Theresa loves phrases that start with “so.” “So nice,” she said when Audrey gave her one of the Little People from the nativity set to play with, or tonight when she gave a piece of her own broccoli to Jamie. “So funny,” she told her Grampy on Skype when he played peekaboo with her. When we went to the doctor’s on Saturday for her croupy cough, I told her the doctor would help her feel better. “So better,” she croaked.
The phrase that gave me pause was: “So pretty.”
She has said that while putting on bead necklaces, or touching her ponytail, or in reference to any one of a number of things that she has heard people around her refer to as “pretty.”
I want my girls to believe they are not just pretty, but beautiful. More than that, I want them to be strong, resilient, thoughtful, and all manner of positive attributes. It astonished me that she commented on the idea of a pleasing appearance at only 19 months.
I listen to how people talk to my children. The number of times people comment on the girls’ appearance greatly outweighs the number of comments on Jamie’s appearance.
I will not go into a diatribe about double standards and unreachable expectations that girls experience. My own experience is this: I loved Barbies. I wore only dresses for some period of my childhood. I loved the ribboned barrettes my mom made for me. I loved Disney.
Did all of this contribute to my never feeling “pretty” as I grew up? Did it tell me that my friends and acquaintances were smart and pretty, and therefore my smarts alone would not be enough to ever attract boys? Did it influence the part of me that never truly believed Alan when he called me “beautiful,” not till after we were married? Maybe. Maybe it was just my own neuroses.
I can hear some of my family members roll their eyes (oh, yes, I can hear eye rolls–I perfected them when I was thirteen). They think I over-analyze everything. They don’t think things marketed for little girls, like little t-shirts proclaiming “Spoiled Brat” in sparkles, send the wrong message.
Maybe there are women who feel in their core that they are beautiful, that social values of femininity don’t affect them. I have not met many of them. My closest friends and relatives, truly beautiful women, have all struggled with self-acceptance and insecurities.
I have worked hard to become a confident woman who loves her body and her being, even the flaws that I work to improve. I am still a sucker for fancy dresses. I still love Disney. I wear clothing that is stylish enough without being trendy, that fits me well and that I feel good in. I don’t wear make-up. I believe there is a balance to be struck.
Maybe it’s not possible to eliminate the body image issues or focus on appearance that every woman struggles with at some point. My girls are who they are; I can’t prevent every negative experience for them.
Still, I think there must be something we can do to promote confidence without getting narcissistic.
I googled “raising confident girls.” This Forbes Magazine blog was the first hit, and it talks about de-emphasizing appearance for female adult role models as well as for girls, as well as empowering girls athletically, academically, and emotionally.
I believe that it is more important to feel and be beautiful than it is to look pretty. I believe that being a confident female is being assertive without being aggressive, that we can be smart and savvy and speak our truth without being manipulative or bitchy. I believe girls can play at being the kind of princess who wears sparkles and pretty dresses while having adventures, not the kind of princess who embodies entitlement or who passively waits for a Prince Charming to make her life worthwhile.
So I try to refrain from telling the girls their clothing or hair is “pretty.” I tell all three of my kids they are strong, and brave, and smart, and hard-working, and thoughtful, and polite, and goofy. I try to help them be good problem-solvers, pro-active and resourceful and capable. I try to model confidence and positive self-talk (though I certainly do not always succeed).
I tell them they are beautiful because they are who they are. Later, they may not believe me, but I hope that some part of my parenting helps them come to this truth themselves.