My daughters are beautiful.
I'm not being vain—I just believe this. And I hear it every time I leave the house from well-meaning strangers, so I know I'm not simply biased. My oldest has honey blonde curls and my youngest's long, dark lashes fringe deep blue, smiling eyes.
They're beautiful. And frankly, that's the least interesting thing about them. But based on the sheer number of comments they get, I know it's the attribute they hear about most often.
I'm a believer in the power of words. I think words shape us from a young age, and words said repeatedly, by people we trust, and at formative times in our lives have a profound and lasting impact. Some of us spend most of our lives undoing the damage of words we heard too often or we have told ourselves over decades. And the words my daughters hear every time—without fail—we're in public are some variation on the theme of, "Oh, sweetheart, you're so pretty!"
The fact is, I can't blame people. I've done it myself, even after I've problematized and rethought this common cultural interaction. It's knee-jerk and acceptable, and when I'm just trying to interact with the funny toddler in the check-out aisle, it probably won't get me far to ask if they've read the latest edition of The Atlantic. I get it. It's a conversation starter; a way to interact politely.
But it's not all that innocent, even with the best of intentions. When we talk about things to the exclusion of others, we signal that those things have value. Especially for little girls, this can be incredibly damaging. I recently saw a YouTube video—a light-hearted interview with a two-year-old on her birthday—where she was asked, "How do you stay so skinny? Tell us your secrets!" Hold up, what? A two-year-old? Skinny? Would they have asked a boy that? Nope. I can't count how many times I've heard (and stumbled into saying myself) comments like, "Look at those chunky baby thighs! Enjoy them now, honey, because later on in life it's not cute to have fat rolls!" Meanwhile, we're wondering how it's possible that kids as young as five struggle with body image issues.
The messages these comments send our girls are hurtful, damaging, and devastating. There is the argument that positive comments aren't damaging ("What's wrong with complimenting someone?"), but this isn't the whole picture. When a little girl only hears comments about her body, clothes, and looks, this is what she really hears.
"Your worth is tied to your appearance."
That's why I'm writing this. Maybe you, like me, have had to bite your tongue instead of focusing immediately (and exclusively) on a girls' outward appearance when you meet her or when greeting a friend's daughter. I'm known for getting tongue tied, because hey, I know what I don't want to say: now what do I say?
Next time you see a perky child you want to interact with, try these instead. (Bonus! They work for any kid, not just girls.)
10 Things to Say Instead of Commenting on Appearance
- Are you doing fun things with your family today?
- I see you're eating an orange lollipop. Do you like the color orange?
- Good job being a helper while your (mom/dad/grandma/grandpa, etc) shops for groceries! What's your favorite food?
- It's fun to play at the park, isn't it? Is the slide or the swing your favorite?
- Is this your baby/big sister/brother? I bet you're a good sister/brother to her/him!
- It's warm/cold today, isn't it? Did you wear your warm/cool clothes today? Tell me about them!
- Are you having a fun day?
- Do you like to read? What's your favorite book?
- What's your favorite movie?
- I saw you running/jumping/skipping/swinging/bouncing! Do you love to run/jump/skip/swing/bounce?
We can't change the whole culture right now. But I know you and I can change what we say to the kids we interact with. And while I'm at it, I'll share what my husband says to our girls at every bedtime (with variations most nights):
"I love your mind, I love your kindness, I love how you ask questions, I love how you played hard today. I love how you learn new things, and how you like to read books, and how you help around the house. I love everything about you!"
That's what our kids need to hear.