Have you read the recent blog post from Huffington Post called “How to Talk to Little Girls” by Lisa Bloom? (I recommend reading it if you haven’t yet.) In this post, Bloom expresses her discontent with the way adults frequently comment first on how pretty or cute a little girl is, rather than engaging her in real conversation about her other characteristics.
Photo credit: A. Gonzalez
Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.
Bloom makes some good points, and I’m glad that she’s starting this dialogue. Immediately pointing out a girl’s appearance could make her think that she needs to preen herself based on what society expects her to look like. However, I think she’s missing a few things:
The problem isn’t that women don’t have lives filled with meaning.
They do. The women (and men) I know lead rich, full lives regardless of financial means. Some of them are even lucky enough to have found partners who greatly value their thoughts and accomplishments in addition to their beauty. I know that the Pacific Northwest is pretty different than, say, Los Angeles as far as beauty culture is concerned, but that doesn’t mean that women everywhere aren’t able to fill their lives with meaning and accomplishment despite the constant messages we receive about whether or not we’re pretty enough.
To be a little hetero-focused for a minute: What is missing, sometimes, are men that are able to appreciate these women. The messages we get about beauty are as damaging to boys as they are to girls. Those boys grow up to have expectations of what they should aspire to become and who they should be attracted to. The problem isn’t that women everywhere are missing the point– the problem is that our culture is.
Many girls are rarely complimented on their looks.
I’m a fat woman and I was a fat little girl. You know what I didn’t hear? “You’re so pretty!” I didn’t hear it from adults, and I most certainly didn’t hear it from other kids. I was teased mercilessly for how I looked. I might have gotten a “you’re so cute” from adults, but pretty? No. That’s not the case for all fat girls, but I would wager that there are many a former fat kid who could give me an Amen! on this one. Same thing goes for tomboys. Fat girls, tomboys and otherwise a-typical girls need to be told they’re pretty. Don’t just tell them how smart they are, or what a great personality they have, or how funny they are. Tell them all of those things AND how pretty they are because…
Appearance IS the first thing we notice.
Shocking, right? We shouldn’t spend all of our time talking to young girls about how they look, but they are more perceptive than they get credit for. You don’t have to say “You look so pretty” for them to know that being pretty is valued in our culture. Maybe saying that out loud reinforces it, but there are plenty of times when that’s reinforced in more negative ways. For example:
- Mom or other women in their lives using self-deprecating language about how fat or ugly she looks/feels.
- Parents on constant diet-rollercoasters.
- Adults using negative/shaming language about food.
- Cartoon characters, television, books, magazines, dolls…
Side note: Not every little girl will respond to questions about books. I doubt the author was suggesting you should only talk to them about such things, but not every girl cares about books enough to carry on a conversation about them. Additionally, not caring about books doesn’t make her stupid. Maybe she prefers to play outside, or play dress-up, or draw, or perform experiments, or build things, or play video games. Don’t forget that girls can like anything boys can. I suggest asking questions about what they love instead.