‘Ooooh! You look GORGEOUS! Wow. That really suits you! You look really lovely in flowery stuff! So gorgeous!’
I said that to my 16-year-old son at the end of last term when he modelled his prom outfit for me – his older brother’s suit teamed with a new green flowery shirt he’d picked up for 50p at the charity shop.
Be honest, I bet you thought I was talking to my daughter…
I remembered that this week as I was reading a parenting article about reassuring girls that they are beautiful as they are. I tried to remember whether, throughout their childhoods, I have complimented my three boys and one girl equally on their appearance, or whether I have fallen into the trap of placing more importance on this area on my daughter. I don’t think so, but then, I’m more aware of this stuff these days, so maybe my memory deceives me. The great thing about memory though is that you can use it to reinvent the past, so let’s leave it at that. Me? Blameless.
Anyway, the article made me uneasy. The daughter was saying ‘I hate my hair, I wish it was straight’ and the parent was saying ‘Oh but your hair is beautiful – curly wiry hair is beautiful too!’ (why do we always argue with our kids..?) and the daughter was getting really angry and insisting that her hair was rubbish. The proposed answer to this was to take every opportunity to reassure her that she was beautiful as she was.
Given the pressure on girls regarding their looks, it seems counter-productive to me to reinforce the importance of being beautiful at every turn. Being beautiful is a limiting stereotype for girls, and we don’t reinforce boy stereotypes do we? We don’t take every chance to reassure our boys ‘You are tough and strong and lack empathy enough as you are’.
The hidden message under too much insistence on one quality is ‘this is really important’ and ‘you need a lot of reassurance about it’. To put the importance of having straight hair in its place in the scheme of things, we could just accept that our daughter doesn’t like hers – we could say ‘Yeah? Don’t you..?’ and allow her to feel that way – it’s not a big deal having a bad hair day, and not liking your hair is not a huge problem to be fixed. If there are many more important issues in life, perhaps we should talk about those instead. It’s not that we should never tell our daughters they are beautiful – sometimes we just can’t help it! – just that whatever we focus on makes it sound like a really big deal.
The tyranny of being beautiful according to society’s standards and judgments, is that most of us will fail to achieve it. The constant reassurance to our daughters that they are beautiful as they are just serves to validate the importance society places on ‘beauty’ for women. Let’s empathise with our daughters when they are dissatisfied, but let’s also be slightly bored by the subject of physical appearance. Let’s believe that there are far more important qualities in a human being, assume that our daughters know that too, and treat them accordingly. In other words, as if beauty is not the most important thing about them.
Let’s instead take every opportunity to give them messages like ‘You rock! You are well tough! You go girl!’ and give them, through the words we use the most, a positive image of themselves which does not always include the quality of being beautiful.