If there’s one problem our society has been tackling full-force the last few years, it is the one of “Real Beauty.” Everywhere I go, I hear talk about self-esteem, body image disorders, modesty/vanity, and other sub-topics within the Beauty Conversation. We often hear how tragic it is that our culture is “obsessed with physical appearance.” But I have to wonder:
Are Westerners really obsessed with beauty (any more than other people groups)? Or are we identifying problems that don’t exist…and, thereby, causing some?
Case Study: How to Talk to Little Girls
Here’s an excerpt from an article I discovered a few months ago.
“I always bite my tongue when I meet little girls, restraining myself from my first impulse, which is to tell them how darn cute/ pretty/ beautiful/ well-dressed/ well-manicured/ well-coiffed they are. [Even though] they are so darling, I want to burst when I see them… This week ABC news reported that nearly half of all three-to-six-year-old girls worry about being fat. …Fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s next top model than the Nobel Peace Prize.”
So let me summarize. Telling little girls they look adorable will damage them. The root of our problems with self-image (including full-blown psyche disorders) is too many compliments. The author actually said, “A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening…”
Are you kidding me?! No, she really believes this is a matter of life or death, and THAT’S the thing about our cultural dialog on beauty that I want to examine. This article is just one example of a message being shared relentlessly in our culture: be careful of the unintended consequences of talking to girls about their looks! We are positively unreasonable when it comes to how we “handle” appearance–as if our children are mental illness time bombs waiting to explode.
I have an idea. Just TELL little girls when they look cute, for Heaven’s Sake!
Why are we so prone to over-thinking everything related to girls and their self-esteem? Teachers, bloggers, and producers of children’s television are downright petrified they’re going to cause an eating disorder…
…by telling Susie, “You look adorable” on Sunday morning.
And they want to make sure mommies are sufficiently petrified as well.
No, I don’t think so.
First of all, when meeting little girls (and little boys and adults, too) looks ARE important. Our appearance makes the very first impression. Specifically, others notice our eyes, then our teeth, then the rest of our body. Why resist telling our daughters the truth? Strangers notice how we look. So, when going for a job interview, or dressing for a party, or meeting someone new, we want to look our best.
At the very least, we try not to smear ourselves in Crayola marker and Oreo cookie.
We must teach our daughters that appearance matters because it DOES. (People of Walmart, anyone? That’s not the kind of approach to style I want her to have.) And if Little Susie has to endure ten minutes sitting on Mommy’s lap while getting buttoned, tied, and strapped into a bow, the least you can do is let her know it paid off.
“You look very sweet today, Suz!”
She then smiles and quietly mumbles, “Thank you.”
You really want us to STOP DOING THAT???
But, Amanda, you must have missed the seriousness of this issue. Children are worrying about being fat! Girls are being diagnosed with anorexia at a younger and younger age! Surely it’s due to the cultural obsession with a little girl’s looks!
I respectfully but thoroughly disagree, on the basis that looks are not an “obsession” unique to American culture. In every place in the world, looks matter. If anything, what makes us unique is the weird way we feel BAD for wanting to be attractive. I don’t think ladies in India dare each other to go without Henna tattoos. Do tribal women in Africa (who usually shave their heads) wish they had the “strength” to grow out their hair and “love themselves” with a rat’s nest? …maybe so, if Westerners show up and tell them it’s wrong to accept the beauty standards set by your culture?…
But, I digress. Back to America.
In my opinion, the only way a stranger’s compliments will damage a little girl’s psyche is if the only social interaction she gets is with strangers, who know nothing about her other than the way she looks. When a girl doesn’t have a stable system of intimate relationships, THEN I could see how she would become unhealthily concerned with the only thing that an acquaintance uses to identify her.
The only thing that matters to a stranger is how you look; but that’s only bad if you don’t know anybody other than strangers.
As far as my preschool-age daughter is concerned, she spends about .00001% of her time being met and admired physically by friendly people at the store, and the rest of the time, she hears from ME. We talk about her appearance first thing in the morning—and I tell her honestly whether she needs her hair brushed or a different pair of shoes, etc.
Or I say, “You look cute!”
Then we move on with the rest of our day. We sing songs and run around outside. (I’ll point out if she gets dirty.) We read books, eat meals, and chat endlessly about all things big and small. And when it’s time to run errands, we discuss her physical appearance once more, because—no—she can’t go to library in her undies, and—yes—I insist on at least wiping the spaghetti sauce from the corner of her mouth. I tell her our looks convey a message when we’re meeting new people. And I don’t care to convey, “We don’t know how to use pants or wash cloths.”
I submit for your consideration that physical compliments do not harm our little girls nearly as much as the belief that “the village” is responsible for raising them. I mean, if we let hundreds of people speak into their lives—people who don’t know them intimately—then, of course, they’ll become obsessed with what strangers see. But, if they spend enough time surrounded by loving, balanced (and rational) criticism, the approval of strangers only serves as the icing on the cake.
As far as babies who wear lipstick and eyeliner, once again, that’s a parenting fail, people. That has nothing to do with getting complimented by cashiers and bank-tellers. How about we put the makeup up high on a shelf and spend more time modeling a healthy attitude with our little girls?
When I’m out in public with my daughter, go ahead and tell her she looks cute when you notice. It reinforces what I tell her at home. First impressions matter, and I want her to know when she makes a good one.
Don’t over think it! Give girls your honest opinion, and don’t worry about supposed long-term psychological effects. Seriously!
It’s my job and their father’s to make sure they understand that a stranger’s opinion isn’t the ONLY one that matters…
Leave me a comment! I can’t very well dialog by myself! 😉