How I Talk to Little Girls (And Why)

It popped up on my Facebook feed last summer once, twice, fifteen times before I started seeing it discussed on prominent blogs. Entire circles of social media lit up at once in a universal Aha! moment at the idea that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we compliment their beauty. Lisa Bloom’s article is fascinating and powerful (if you haven’t read it yet, it’s well worth three minutes of your time!), and I am grateful that voices like hers are being heard over the endless glittery din of beauty propaganda. I appreciate her point that commenting on a girl’s beauty disrespects her mind and sets her up for a lifetime of body image issues. However, I also disagree.

I grew up within an extreme religious subculture that required parents to squelch their parental instincts in favor of specific protocol. Our lifestyle encouraged education and Colonial-era homemaking skills while discouraging physical beauty, so most of the compliments I heard growing up fell under the category of accomplishments. My parents freely celebrated my brains and talents, but what I heard even more acutely was the silence when I’d model a new dress.

We didn’t have a television and I wasn’t allowed to look at magazine covers at the grocery store, but some innate girlish part of me had an idea of what beautiful looked like, and I knew it wasn’t me. Few things throughout my childhood hurt as badly as looking in the mirror each morning and feeling sure that if I were even the tiniest bit pretty, someone would have mentioned it to me. I despised my fair skin, my strawberry-blonde hair, and my gangly legs with their perpetually skinned knees, and I absolutely loathed the freckles splattered across my cheeks. In fact, I carried such a low view of my appearance with me to university that I had no response the first time a classmate told me I was beautiful. Clearly, the man was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. (Love you, dear!)

Self-esteem is an ongoing issue for me, but I determined early on not to pass my history of mirror-hate on to my two daughters. The first half of my strategy is by far the hardest: appreciating myself. Every disparaging comment I make about my figure, every gesture of disgust or embarrassment, every dismissal of compliments is soaked up immediately by my girls’ big blue eyes, and it’s scary as hell to remember that I am their introduction course to womanhood. My words about myself will affect what they see in the mirror for their entire lives, and you know what? That day when they survey their own stretch-marked mama bodies and feel like someone rearranged them without their consent and consider the merits of muu-muus and wonder where to even begin with the concealer, even then they will be radiantly beautiful. Which means I have to accept the possibility that I am too.

The other part of my strategy is less about reversing thought patterns and more about giving my instincts permission to love unabashedly. My girls are both artistic, imaginative, curious, and kind; they do brave things and learn from mistakes, and I let them know how much I admire them for it. They are also beautiful. It’s the truth, and my defense against mother-bias is that I’ve never met a little girl who wasn’t beautiful. Their innocence and mischief, their uninhibited smiles, the darling gaps of missing teeth, the residual glow from heaven’s handprint… pure beauty, yes?

I can’t keep such precious, transformative truth a secret, so I tell them. I talk with my daughters about books and brains, but I also let them know how their loveliness fills my eyes to overflowing. It’s just a comment here or there, nothing pre-meditated, but when their daddy smiles proud and tells them they’re beautiful, both six-year-old Natalie and four-year-old Sophie respond in delight: “I know!” There is no trace either of self-deprecation or of conceit (though I’m working with them on a more socially acceptable response) and not even a whisper of wishing they were different. They are beautiful, just as themselves, and they know it.

I follow the same philosophy when talking to the girls’ friends. Their appearances are never the focus of conversation, but I also don’t ignore their new haircuts or sparkling smiles or the outfits they cheerfully cobbled together themselves. I am all too aware of the images and ads that will dog them their whole lives about not being skinny or tan or fashionable enough, and I hope that my voice carries more than its share of weight when it tells them that they are enough. Even in first grade, they are inside-and-out beautiful, and I want them to know this to their core before marketing campaigns try to convince them otherwise.

I believe that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we ignore any part of who they are in an effort to control their priorities. I believe that our instinct to celebrate their loveliness in addition to their intelligence and courage and talent exists because we are meant to be holistic beings—soul, spirit, mind, and body. I believe that beauty and brains are in no way mutually exclusive and that we need to stop perpetuating the myth of Either-Or. I believe that our children need to hear every bit of the good we see in them and need to hear it often enough to start answering from a place too far within them for media onslaughts to touch…“I know!”

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  1. Oh, how I love this! I think you are absolutely correct. Doesn’t everyone (those with a Y chromosome included) like to be told that they are beautiful? I totally get that if that is the ONLY thing you say then you have a problem, but good gracious, I tell ALL THREE of my kids they are beautiful, all the time.

  2. I think it’s good to have a balance. Let your girls see you love yourself. Little girls WILL twirl and be pretty and need to hear that they’re beautiful, no matter who they are! Just today, I was poking through little girls’ dresses at the Gap (I get sucked over to that side; I tell myself it’s so I can snatch up any good deals for my niece) and there were SUCH lovely, child-appropriate dresses. Lucky little girls who get to wear them! I tend to compliment shoes on little girls – cute shoe love is universal! It’s very tempting to fall into the “you’re so cute” trap, especially here in the South, where cute and pretty are valued very highly.

  3. I love this SO much. SO much. I could not have said it any better.
    It’s national eating disorder awareness week – did you know that when you wrote this?
    How perfect….oh Bethany, thank you, thank you for writing.

  4. ab.so.lute.ly.

    i grew up in a sex-saturated environment, sexually abused, and every other kind of abused, and all i abhored my body. it has taken years and years to begin to get over that, but when i had my first daughter, i decided then and there it was time … because, like you, i knew that she would believe about herself what i believe about me. and i also firmly and unabashadly believe in complimenting and encouraging every part of who our children are – boys and girls … and people in general of all ages.

    and, to ignore the descriptions of physical appearance would be to knock out significant portions of the bible.

    when my first daughter was about 2 months old, my then-fil heard me tell her she was beautiful. he immediately and firmly stated, “Oh, NO. We can’t have any of *that*.” to which i equally, if not more fervently, stated, “Oh, YES, we can … and we WILL.” i became one of their least favorite people.

    but at 12 and 14, my daughters know that in their home, they are safe, secure, loved, beloved, and beautiful all over – inside and out. they are in middle school and have to fight through the onslought of peers and media that lie to them, but they have this foundation at home … and this safe place, at home … where they know know know they are loved, beloved, beautiful, and wanted, no.matter.what.

  5. i will also say this … as i have a special needs daughter, i teach my girls to appreciate and love people as they are. this means that when they had a doll whose arm broke off, we didn’t discard her. we kept her. and we valued that doll as much as the others. if a doll or toy became disfigured or dirty, we kept it. and when we see someone who is disfigured or different or disabled, we talk about how that doesn’t change who they are … and it doens’t chang how God made them.

    i also teach them truth … some people are mean and some are nice. we don’t lie about it. we call it as we see it. and i don’t lie about their behavior, either. if they’re disobedient or act out, i call it. i don’t demean them for it, but i certainly don’t ignore or elevate it or excuse it. we are not legalistic, but we do live in the turth. no more lies.


  7. Thank you Bethany. All I can remember about that night I graduated from college is that when I was ready to go, all full of nerves, and insecurity, my grandmother called me beautiful. We all need that, no matter how old we are.

  8. i’m calling this post beautiful. 🙂

  9. Really Great Writing Out Here RIGHT NOW. So good, and SO TRUE. I have found myself having to really watch the deprecating remarks I make about my own appearance because my kids get really upset…and you’re so true…if THEY are always beautiful, so am I. As my dad forever went on about: it’s a two-way street. Thanks for the timely and lovely reminder. 🙂

  10. Megsie – Yes, yes, boys too. Husbands, even. 🙂 I focused on girls mostly because I have two and I used to be one, and I know next to nothing about the male experience, but I love that you tell all three of your kiddos that they’re beautiful. (And they sure are!)

    Beka – Thanks!!! <–raising you an exclamation point

    Sam – Balance is incredibly important, you're right… but I love that you brought up how little girls are going to twirl and want to be beautiful no matter what we want them to think. I can't resist cute shoe comments either, but that's a great one to follow up with "Let's see how you dance in them!" (P.S. – When I think of cute shoes, I immediately think of all the darling pics you've posted of your own!)

    Steph – I had no idea it was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week; thank you for the head's up, your beautiful comment, and your beautiful self too.

    Ame – I'm so glad your daughters can grow up in that environment. I'm not looking forward to the day when mind are in middle school, but I know that time will be so much easier for them if they know they are "loved, beloved, beautiful, and wanted" (so well said!!) at home. I also love, love, LOVE that you keep broken or disfigured dolls; what an incredible lesson you're teaching your girls.

    Rachel – What a precious memory. My grandmother was also a big part of me being able to accept myself as pretty.

    Keli – ::grin::

    Liz – Oh Liz, you better believe you're beautiful. You have the most incredible smile, and I always ooh and ahh for awhile over your hair. Good for your kids for making you accept the truth. 🙂

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