A few months ago my daughter and I were in Trader Joe’s, looking unkempt and bedraggled after some serious park time on a blustery, spring day. Along with everyone else, we elbowed our way through the bottle neck at fruits and vegetables, continued bumper to bumper past meat, and finally arrived in frozen foods–a wide boulevard of an aisle where shoppers can finally exhale and leisurely peruse all things chocolate covered. For the record, my favorite are dark chocolate almonds, but that particular day we were after TJ’s mint chocolate chip ice cream, which is an object of worship in our house.
I was just catching my breath, feeling grateful to escape the sea of humanity two aisles over, when a man approached us and proclaimed as he stared at my daughter, “Oh, I see a young Dakota Fanning.” A young Dakota Fanning? Really? Funny—I see the scabs on her knee, the ketchup on her chin, and the greasy sunscreen in her hair. And did I mention that she’s two? Not eleven, or even eight, but two. I assume that he was giving her a compliment, his intention benign. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I, like most parents, feel a certain amount of pride when my little ones are praised by others. But his comment represents our culture’s lifelong and relentless attention to female appearance, a process that starts before our daughters are even out of diapers.
Before having kids, I remember hearing that people comment much more often on the clothing of girls than that of boys. Now that I spend lots of time with munchkins, given that I have two of my own, I find myself saying things like this to random and familiar girls: “Look at your pretty shoes!” “Oh, I love your pigtails!” Why do I do this? I am trying to develop rapport with a child and put her at ease. I am trying to find a way to connect with her, to engage her by talking about something that she likes. And I guess I assume that she loves her new shoes and her pigtails. But I don’t usually do this to boys—in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever told a little boy that I think his shorts are nice, that his new sweater is fetching.
It seems natural to compliment girls and women on appearance. We assume that such comments are wanted and appreciated. And in the short term, they usually are; we feel our backs straighten, our hearts burst with pride at knowing that our recent haircut, weight loss, or new outfit has been noticed. Likewise, we want our children—our little girls in particular—to feel good about how they look, so we lavish them with praise about every aspect of their physical presentation.
Yet compliments have their drawbacks, as well. Sometimes they feel like pressure to the recipient, as they convey a certain expectation. We like that we’ve been recognized, yet we feel that we must continue to dress a certain way or to keep the weight off in order to receive ongoing praise. A child who hears constant commentary about how she looks may begin to feel that she is expected to be beautiful. She may work hard to be recognized for her appearance, particularly if she is not getting recognized for other things, like her ability to share her toys, ask for what she wants, or sculpt a fish out of play dough.
Excessive compliments about appearance send the message that girls are valuable for their looks, rather than for who they are or for what they are capable of doing. Over time, this message can get internalized, so that girls come to believe that their worth derives from external things like weight, hair texture, skin tone, clothing, and general ability to capture the attention of others. Such early experiences plant the seeds for a lifetime of self-objectification, something that adult women with food and body image disturbance struggle with every day.
Today’s girls have certainly gotten the message that their appearance is important. 42% of 1st through 3rd grade girls report a desire to be thinner (Collins 1991), and 46% of 9 to 11 year old-girls are on diets “sometimes” or “often” (Gustafson-Larson & Terry, 1992). Plastic surgery is increasingly performed on teenagers and eating disorders are on the rise. The message has been received, loud and clear.
Most of us would say we want to stop this tidal wave of obsession with looks, that we want our daughters to have a different experience. Yet we may unwittingly be encouraging it. If we find ourselves overly concerned with how our kids look, we’d be wise to wonder why. What, exactly, is the reason that our daughters’ dirty, sweat-stained faces cause us to cringe? Why do we care about the saggy knees of their tights or the fact that their once-neat pony tails are now disheveled and messy?
It might be that we worry about their appearance for the same reason that we worry about our own; anxiety about harsh judgment or undue evaluation creates high—and perhaps unrealistic—standards. Also, we may have over-identified with our kids, so that we see their appearance as a proxy for our own. Or perhaps we think that messy children signify poor parenting; if our kids don’t look presentable, then we aren’t doing our job.
Here’s a radical thought: Maybe, instead of feeling we should tidy up our little ones, we should relish these messy monsters. Little girls have a limited number of days during which they can get away with looking like wild animals. Except for Courtney Love, of course, who has gotten away with it her whole life.
Compliments about appearance are not the root of all evil; they don’t cause eating disorders or make plastic surgeons rich. But they reflect our culture’s intense obsession with looks, particularly in girls and women. We can’t control whether other people compliment our children on their appearance, and in truth we wouldn’t want positive attention to disappear entirely. Confidence in how we look, after all, is related to our overall self-esteem, like it or not. What’s most important is how we, as parents, respond to such comments. We are the consistent presence in our children’s lives, and it will be our ongoing messages that most influence the self-esteem of our little ones.
Back to frozen foods… I found myself tongue-tied after the Dakota Fanning comment, as I often do when someone tells me my daughters are cute. Luckily I managed to hide the fact that I think about these things way too much, to disguise my own neuroticism, by uttering a mere, “thank you.” But that wasn’t what I wanted to say. I wanted to say that she is so much more than just a pretty face, to let him know that those baby blues are only one of many amazing things about her. Actually that’s not quite right—it’s not so much that I wanted him to know this, it’s that I wanted her to know it, and to know that I know it. That way, when I do those annoying mom things, like lick my thumb to wipe the milk moustache from her lip, or continually brush that stray hair from her eyes, she’ll know that she is loveable, dirty face, snotty nose and all.
Later, in the comfort of my living room and far from the mania of Trader Joe’s, I thought about how I’d handle future situations like the one I’d just experienced. I wondered how I might downplay the emphasis on beauty and empower my daughter, while maintaining some semblance of grace (a quality that may be overrated—I know—but I’m not one to bark back at unknown men in the grocery store, so let’s be realistic here).
Ultimately it came to me that the best response to almost any compliment my child receives would be, “Thanks, she’s a great kid.”
And in this instance I might have added, “Now step away from the ice cream and no one gets hurt.”