This originally appeared on Mamamia.com. Republished here with permission.
When my niece was born earlier this year, it was a joyous occasion. And getting to know her and watch her grow and change into a little person has been equally joyous.
She’s just five months old but she’s already a giggling, happy, cuddly baby with a sharp mind. And yes, with big checks, a peaches-and-cream complexion, and deep blue eyes, she’s also pretty.
But I’ll never tell her that.
Too often, young girls get comments about their hair, their nails, their clothes, and their looks:
‘‘Look at you, you’re so pretty!’’
‘‘What a nice dress you’re wearing.’’
‘‘Who did your hair? That look suits you.’’
I don’t have a problem with girls getting compliments on their looks per se. It’s when it becomes the overwhelming factor that is said to them—at the exclusion of what they think and what they can do—that it becomes cause for concern.
And that’s exactly what’s happening to my niece and it makes me feel…uncomfortable.
By contrast, when my nephew was born five years ago, we all told him and each other how cute he was, but family and friends also quickly commented on his precocious intelligence and how strong he looked.
Simply put, boys get comments on what they do; girls get comments on how they look.
I want my niece to grow up thinking about what she can do and what she can achieve. I don’t want her to judge herself or expect to be treated differently by how she looks.
I’m not suggesting that girls who are told they’re pretty grow up to become vacuous beauty-obsessed women. But far too often, still, comments about women’s looks are used as a means to reassure us of our worth as people. If we’re deemed beautiful, it’s OK and we’re OK. The message that’s sent is that if a women isn’t pretty—look out for the diplomatic alternatives: “striking,” “interesting,” and shudder, “handsome”—it’s only then that we’re allowed to have our personalities, intelligence, and achievements take center stage.
It’s not easy to stop doing, as I’m trying to. Whenever my mom and I talk on the phone, not a conversation goes by when we both fail to mention how gosh darn cute the littlest member of our family is. And she is. But she’s also inquisitive, affectionate, and seems to be increasingly impatient to start crawling. She’s sharp and by all means looks like she’s going to be a fast developer.
And as she grows and starts to acquire interests (I’m hoping she’ll love reading and dinosaurs), I want people to talk to her about them and not her hair or whether she’s playing with mommy’s makeup yet.
For those who will say my goal is a naive over-reaction to something “harmless,” I say look at the research that proves the constant emphasis on a girl’s appearance can have long-term effects.
Live Science recently reported research conducted in Illinois that a group of 6-year-old girls was given the choice between two paper dolls—one dressed in jeans and a fashionable top and another that, well, looked like Julia Robert’s character in Pretty Woman. The girls overwhelmingly choose the “sexy” doll, it being the one that they wanted to emulate and they said would make them popular.
Women’s looks and bodies remain valuable commodities in society and it’s to our disadvantage that any attempts to subvert this system are labelled as humor or henpecking.
Something one of my lecturers in college said during a class has stuck with me. She reported on a research project that featured the same baby first dressed in pink girl’s clothes and then in blue boy’s clothes. On two separate occasions, a group of people were brought into the baby’s room and asked what they thought. The group described the baby dressed in girl’s clothes as ‘‘pretty,’’ ‘‘sweet,’’ and ‘‘gorgeous,’’ and the baby in the boy’s clothes as ‘‘handsome’’ and ‘‘strong.’’
It’s imbedded in us to think of girls one way and boys the other. And not only that, but we’re also constantly telling girls what we think of their looks. In fact, it’s often the first thing a young girl will hear when she meets someone new. It’s meant innocently, of course, but it sets girls up to expect attention based on their appearance and, in turn, they are conditioned to spend more time and energy on making sure their appearance is attention-worthy.
The result is that girls often grow up into women with an unbalanced idea of how much their looks matter.
I don’t want that for my niece. I know she’s going to get enough commentary from people throughout her life about what she looks like and I don’t want to be part of that.
What I do want to do is talk to her about everything else.
Alana Schetzer is a Melbourne-based journalist and writer. You can follow her on twitter here.