How to Talk to Little Girls–A Response

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?

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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?
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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…

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Leave me a comment! I can’t very well dialog by myself!  😉

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5 thoughts on “How to Talk to Little Girls–A Response

  1. bethagrace

    I think these overreactions come from good intentions, but you’re right that they are overreactions. The truth is that we do have problems with eating disorders starting early and all that, and people are trying to figure out what to do about it. But as a little girl, I heard that I was cute all the time, and it did nothing but make me feel like I was… cute.

    I think it’s probably a combination of things. People who live in different cultures say it’s our media–not so much that we value beauty in women, because everyone does, but that it’s *everywhere*. Naked women are used to sell everything. “Homely” girls in the movies are actually quite pretty. And we do promote sexy, sexy, sexy.

    I listened to a woman talking the other day about how Cubans have so much confidence because they live in a communist culture. There aren’t all the bodies selling things, so they just grow up believing that they, normal people, are the epitome of sexy.

    It also is partially about our standards of beauty. I have a friend who travels back and forth between India. Over there, being fat is seen as attractive because it means you’re well cared for. She always feels so good when she comes back from America and her Indian friends tell her, “You look so nice and fat!” Girls in India are not getting anorexia.

    Ultimately, though, I think it comes from teaching girls that they are much more than their looks. And this is where I feel like the author is a little bit right (but takes it too far). Yes, first impressions are important. Dressing nice is good. Beauty is good. But beauty is just one small part of you. It’s not what makes you valuable. Being created in God’s image and loved by Him, that’s where your value comes from. So yes, compliment little girls for heavens sake. Just don’t make sure you praise them for other things, too.

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    1. mrsmcmommy Post author

      For clarity, I’d like to scrutinize your scrutiny of “our standards of beauty.” 😉

      If it’s wrong to value thinness, that’s one thing. But I don’t think it’s any more wrong for Americans to value thinness than for Cubans to value “curviness.” (Nor is it wrong to value bright white teeth or long necks or painted eyes, etc.) It’s just what people are attracted to, in different societies. But, people can damage themselves when pursuing ANY of those markers to the extreme.

      I agree wholeheartedly that girls need to know they’re worth more than their appearance. But, my concern is when bloggers imply it’s EVERYBODY’S job to make sure EVERY little girl gets it. I disagree. A stranger’s job is to make sure girls understand that flesh-colored leggings paired with a short shirt are no-nos. Somebody who doesn’t know her CAN’T compliment her skills and intelligence…and there’s no reason to feel guilt about it. (There’s also no reason to assume our standards of beauty are flawed or need changed. Besides being impossible to change what people find attractive, an unhealthy girl will take ANY standard too far.) I think a girl’s family and close friends are the ones who need to hammer home the fact that real value comes from God. Everybody else can just lighten up and let it out, when they feel the urge to squeal over a cutey. 🙂

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      1. bethagrace

        As for your first point, I think Rose’s response is good. That’s why I made note of the media’s obsession with the beauty ideal for women. If we just liked thin women, that wouldn’t be a problem, but the way we promote it is hideous. It’s not just thinness. It’s, like Rose said, that a woman’s looks are constantly under critique.

        Look at politics: A man is valued for his ideas and the laws he passes. A woman is valued for that–and whether or not she’s good looking. How many times have we heard people talk about Hillary Clinton’s pants suits? How many times has it been relevant to her ability to run the country?

        I agree with you that the ones to compliment little girls on things besides their looks will most likely be those closest to them–and we should make that diligent effort. But I don’t think there’s any harm in seeing if we’re just taking the low-hanging fruit. What if we compliment them on how sweetly they help their parents? How creatively they color in their kids’ menu? How well-behaved, in general, they are? I did say that being told I was cute just made me feel cute, but… I got a lot of compliments on other things, which made looks not the most important thing.

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  2. Rose

    “I respectfully but thoroughly disagree, on the basis that looks are not an “obsession” unique to American culture.” I agree that physical appearance is not an obsession unique to the US – just look at all the plastic surgery women in Asia get to change their facial features to look less ethnically Asian and more ethnically Caucasian(white). However, there *are* higher rates of eating disorders in the US, although rates are increasing internationally (1). How do you explain the higher rates of eating disorders in the US if you don’t think the standard of beauty is the cause? In other words, if our ideal of thinness itself isn’t the problem, then how do you explain why so many people (especially women) take it to an extreme?

    There is A LOT of research out there on body image/eating disorders in the U.S. I’m curious why you don’t reference any of that research in your post, since it is so relevant in forming an educated opinion on the issue. Here’s an example: research has found that media (magazines, TV, movies, etc.) comment on how boys/men look a lot less than on how girls/women look, and the rates of eating disorders correlate with that (2).

    (1) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1435625/
    (2) http://depts.washington.edu/thmedia/view.cgi?section=bodyimage&page=fastfacts

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