Should We Tell Girls They Are Beautiful?

This question was sparked when I saw a Deseret News article a couple of months ago called “50 Rules for Dads of Daughters.”  Most of the suggestions seemed pretty innocuous, some veered toward saccharine, and some might be seen as traditionally father/son activities.

The one that made me sit back and think the most was this one: “Tell her she’s beautiful. Say it over and over again. Someday an animated movie or “beauty” magazine will try to convince her otherwise.”

What do you all think of that? I know I tell my 3 year old daughter she’s beautiful all the time. (I also tell my two sons they are as well.) But I’ve wondered several times if I should tamp down on that. I don’t want her growing up to think that beauty is what defines her. I’d rather her feel self-confident because of her good heart, her generosity, her creativity, her work ethic, her sense of humor, and her ingenuity. And I praise her for those things things as well. But the comments about beauty pop out just as often, and I am uncomfortable with the idea that I might be laying foundations for her to focus on beauty too much later in her life. On the other hand, does it wound a child to never hear a parent praise his/her appearance? 

One thing I have noticed about myself is that my comments on beauty are not just aimed at my daughter. I often tell other women that I like their shoes, their dress, their jewelry, that they look great, etc. I’ve come to realize that these comments are sometimes crutches. I might sincerely mean my compliment, but I fall into this discourse often with acquaintances because it’s an easy way to connect with someone — I don’t have to put too much thought into it, and it can easily get a brief conversation started. I suspect, however, that such discourse not only focuses an inappropriate amount of attention on looks, but that it also impedes deeper connection and conversation.

What are your discourse patterns when it comes to beauty? Do you tell girls they are beautiful, and are you comfortable doing so? Should we deliberately limit beauty comments?





Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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34 Responses

  1. Rachel says:

    Caroline, I think you are asking Very important questions. I do not have a perfect answer, but started thinking about these issues after reading an article called “How To Talk to Little Girls” ( The author went to a dinner party, where she came face to face with a friend’s child. She realized that it is often the first response, when meeting a young girl to tell her she is beautiful, or cute, or pretty. And the girl probably is. Which is one of the reasons why it comes so natural. The author consciously forced herself to say other words instead (or perhaps in addition), like, “What is your favorite book?” Now when I see my nieces I am more aware of what I say.

    I think it is perfectly fine, and may even be beneficial to tell children (or people) that we love that they are beautiful. I also think that you discovered the key. The trouble comes not when we praise their very real beauty, but when we ONLY praise their beauty. It is important that they know that we care a whole lot about kindness, learning, and other positive and meaningful attributes.

    As a final thought, I think it is equally, if not more important, for children’s sense of self worth if we set a positive example for them about our worth, including how we look. If they see us denigrating ourselves, they are more likely to do the same. One of my older sisters has told me that even as she is striving to reach a healthier weight, when her kids ask about her eating or exercise choices, she simply says, “I am trying to be healthy,” rather than, “I am trying to lose weight.”

  2. Jd says:

    I’ve been thinking alot about this, as my girls are now in Kindergarten and first grade. My kindergartener gets offended if someone is complimented in the room and she’s not, and she asks “Don’t I look stylish?” “Aren’t my eyes beautiful” after putting on dress ups. I try to find ones to bring up their behavior and their talents beyond looking cute. I like the message of the Beauty Redefined movement in Utah that says “You are capable of much more than being looked at.”

    At Priesthood session in conference this past October, President Monson said women need to be told they are beautiful. My ears perked up and I braced myself for something about our looks. Then I heard him go on to say “She needs to be told she is valued. She needs to be told she is worthwhile.” I hope that our children will hear that message over the message of beauty. It’s when we think that convey that beauty=value=worth is when we are in trouble.

  3. Mary says:

    My Mexican mother never told me I was beautiful – she constantly emphasized my ugliness. By the time I was 12, I thought anyone who looked at me was thinking, “Ugh!” I did not get over this until I was 19, at BYU, when my roommates did some serious intervention. They entered me in the Miss Heritage Halls contest in spite of my protests. When I won, they managed to finally convince me I was pretty. In my mother’s defense, I had my German father’s fair coloring and Mom experienced severe discrimination all her life. We would make a good study subject.

    On the other hand, my father called me the Educated Idiot. A high school dropout, my intellectual attainments seemed to gnaw at his soul. As I was female, and already worthless, my abilities were useless anomalies.

    What do I think? I think we should engage our children – all children – in worthwhile conversations. We should be intrigued by their interests, enjoy their enthusiasms, and praise their accomplishments, their bents, their beauty and intellects and gifts. I am so glad that my own eight children are secure, interesting adults, unafraid of both attainment and failure. Just love them!

    • EmilyCC says:

      Mary, I would love to read more about your experience. Do you know our next deadline for personal essays for Exponent II is January 15th? You’ve got a great start in this comment.

      Just sayin’…

  4. Suzette Smith says:

    I think it’s OK to tell kids – and strangers – and friends that they are beautiful and/or they look nice. But I don’t think it should be the only (or even the first) thing we tell them.

    Most of the people (kids included) that I meet, I think are beautiful because I think people are beautiful. And I think people are interesting and complex and talented. I like pointing out as many attributes as I can.

    For me, the most important thing, is seeing a whole person and recognizing a whole person – including physical beauty.

  5. TopHat says:

    I try to tell my daughter (and son) when they are being brave or strong as well as beautiful.

    Slightly off-topic, I’ve started telling my children that I’m beautiful after reading this post:

    At the moment my 4 year old relates “beautiful” with “pretty shoes” so a couple of times she’s looked at my feet and told me that I’m not wearing any shoes. I just smile and say I’m beautiful without shoes.

  6. Miss Rissa says:

    I dont know if there’s a “right” answer to this (I’d say No) but I have to say that I can recall two or three specific times when I was in my most awkward pre teen and teen years when women I looked up to told me out of the blue that I was beautiful. They will never know how much that meant to me; how i lived off that compliment for weeks and months after. Heck, its 15 years later and i can remember every single detail leading up to each moment and the way i felt when they said it. My intense gratitude and relief and the love i already had for these women rolemodels growing. My mother and father always emphasized the good qualities they saw in me (a kind heart, a valiant spirit) AND they also always told me I was beautiful. I needed both. I was insecure and shy and always my harshest critic, but i knew they were sincere. I think any teenager will soak up any compliment like dry soil soaks up water- they need to hear it! I don’t think the harm outweighs the good in telling someone they are beautiful.

  7. Richard_K says:

    In order to understand what it means to a woman to be told she is beautiful, I asked my wife the following hypothetical question:

    “Suppose that instead of falling in love and getting married, I had ended our relationship early, after only a few dates, just as you were really getting to like me. Also suppose that I was rather candid about the reason, although in no was cavalier. The reason I broke it off between us was one of the following options. My question is: Which option would have stung more?”

    A. You are beautiful, smart, fun, energetic and honest, but have a weak testimony.

    B. You are beautiful, smart, fun, energetic and faithful, but a shady character.

    C. You are beautiful, smart, fun, honest and faithful, but disinterested in physical activity.

    D. You are beautiful, smart, energetic, honest and faithful, but shy.

    E. You are beautiful, fun, energetic, honest and faithful, but dull.

    F. You are smart, fun, energetic, honest and faithful, but unattractive.

    My wife winced when I offered option ‘F.’ She said that when it comes to her mental aptitude, having finished graduate school offers a reality check against my hyothetical assessment. As for her social proficiency, she can tell well enough without me whether she’s the life of the party or the wallflower. She can log her runs and chart her deadlifts to demonstrate her physical prowess, while her conscience warns her agaist threats to her integrity and spirituality. However, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the tighter our bond and the deeper our connection, the more it matters to her that she is beautiful to me, and that she hear me say it to her often.

    • Emily U says:

      This is interesting. It reminds me of a friend’s advice to the newly married – it is that you will be a mirror to your spouse, and vice versa. When they see good things reflected back to them, they’ll think good things about themselves. So make sure you show your spouse what’s good about them. She means the advice to include everything, not just physical appearance. Obviously it’s good to have our own inner confidence about our worth, but it sure helps to have someone we love tell us about the good they see in us. I think you’re right that physical beauty is a special case where it really matters what the people closest to us think.

      • Richard_K says:

        I agree, women should be complimented on more than JUST their physical appearance. In fact, my wife appreciates being told she is smart, fun, energetic, honest and faithful, as well. The point of my comment was more about the importance of being beautiful, and not the unimportance of other qualities.

      • Emily U says:

        I got that – it was a very nice comment. I agree it would make an interesting poll!

    • DefyGravity says:

      That is interesting. I winced at E. I feel like that would make an interesting poll…

      • Richard_K says:

        Oh, yes. Having broader polling data could only help us understand this question better. Would Exponent consider polling readers on the options I noted, or even on a more robust list of options?

  8. SecretSister says:

    This has been something I have wanted to discuss with feminist friends for a while, but didn’t know how to bring it up.

    I am the primary care-giver to a girl who was given to me when she was 3. As she was being handed to me, the former primary carers (both a male and female who the child thought were her parents) told me me she had a weird shaped head, ugly hair that “you can’t do anything but chop it off!” This was said as they man-handeled the child’s head and pulled at her hair, saying they didn’t know how to ever help he be attractive, as if to apologise for giving me such a malformed child.

    I swear on all things Holy and at the risk of eternal damnation, this girl BEAUTIFUL.

    I immediatly made an effort to say things like, “what a beautiful shaped forehead you have!” and “look at how beautiful your ears and eyes are formed” and ‘I love every single stand of hair on your head! I will never cut your hair because it is too beautiful– if you want a haircut, you can get one, but only you get to choose! Not me!”

    My compliments are not all about her physicality (which is in no way deformed), but a large chunk are. I will probably pull back one day. But for now, I want her to know that she is beautiful– if only to me. (though everyone I know says she is beautiful too). Am I wrong? I don’t know. I really don’t know how to do better right now.

  9. Jenn says:

    I think it is ok to talk about girl’s being beautiful, so long as it isn’t the only thing you focus on. I try to vary my compliments between beautiful, smart, brave, kind…

  10. Diane says:

    I’ve been thinking about this lately, when I was younger and still living at home with my parents, I remember sitting on the floor and watching the Miss America Pageant with my dad. My dad told me he thought I was beautiful and he was going to enter me into the contest one day. My mother happened to be in the kitchen and she yelled at him to not tell me that. To this day, I’m not really sure what that was about.

    I deal with this issue everyday on a practical level, oddly enough not with myself, but with my dog Beau. Beau is a Shetland Sheepdog mix( think Lassie), a rescue, and when I first brought him home. He was not much to look at. But, lately, people passing by have a very visceral reaction to him, “He’s gorgeous”, some say,”Oh!, My, he’s beautiful,” Don’t get me wrong, I think he is beautiful and he is gorgeous(I am his momma after all). My reply to these people more often than not is you know, Cute dogs, are like cute people, they work it. I don’t mean that to be derogatory. Nor am I comparing peoples daughters to an animal. But, sometimes, I see the behavior of are people reacting to a dogs or persons beauty, or are they reacting to the personality of my dog, or someones personality, or maybe a combination of both

  11. Lioness says:

    Making compliments on the physical attributes of girls and boys is important. The physical image becomes important to children at an early age and we cannot ignore it. I notice how people in general pay compliments to girls and boys and when they use the term “beautiful”. With girls, they mention it when they make a compliment about some physical attribute or attire. With boys, people usually compliment how strong they are or smart. This is ok. However, my intuition tells me that it should not stop here. We need to use the term “beautiful” when girls and boys show integrity, intelligence, courage and such. We have to make sure that children do not define themselves narrowly and incorrectly. They all have the need to feel and be beautiful. Adults do too. We just have to make sure we use the right definition for the term. Beautiful inside out. This is the best foundation, I think.

    At different times, children focus only on certain attributes such as “Am I tall enough?” “Am I pretty?” “Am I smart?”. It is important not to only say yes but to involve them in activities where they find out that answer for themselves. They have to learn to answer “yes” even when many might say “no”. This is not easy and it is a journey. But we, as the care takers, have to make sure we appreciate ourselves first and use the right definition of “beautiful” on ourselves and others. Children mimic what parents do and things will fall into their place without too much work.

  12. One of the things I’ve tried to do to build up my wife over the last 10 years we’ve been married is to tell her that she is beautiful. I still get the roll-the-eyes, you’re-just-saying-that-but-it’s-not-true reaction, but I’m hoping it’ll get through. Would be easier if her mother wasn’t still telling her most days that she’s fat (which is is definetly not) or that somethign she’s done or not done makes her look not-pretty.

    I know there’s a risk of girls starting to think that beauty is the only good thing about them and getting conceited, but in my experience the risk is very low. I’ve yet to meet a woman who likes everything about her body, and I hope that the occasional sincere compliment from a stranger in passing can do something to counteract both the negative signals from without as well as those from within.

    Yes, women and girls should be helped to find all of their good aspects, but with beauty being such an easy thing to see at first glance, it is the easiest to build up and break down. One random commercial telling you you are fat can’t be counteracted by weeks of being told you aren’t.

  13. Starfoxy says:

    I take a kind of different approach. If you think someone is pretty, or beautiful tell them that all you want.
    My big concern is what you say when someone tells a person you care about that they aren’t pretty. This is the insult most likely to be flung at a girl when someone doesn’t like what she does or says (witness the entire discussion boards about how ugly feminists are…). Countering that insult with “but you *are* pretty!” I think reinforces the framing inherent in the insult: you aren’t pretty therefore I don’t have to listen to you/pay attention to you/respect you. I think the best way to counter that sort of insult is to teach the girls to think to themselves “So what? Who cares if *you* think I’m ugly? That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

  14. Angie says:

    Thanks to all the commenters – very interesting ideas and perspectives.

    I think physical attractiveness is a gift from God, just like keen intellect, creativity, people skills, empathy, contentment, passion, and all other gifts from God. Like all gifts and talents, physical attractiveness can be powerful, for good or evil. If someone is blessed with physical attractiveness, she/he will have different life experiences from someone who is not. The parent of a physically attractive child can help him/her navigate the particular highs and lows.

    Also, just like other gifts, physical attractiveness can be learned, buried, manipulated, misunderstood, a source of happiness, and/or a burden. Let’s say you have a talent for music, art, or writing. The product of your talent may be criticized; you may feel great pleasure while using your gift; people may love you for your gift; people may hate you for your gift; you may have trials because of your gift; you may have moments of praise for your gift… I think physical attractiveness is like this, too.

  15. TopHat says:

    Oh, and something I remembered after my previous comment:

    I remember the first time a guy told me I was beautiful. I was 17 and alone with a boy who I like, but he also was trying to push our relationship further physically. When he said it, I immediately felt some dissonance and thought in my head, “The first time a guy has ever said I’m beautiful, he was trying to feel me up. That’s not right. I don’t want my kids to have this same experience.” I was strangely reflective in that moment…

    I don’t remember either of my parents saying I was beautiful growing up, but did get comments when I first hit 100 pounds in junior high and things like “You could never work at Hooter’s.” I do tell my kids they are beautiful and like in my comment above, I also add that I’m beautiful and so is their dad. I try to use the same adjectives for both my daughter and son so as to balance “beautiful” and “strong” and “smart” and “clever” and “brave” between the sexes.

  16. X2 Dora says:

    My parents both told me that they thought I was beautiful, as I was growing up. They still tell me.

    However, I do think that it’s important to compliment children (and people in general) on things that they “do,” rather than things that they “are.” I wrote about this after reading an article, that I blogged about here

    Since then I try to compliment my nephews on things they do. For example: I like the detail you put in to that drawing, or I like how you styled your hair, or I like how kind you are to your brother.

    FWIW, I do compliment men and women on their appearance, but I try to find other things about them to appreciate and remark on …

  17. Caroline says:

    Thank you for all these comments and links. I have read each one with interest. It sounds like most of you favor a moderate approach, thinking that’s it’s fine to comment on beauty if it’s mixed with positive messages about other aspects of the girl’s self.

    I suppose this is another way to frame the conversation: society tells girls that the way they look is important. Therefore, because they will inevitably judge themselves on this axis, it is helpful to tell them positive things about their looks. On the other hand, however, we potentially feed into society’s preoccupation with beauty and train our girls to focus on beauty by mentioning it when we praise them.

    It’s a hard issue, and which is the least damaging course is still up for debate in my mind. Though I have loved all of your insights on the topic.

  18. jks says:

    I rarely comment on my children’s looks. I have girl, boy, girl, boy. I absolutely know that what you comment on, harp on affects them. I honestly think appearance is less important than other characteristics. I will occasionally comment but usually do not. I never, ever say anything negative.
    I love that my 15 year old daughter has confidence and is not critical of her own appearance.
    I actually think that she would probably call herself pretty if asked her opinion. I also think she knows we think she is beautiful the way she also knows that we think she is funny and we think she is smart and we think she is wonderful.
    So……I think everyone who gushes about their daughter’s looks is making a mistake. Not a huge one, but a mistake.
    Thanks for the reminder. I will think about what I am commenting about to my third daughter. I don’t gush about her looks much, but I need to make sure I am complimenting her on what I think I should be like learning, trying, working, doing hard things, managing her emotions, caring about others, completing work, improving skills, good manners, not whining, etc.

  19. jks says:

    I should also say that in discussions with my older daughter I have talked to her about my views. That she is pretty but appearance is not the most important thing in the world. Also, that when you really care about someone you like to look at them. And that I know that Dad would love me even if I’d been horribly scarred in an accident.
    Occasionally I worry that my husband who tells me I’m beautiful all the time (and I believe him) in front of the kids is emphasizing my looks too much and they will get the wrong idea. But he also compliments other things about me.

  20. Kip says:

    I think it’s important to remember that physical appearance is subjective to many factors other than looks.

    When we call someone beautiful it’s based on all the things we know about them, their looks and their personality, because we see all of that when we see them. I think it’s important to teach that to children, that their beauty is more than just their outward appearence and that as children of loving heavenly parents we all have beauty to share.

    just my $.02

  21. Risa says:

    I am also of the opinion that my daughter is going to hear plenty of voices when she goes out into the world trying to convince her that she’s not enough, that telling her occasionally she is beautiful (as well as smart, funny, creative, capable, a good friend/sister/caretaker, loving, etc.) can only be a good thing. She can pick up any fashion magazine and find out she’s not skinny enough, tan enough, stylish enough, pretty enough, just so that she can be sold products she doesn’t need. She’s already been rejected at school for not having the right fill-in-the-blank (clothes, electronics, shoes, hairstyle, backpack). It’s very hard as a woman to fight all the cultural messages that try to make you ashamed of just being who you are. If there is going to be one person in this world who is going to tell her that she is just fine being who she is just as she is, it should be her mother. That goes for my sons as well as I feel the culture is becoming just as harsh and self-esteem damaging on boys as it is on girls.

    My mother used to tell me that I was as smart as I was beautiful, or as beautiful as I was smart, even as an adult. Now that she’s gone I don’t have that one person anymore who believed in me no matter what. I want to be that someone who believes in my daughter, and my sons, no matter what.

  22. sartawi says:

    I always tell my daughter she is beautiful. I say it over and over and over again, and I will always say it to her. However, it is not the only thing I say to her. When I tell her she is beautiful, I also tell her she is strong. I tell her she is amazing. I tell her she can do anything she sets her mind to. I tell her that much of beauty comes from how she treats others, and cares for others. “Beauty” is so much more than physical attractiveness. Beauty, in my opinion, is an all-encompassing characteristic. Many people don’t realize this, but I am determined to help my daughter realize her unique beauty as it pertains to all aspects of her life. So I vote for telling our daughters they are beautiful, aforementioned asterisks included, of course.

  23. BethSmash says:

    Quick question, how do people feel about compliments of something they own? For example, I will often tell people, “I really like your __(noun)__” earrings, sweater, shoes, tie, etc. Mostly I say it because I like the object I’ve pointed out – and also because I like it when people say, “Ooh, I like your earrings” to me. To put it in more context, I work in a service industry – so often these people are strangers who have asked me a question and I’ve helped them and then I’ll say that when I notice something cool about their outfit.

  24. Annie B. says:

    I think it depends on your definition of “beautiful”. I don’t think of it as purely superficial. In trying to put into words how I define beauty I found this quote: “Beauty is reality seen with the eyes of love”. So yeah, I tell my girls freely how beautiful I think they are, as well as my sisters and my mom and MIL. I tell my husband that I think he’s attractive frequently too, and I tell my brothers that they look nice, especially when I can tell they took care to dress all spiffy.

    I just realized I can’t remember a time I’ve told my dad that he looks nice. I think it might be because I know he doesn’t put a lot of value in looks, and I got the impression growing up that he thinks focusing on appearances is frivolous and vain (which often made me feel ashamed, as I love putting a little extra effort into making things beautiful). So I try to compliment him on his garden and his knowledge of gun maintenance, and his hard work around the house and on his vehicles, because I know he takes pride in those things.

  25. Bethany Smith says:

    I love these questions. My simple answer is to teach your child what beauty is. I study and teach art, and I believe that beauty and truth are connected. I believe that a good heart, a curious mind, and adventurous spirit are beautiful. I’m not sure how to go about this, but if you let your children (boys and girls) know that beauty refers to a variety of attributes, it will encourage them to find worth in truth and not solely appearance. I love when I hear someone describe a personality or an action, or any non-physical attribute as beautiful.

  1. December 9, 2012

    […] week, Caroline wrote a thoughtful post that asks the question, “Should we tell young girls that they are […]

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