“Pretty”

This video about being “Pretty” hit me so powerfully (note: there is one f-bomb at about the 3-minute mark):

When our daughter was still in utero, my spouse and I decided that we would never compliment her on her beauty.  We would compliment her on her skills, her wit, or anything else about her, but not tell her how beautiful she was.  That sounds odd, maybe even cruel–it wasn’t that we didn’t think she was the most gorgeous creature we’d ever seen.  But we knew that girls are already socialized to be only valued for their appearance that we wanted to send a counter-message in every way we could.

Now my daughter has hit the stage of her teen life where she is, in my unbiased opinion, simply stunning in a very healthy and natural way.  Her features and her figure conform to many standards of “prettiness,” and yet she seems completely unaware of this.  She is rather tomboy-ish in her hipster tshirts and hi-top cons.  When she dresses up for her MUN competitions she looks the perfect picture of the young diplomat that she aims to be.  She is pretty striking, pretty amazing, pretty brilliant, pretty motivated, pretty strong, pretty artistic.  And to me, she is pretty perfect.

I don’t know that there’s any perfect solution for helping the girls in our lives believe in their own intrinsic beauty, but I feel that we’ve all got to work harder at this.  I welcome your suggestions for what you do that makes you value your own beauty and/or how you instill this in your daughters/friends/sisters/mothers/etc.

Old Globe, Huntington Library

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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36 Responses

  1. Silver says:

    I tell my girls they are beautiful all the time, but I tell them that when they do something beautiful for each other, or dance, or do any of the things they enjoy doing. I try to teach them that beauty is just as much inside as out. And that “pretty” is what they are, not what they have to become.

    I hope it’s a good approach.

  2. Angie says:

    Wow. Her mom sounds pretty crazy.

    IMHO, physical beauty is a gift from God, just like intelligence, compassion, creativity, etc, etc. And just like His other gifts, physical beauty can be developed, over-emphasized, leaned too heavily upon, twisted, and enjoyed. The young woman experienced trauma in regards to her physical appearance – and she described this so powerfully!! – but this doesn’t mean that being pretty is a bad thing.

  3. Caroline says:

    I do tell my one year old daughter that she’s beautiful and perfect, but I intend to tone down the beautiful comments as she ages. Like you, Jana, I don’t want my daughter focusing too much on her physical appearance. I was struck one time when a friend pointed out that we should listen to how little girls vs. little boys are talked to at church by adults. Invariably, the girls are complimented on their physical appearance. The boys might also be sometimes, but they also get a lot more comments about strength and brains.

    I think my sense of the importance of physical beauty was warped as a teen, so much so that I actually got plastic surgery to remove a bump on my nose when I was 18. So I commend you, Jana, about being conscious of this problem.

  4. Girls aren’t oblivious to physical appearance just because it isn’t mentioned at home. Be warned that some girls will believe they are ugly, or at least wonder what is wrong with them, if their fathers never tell them they’re pretty. Those beliefs last a lifetime. I know this from personal experience.

    • TopHat says:

      I’ll attest to this. I remember the first time I remember a guy telling me I was beautiful. I was 17 and it was my first boyfriend and he was trying to see “how far I would go.” Maybe I’m too much of a thinker, but at the time I seriously thought, “Huh. Isn’t there an issue when the first guy to say you’re beautiful is trying to get some and you can’t remember your father saying that ever?”

      I do actively try not to focus too much on my daughter’s appearance (she’s gorgeous, by the way) when I compliment her, but I don’t leave it out altogether. I also try very hard to not be hard on my own body. Everyone says she looks exactly like me, and if she hears me complain about ____ she may wonder, “If I look like my mom and my mom’s ___ isn’t good enough, what does that say of me?” I know she might wonder that because I wondered that myself- everyone said I looked exactly like my mother.

  5. Jessawhy says:

    That was a pretty amazing poem. Thanks for sharing that, Jana.

    I’m moved by her intensity, but also frightened by it. I guess I’m still trying to gauge my reaction to her message.

    But as far as your daughter, it sounds like you’ve really helped her see who she can become. I wonder how much awareness she has of her beauty from school or other people in her life? Has she ever asked you why you don’t tell her she’s beautiful? I’m just curious if she somehow feels un-pretty without comments from her parents that she is.

    • Jana says:

      No she’s never asked us this. We compliment her all the time on various aspects of her behavior. I don’t think she’s ever noticed that we don’t compliment her on her looks. I’ll have to show her this post and see what she says in response…

      • Jana says:

        Last night I told her about this post and asked her if she thought I thought she was pretty. She said that I often compliment her on her clothes or some aspect of her appearance even if I don’t specifically say that she’s pretty (which is true). She also said that she knows I think she’s beautiful, and she thought if I were to say that to her a lot, it might make her think that she really wasn’t pretty–because I was ‘trying too hard.’ Overall my daughter seems so secure in who she is, that I don’t think beauty/prettiness is a major motivating factor for her.

  6. bgh says:

    (this is my first time ever commenting on here! congratulations for inspiring me to come out of the shadows)

    I’m not a mother yet but have occasionally thought about how I’ll handle this. I’m afraid that if I ignore commenting on physical beauty entirely then my daughter will become insecure and think that she’s not beautiful because she’ll still live in this world and be affected by societal standards. I’m afraid that plan could backfire and she would become even more obsessed. I’m wondering if there’s a way to let her know that yes, she is physically beautiful, but that’s not important and has nothing to do with her worth as a human being.

  7. Jana says:

    I should add: our decision not to compliment our daughter on her appearance came from our reading of _Things Will be Different for My Daughter_. We wanted very much to instill in her a sense of her potential and not just her beauty. Because we also had a son & could compare the way we treated him to the way we treated our daughter, it gave us motivation to want to socialize them similarly.

    Ardis: Your comment is interesting. My spouse spends a lot of time with our daughter and enjoys helping her to buy clothes and experiment with fashion. He also takes gorgeous photos of her. I think she knows that her father finds her beautiful, even if he doesn’t articulate it in that way. In my own experience with my father, I do think of some specific comments he made about my appearance that led me to think that he didn’t think I would be attractive to other men (this, mostly because of my disability and not so much my ‘prettiness.’) It’s quite possible that this was somewhat detrimental to my self-esteem in my teen years.

  8. Jana says:

    One more note: We often get comments from acquaintances about how my spouse will need to fend the boys off with a shotgun now that my daughter is hitting her teenage years. I hate these kinds of comments. They are offensive on so many levels I don’t even know how to react when people say this.

    How would you respond?

    • Craig says:

      I also find that mentality disturbing. More than once, people have been surprised that I’m not over-protective of my sister, and that I want her to have fulfilling, healthy, (and yes sexual) adult relationships. I find the sexism surrounding the treatment of women’s sexuality and appearance to be especially offensive. The idea that a father should “protect” his daughter from even the most casual or low-impact romantic encounter whilst encouraging his sons to do the opposite is pretty gross to me.

      I usually respond by saying that I don’t believe that women, including family members, need my protection, and that it is dehumanising of women to do so because it makes their (completely unimportant) status as virgin/non-virgin more important than their feelings, desires, and right to have equal, healthy relationships.

  9. dasunrisin says:

    I think this is the right way to raise a daughter. Way to go Jana!

  10. Jenne says:

    I was not expecting my reaction but it was like I heard something I’ve needed to hear for years when she said, “The word ‘pretty’ is unworthy of everything you will be and no child of mine will be contained in five letters. You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing but you will never be merely ‘pretty.’ ”

    That is the message I want my children to internalize and its one that I also need to reaffirm to myself. I’ve eschewed the things of beauty and fashion for a few years and I’m just now being able to reincorporate them as modes of creativity, art and appreciation. I’ve had to chance beauty’s meaning to help me apply it to appearances.

    In a way, I’m forcing myself to address this issue with my daughter because I named her “Beauty” the translation of Belle. For me the beauty I’m referring to in her name is the beauty of Yeates “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'” I sing to her of that beauty with the hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” and focus on the beauty of life, creation and existence.

  11. Anon (but not a creepy stalker!) says:

    Ardis,

    That makes me so sad. I think you are really quite beautiful, and not merely because “pretty is as pretty does”.

  12. Corktree says:

    Great post! I saw that video recently and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. There was definitely something wrong with the expectations that the mother put on “pretty” and I will be teaching my children to accept themselves as is, but I agree with the comments that I would never want my children to second guess their attractiveness because my husband and I never commented on their physical appearance. Even if they are not pretty by world standards when they grow up, they will be attractive to SOMEone, and I want them to be able to believe that is possible. I’ve also known women that hate their beauty for various reasons, and I think that is sad.

    I’d say it’s all in the emphasis that is put on the attribute. We have always told our daughters that they are beautiful to us to avoid any self esteem issues, but like Silver, we explain that most often it’s the things they do and how they treat each other and friends that makes them beautiful. I never say “pretty” because it has less depth than what “beauty” can hold. Of course, we also refer to our son as beautiful 😉 In addition I think I will give them more information as they grow about how the world views traditional beauty to help them understand the role it plays in how people treat each other.

    I remember when I first realized how important it is to speak deliberately and carefully with children. I read an article about the dangers of telling children they are “smart”, and how it’s better to praise them for specific things they do well because of hard work. I think this what made it hard for me to get help when I struggled with math because I was “smart”. Praising something that someone doesn’t have to work for sets the stage for arrogance, laziness, pride and a false sense of worth.

    But in a perfect world I think all women should be made to feel beautiful and desirable physically as well as capable and strong and attractive mentally.

  13. Sijbrich says:

    I really appreciated that video, for myself personally, as well as for my 16 month old daughter.
    I was never told I was pretty or beautiful. I had an average childhood, nothing abusive or anything, but with a big nose, plenty of acne, and a tall gangly body, it was no wonder my mom tried to get my older, prettier sister to convince me to wear more makeup. I was disappointed when my mother or brother were surprised by how good-looking a boy was that came to pick me up for a date, as if to say, “hmm, I didn’t think you could attract someone that handsome.”
    My daughter is beautiful, people really emphasize how dark and pretty her eyes are and in general how beautiful she is (my husband has quite a few “beautiful” genes going for him. My daughter looks more like him at this point in her life). Whether I like it or not, she may get these comments for a long time. I love others’ comments on this post about emphasizing other attributes and how that’s what really makes one beautiful. I find that when I feel overwhelming bouts of love and affection for her is when she smiles or laughs or does something amazing, not just because she looks pretty.
    Ugh. I could just ramble on and on, but I guess I just want to say I’m appreciative of this post.

  14. Becca says:

    I think if you’re not going to comment on a child’s physical attractiveness, the key is to also never comment on your own or others’ attractiveness. To do otherwise is to completely undercut your rationale.

    I grew up in a home where my appearance was rarely commented on. Maybe after getting my hair and makeup done and putting on a new dress for prom, or some similar once-a-year type of event. But my parents never talked about their own physical appearance or how others looked, so I grew up thinking that physical beauty was a non-issue. The message was definitely that there are much more important things to be worrying about.

    • Jana says:

      This makes a lot of sense to me, and I think this is generally how we speak about others, too. I might comment on a particular outfit that a friend is wearing or I might comment generally about someone’s hairstyle, but it’s not what we usually discuss about ourselves or our friends.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    The other day I saw on the morning news a story about how a group of girls in Texas had started to not wear makeup one day a week. They were interviewed on the show without makeup, and I really couldn’t tell that they weren’t wearing any (they were still pretty young). I thought it was a good start, but I wondered whether they were going to expand this to not wearing makeup at all.

    • Heather says:

      This was in our local paper, so I cut it out and left it on the counter, meaning to show it to our daughters (ages almost 14 and 10), but then forgot. The 10-year-old said: “Hey, Mom. That was really cool about the no make-up thing in that high school in Dallas.” And then, on a separate occasion, our 13-year-old said she had read it also–and thought it was cool. They’re not really in to make-up, boys, hair, fingernails, clothes, etc., but I was still surprised by their interest in it.

    • Jana says:

      I’ve encouraged my daughter to experiment with make-up, but she doesn’t want anything to do with it–not even lip gloss. That’s so strange to me because when I was in high school I wouldn’t have been caught outside my front door with makeup on. But I don’t wear makeup now, so maybe that’s where it comes from?

  16. ESO says:

    My mom tells the story of overhearing a mom of a young (not super cute) girl telling the child over and over how beautiful she was. My mom got the creeps from that kind of insistence and decided then and there not to do that to her kids. Sure enough, she raised 8 girls without telling us we were pretty/beautiful and guess what? We all grew up believing that we were not pretty/beautiful.

    Success? I don’t think so.

    I totally get the idea of what you guys are talking about. I too have read NurtureShock (and recommend it), which suggests parents compliment children on things kids have control over (like working hard, being kind, etc etc) rather than on inborn traits (like beauty and intelligence). But I don’t think I can explicitly ignore my children’s appearance.

    Like many biracial kids, my children are, quite frankly, strikingly beautiful. They are told that daily by strangers and friends/family alike. Sometimes I really bristle at that because of the ideas expressed in this thread. Sometimes I thank people for the compliment and follow it up with “and she’s also a great runner” or “and more importantly, a fantastic helper” or “you should see him put puzzles together–he’s a pro,” in an effort to round the child out for others (not just a pretty face) and most importantly, for my kids to hear that I value a variety of attributes.

    While I do not want to pile-on my kids with the gorgeous stuff, I also fear that if I never say anything, they will internalize the idea that the world finds them attractive and that I do not. That scares me for a number of reasons, but one is that, statistically speaking, biracial girls are the most likely to be sexually abused. I am sure there is a complicated picture about why those girls are so susceptible to that, but one may be that biracial children often feel unacceptable and that they don’t meet the standards of any community. Since one of those susceptible girls is my daughter, I want to ensure that she is confident in many areas, one of which being the way she looks.

    I love the point above that we need to talk to our children the way we talk to others and I also feel it is very important that I cultivate the same qualities in my boys as I do with my girls.

    • Jana says:

      ESO:

      My daughter is of mixed racial ethnicity, which is probably part of the reason that we had some concerns about emphasizing her appearance too much when she was young. We knew that her ‘exotic’ features would stand out a bit and attract attention. She attends a school with a kids who are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, which makes her seem less unusual.
      She just began studying under a professional artist (she’s quite gifted in that area), and within 2 months of working with her, the artist has asked to make our daughter a model for some major pieces that she’s working on. Our daughter is fine with it, but I am concerned–several of my extended family members were beauty queens and fashion models, and that’s not something that I’ve sought out for myself or my daughter.

  17. Stephanie says:

    I think I have the opposite philosophy with my daughter. I want to tell her she’s beautiful all the time so she believes it and internalizes it and won’t get hung up on it. But, I’ve changed a bit from when I first started parenting. I have very beautiful sons. I didn’t want to tell them they were good-looking because I didn’t want them to be conceited about it. But, now that my oldest is starting to get to an age where girls are starting to notice, he is really becoming rather enamored with this idea that girls find him handsome. He often jokes about how handsome he is, but I can tell that he really doesn’t quite believe it. He wants to, but he’s not sure. So, now I am trying to tell him all the time how handsome he is, along with the rest of my kids. It’s a fact. Let’s appreciate it and move on. I am afraid I might have just made their looks a bigger deal than I meant to.

  18. James says:

    My wife and I took a class together on human development in college and one of the few things I still remember was the teacher’s emphasis on this idea. I don’t remember for sure if the advice was “compliment on non-physical qualities at least equally” but the idea has stuck with me, and is something I try to follow.

    I don’t think complimenting on physical appearance or attributes is something I’d personally avoid completely (for reasons such as those Ardis articulated), but I’d much rather my daughter find self worth primarily based on her heart and mind than her physical appearance.

  19. mraynes says:

    “The word ‘pretty’ is unworthy of everything you will be and no child of mine will be contained in five letters. You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing but you will never be merely ‘pretty.’”

    This encapsulates everything I believe about my daughter. But I find myself torn because while I would never want her to feel that her worth is tied to her appearance, I do worry that her appearance will affect her self worth. My daughter is currently two and her dr. thinks it very likely that she will be close to six feet by the time she is CatGirl’s age. I fear that having such a distinctive physical characteristic at a vulnerable age will seriously affect her self-esteem and I don’t know any other way to circumvent this without stepping in as her parents and letting her know how beautiful she is to us. Luckily, this is something we don’t have to worry about for a while. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  20. rmarshan says:

    I think that not complimenting your daughters on something that is very obvious is like ignoring the elephant in the room. We do not live on a idealized world and if your child is pretty or ugly people will let her know. I am in the process of adopting a child and we decided that no matter how pretty or ugly she (or he) is we will tell her that she is gorgeous. Not only that, I will tell her that it doesn’t matter what others say about her appearance but what she thinks of it. Although my child’s self-stem will depend on a number of facts including her personality I will do my part to build it up. Of course, that does not mean we will focus only on beauty.
    There is enough negativity out there, the world will do its job of ignoring or tearing down my children. I for one will make sure they know who they are pretty, smart, skillful, whatever may be.

  21. Jana says:

    rmarshan:

    I’m not sure that you completely understood why I choose not to compliment my daughter on her looks. It’s precisely because that’s the way the world tends to judge women (especially, as ESO pointed out in a earlier comment, women of mixed race like my daughter)–and I want her to know that she’s so much more than a pretty face to me. I’ll let the world call her beauty as it will, and I’ll let her know what’s really important about who she is. Like I said earlier, I’m effusive with my compliments towards her, they are much more expansive than are typically directed towards girls.

    And, for me this isn’t just theory, we’ve been raising her this way for well over a decade. So far it’s working quite well 🙂

  22. kmillecam says:

    Jana, what a wonderful, thought-provoking post. I have two boys myself, but a lot of nieces. I find myself cringing at a lot of the comments made in the family towards them: they’re so pretty, they’re “all girl”, girly, they magically love pink and purple and princesses, boys and girls are just SO different, you don’t have to watch the girls so closely because they don’t run off as much, girls are so nurturing, girls are so talkative and silly, etc. The gender roles are alive and well, and they seem to have a life of their own. That is why I think a mindful approach like yours can make a huge difference to your daughter, who will get plenty of that from the world around her (like you said).

    I try to disagree with these “girl pronouncements” where I feel it’s appropriate, and give my nieces compliments based on who they are. I hope they know I am genuine.

  23. SilverRain says:

    mraynes—I’m nearly six feet tall, and have been since I was 15. While I have never been slender enough to be a model, it always helped to know that fashion models need to be at least 5’10”. My height has been problematic . . . still is on occasion, actually . . . but I’ve learned to stand tall, not slouch, and even wear heels.

    There’s a 40+ year old woman I work with who was a fashion model (and still looks drop-dead gorgeous, and is amazing on top of that) who is over 6 feet tall. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear flats.

    For what it’s worth.

    • Mraynes says:

      Thanks, SilverRain! We will teach our daughter to stand up tall and be proud of her height. Hopefully she’ll develop the self-confidence you and your friend have. I just remember being 13 and wishing I could get rid of my red hair because it made me feel so different. I can’t imagine what it will be like for my daughter to be 13, have red hair and be taller than all of her classmates. 🙂

      • Jana says:

        The women in my family are all quite tall (I’m the shortest at 5’9″). Tall is so striking and strong–I can’t wait to see how your daughter grows into her height!

  24. CynthiaP says:

    “…and that’s not something that I’ve sought out for myself or my daughter.”

    Isn’t part of this post (and the poem) about not letting parents dictate what they have “sought out” for their children? Sounds a bit contradictory to me.

    • Jana says:

      I don’t think so–what I’m writing about is a very intentional desire to remove my daughter from the world that only values women for their beauty. It’s not about “not letting parents dictate what they have ‘sought out’ for their children,” although I could imagine a post being written that way using the same video clip.

      I don’t think the world of modeling and beauty pageants is healthy for girls’ self-esteem. Because I live near LA, we’ve had opportunities to be a part of that world and that’s not something I have ever desired for my children (son or daughter). If my daughter wanted to be a fashion model, I’d certainly take that into account–but she hasn’t and I’m not going to push her in that direction, either.

  25. nat kelly says:

    I’m late to the conversation, but I just wanted to chime in to say I LOVED that video, and I found the words of this post quite powerful. Thanks.

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