were younger. A common theme: many very bright young women who were passionate about clothes report having had these interests belittled or mocked. They tell stories of being called "shallow" or "vain" for their interest in fashion. Caroline, one of the best students I've ever taught, told me that her high school math and English teachers were always surprised when she did well on tests or answered difficult questions. She said they saw her assiduous attention to her appearance (and the copies of Vogue that poked out of her bag) and dismissed her as a lightweight. "The message I got — from teachers even more than other students — was that smart girls don't care about clothes, and girls who care about clothes aren't smart. I said ‘fuck that.'" When Caroline told that story in class one day, she got vigorous nods of agreement. Her experience of being shamed for her interest in beauty is, as my students continually remind me, painfully common.
Lisa Bloom and my friend Kate make the same mistake of embracing a false dichotomy that says we can either talk to girls about beauty or talk to them about books, but not both. They believe that the only way to encourage young women's intellectual development is to do what Bloom admits is the very difficult work of totally avoiding anything that has to do with appearance in order to focus solely on the mind. (Though she doesn't mention sports, Bloom presumably would have less of a problem focusing on athletics — as long as the emphasis is on what girls' bodies do rather than how they look).
In a culture that reminds them at every turn that their primary value is in their looks, girls do need constant encouragement that their minds matter as well. It is vital to talk to girls about books, about politics, about art, about sports, about ideas. But girls also need help navigating the confusing messages they get about their bodies. Very few problems are solved by not talking about them. That's as true of girls' feelings about beauty as anything else.
There's a difference, of course, between never talking to girls about clothes or make-up (which sends the unhelpful message that such concerns are trivial, or evidence of superficiality) and actively praising little girls for being pretty. Bloom suggests we shouldn't do either; others, like Kate, worry more about the latter. Certainly, many adults do lavish attention on girls' looks. But that's only a problem when they don't compliment anything else. When girls are lauded for their other qualities, when they get support about their other interests, then attention for their appearance gets healthily integrated into the symphony of encouragement that all children need and deserve.
A day doesn't go by that I don't tell my daughter how beautiful she is. But I also praise her for the other things she does, and as she has grown more vocal, I engage her in conversation in a host of other topics. I read to Heloise every night — and each night, I help her pick out her outfit for the following day. My little girl loves clothes as well as books. And I want to encourage her in both passions without privileging either.
Obviously, I'm much more circumspect about complimenting my students' looks. But in my professional work, I am careful to emphasize that beauty and fashion are worthy areas of historical inquiry as well as personal fascination. Lisa Bloom calls on adult women to be role models to girls by talking about ideas, accomplishments, and favorite books. That's wonderful advice. But if clothes or hair turn out to be an area of mutual interest, it's vital to talk about those things too. Girls need role models who can share how to cope with the pressures of a looks-obsessed culture. And sometimes, they need role models who can show them that a passion for fashion isn't shallow, and that an interest in beauty can co-exist with a deep devotion to the life of the mind.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.
Image via Malysh Falko/Shutterstock.