I just tucked my six and a half year old into bed. We were discussing her hair, which, depending on the weather, is either straight, curly, or somewhere in-between. She likes it either way and tonight we decided to use some products to emphasize the curls. She asked if I would help “bring them back” in the morning if somehow they disappeared while she was sleeping. She was so adorable in her red glasses and heart pajamas with her brown ringlets framing her face. I patted her head and said “goodnight, beautiful” before leaving her room.
And then I remembered, maybe I shouldn’t have said that. I have read so much about how we should talk to young girls and about what they hear when we do. In a culture where they are inundated with images of unrealistic beauty or pushed toward one gender or the other in the toy aisle, I believe the research that what we say matters. I’ve trained myself when talking to Julian and her friends to say a lot less about their clothes and appearance and ask a lot more about their interests like what they’re enjoying reading or what their summer plans include. I get why it’s necessary to be aware of what we say and how we say it. But does that mean I shouldn’t tell my daughter she is beautiful?
When I (or anybody else) makes a comment about her looks, Julian never really knows what to say. After all, she didn’t do anything to grow her thick, shiny hair or perfect nose so teaching her to say “thanks,” in response always felt funny. I wonder what she thinks when people tell her how pretty she is considering she can’t control her appearance. It must be really confusing for kids when people pay so much attention to how they look. And then I wonder that if they hear it enough they will start to expect it. Or worse, feel disappointed when they don’t.
I have a complicated relationship with “pretty.” I know being attractive shouldn’t matter, but I know that over the course of Julian’s life it will matter in so many ways including how she views herself. I know I’m not supposed to comment on her appearance so much but I also don’t want to ignore her looks entirely either because, frankly, nobody else will. I don’t want her to draw her self-esteem from what others think of her but I also know that it feels great to know someone likes the way you look (even if it is just your mom). And there is a good argument to be made that we should heap a whole lot of praise on how cute our little ones are now so by the time they are old enough to start comparing themselves to fashion magazines and billboard ads they will already have positive feelings about their bodies.
I shield Julian from so much media, mostly because I don’t want to give her the impression that girls and women are supposed to look a certain way -- and because so much of what is on television subconsciously promotes the idea that looks, particularly for women, matter much more than anything else. And yet, when I look at her, all I see is beauty. Her long eyelashes. Her full lips. Her big round eyes. I can’t help but want to tell her, and I can’t help but think that she should hear it, at least a little bit from me.
I know I am supposed to remark about how she’s smart and kind and curious and that I love how she takes her time to finish her artwork or how she never needs to ask for help when finishing a puzzle. But, if I’m measured in my approach, is it ok to let her know how stunning I think she is? I hope so because I’m not sure I can help myself tomorrow night at bed time. . .
Jamie Rubin is a freelance writer, business owner, and mother. After years of producing breaking news and exclusive interviews for both Yahoo News and MSNBC, she switched things up a bit and launched Milkstars, a clothing line she developed for pregnant and nursing women made in the USA and sold around the world. Jamie lives with her husband and two daughters in Los Angeles.