Talking to Your Daughter About Beauty

Talking-to-Your-Daughter-Emily-Heist-Moss

‘I still remember the names of two girls my father identified as pretty in a fifth-grade class picture.’

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If you’re trying to be a good dad (and you’re reading this site, so I think you are), you know that your children are sponges. We soak up everything we hear you say, everything we see you do, and many of the things you thought we didn’t notice.

I still remember the names of two girls my father identified as “pretty” in a fifth-grade class picture. My dad taught me a lot of things: how to find the North Star, how to make a perfect grilled cheese sandwich, how to drive in a New England winter. He taught me to value diversity of opinion and honesty of expression, to choose good, smart people to be in my life, to believe that I can do and be anything I want. But from the comment on the class picture 13 years ago? From that, I learned beauty matters.

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Although boys must also navigate the tricky waters of body image and beauty, I will stick to daughters for two reasons. First, I can’t apply any particular expertise to the father-son relationship (being a daughter and all), and second, the consequences for girls when health and beauty get distorted tend to be much more severe (10 times as many women battle eating disorders than men).

No matter how old your daughter is she is receiving messages from every angle that tell her that her primary path to success is being beautiful. Be it Bratz dolls, princess paraphernalia, Miley Cyrus, Gossip Girl, E! Red Carpet specials, Miss America pageants, Sarah Palin, or Lindsay Vonn in Sports Illustrated, women are judged and rated based on their looks. Our intellectual, athletic, artistic, or social successes are inevitably predicated on and qualified by our appearance. Even CBS correspondent Lara Logan, victim of assault while covering the situation in Egypt, is discussed as a “Warzone ‘It Girl’ ” and a “gutsy stunner”—rather than simply “reporter.”

So how is a good dad to avoid adding to the barrage of corrupting messages your daughter receives every day? Start close to home. Think about what she hears from adult women around her. Do her mother, older sisters, or aunts discuss looking fat in front of her? Do they pinch themselves, complain about how they look, or crash diet? Does her grandmother tell her that she needs to watch her figure? Girls’ and women’s bodies are unfortunately considered open to “constructive criticism” from strangers and loved ones alike. I was 11 the first time a saleslady volunteered that I was blessed and cursed with a “bubble butt.”

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But it’s not just women that your daughter hears. It may be her mother that she emulates (or other adult women in her life), but it’s her father’s compliments that she’s looking for. Last week, GMPM columnist Hugo Schwyzer wrote about how simple compliments like “you look pretty!” reinforce a pattern that teaches girls to seek aesthetic approval:

Five-year-olds in princess costumes are cute. But the problem is that the compliments we give as fathers, uncles, and coaches have an impact on the self-esteem of little girls. As they grow up, they realize quickly (certainly by age 8 or 9) that Cinderella costumes won’t cut it anymore.

When the cute costumes don’t work, girls look around to see what women do to get recognition. And what do they find? Fake breasts, tiny clothes, sexy poses. The phoniness of these Barbie-fied images might actually be easier to combat than the more insidious forms of beauty worship. You can talk to your daughter about airbrushing and the difference between magazine pictures and real life. But imagine you’re sitting on the couch watching Wimbledon and your daughter hears you say that Anna Kournikova looks good. Maybe you mean she looks strong, or her serve is on today, or she’s quick off the line, but what your daughter hears is that the tall blonde woman in the mini-skirt “looks good.” If what you meant was that she’s a great tennis player, then say that. If what you meant was that she’s hot, well, save it for your buddies.

The conflation of beauty with other positive qualities, or the lack of it with negative ones, is where the real confusion begins. Make sure the women that you admire out loud, be they politicians, movie stars, musicians, or athletes, are being admired for what they do, not how they look.

The flipside is true as well: Hillary Clinton’s “frumpy” haircut has zero to do with her diplomatic skills, so leave it out of the conversation. This is how you teach your daughter that judging by the cover may be part of our society, and something she will encounter on a daily basis, but it isn’t part of your family’s values.

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My dad will read this article and he will wonder if his comment scarred me (it didn’t) or if I’ve been hanging onto it for years (I haven’t). The truth is, that comment is easily and readily dwarfed by the tens of thousands of positive, confidence-boosting conversations we’ve had. In thinking about how dads talk to their daughters, his comment stands out only because it was such an anomaly. I was at a friend’s house once when she emerged from her room in a new dress and her father, from the couch, shrugged and said, “At least you don’t look fat.” I was blown away, but my friend barely blinked; this was par for course in her home.

That sort of active negativity is easy enough to avoid. What’s more challenging as parents is to train yourself away from commenting on beauty at all, even in what may feel like the most positive and innocuous of ways. The world will tell her everyday that for women, beauty is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and it’s your job to counter that by offering better metrics of success.

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Other Stories From The Good Men Project:

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The Prostitute Who Saved My Relationship

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Are Men Natural-Born Cheaters?

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What Your Marriage Needs to Survive

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—Photo by pipitdapo/Flickr


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About Emily Heist Moss

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works at a tech start-up. She's a serious reader and a semi-pro TV buff. She writes about gender, media, and politics at her blog, Rosie Says. (Follow her: @rosiesaysblog, find Rosie Says on Facebook). 

Comments

  1. This author is pretty. Pretty smart!

  2. I envy the relationship the author of this article had and has with her father. I’m thirty years old and a part of my brain is still mystified and amazed whenever a female friend talks about her wonderful father.

    My father was a constant, negative and abusive force in my life. I was a tomboy and he’d wanted a fragile, precious, beautiful thing to show off to his friends. He talked about me like I wasn’t a woman, called me names and tore me down every day. He left BDSM porn with pages stuck together open on the living room coffee table, and berated my mother to tears in front of my brother and I for not having enough sex with him. He made sexual “jokes” about my friends who visited the house in high school, and compared my body to theirs. He ridiculed my looks and body and followed it up with ‘drama queen’ if I reacted emotionally to his abuse. My mother denied that anything that went on in our home was abnormal and we just lived that way until I left home at 18. I was so brainwashed that I really believed I was just an over-emotional nutjob- I didn’t realize these things were abusive until I was in my 20s.

    It’s not a shock that as an adult all of my relationships have been abusive. I’m highly educated but it’s difficult for me to keep a job. I have panic attacks and suffer from severe depression with dissociative episodes; I’ll probably be medicated for the rest of my life. As I’m getting older, I pull back from people more and more. It’s just easier and safer for me to be alone. It’s hard not to wonder sometimes what my life would look like if I’d had a loving, supportive and kind father.

    • @Kiiki L: I really empathize with your story. It sounds like your childhood was hell instead of the generally protected and caring place it should be. There probably are no perfect parents out there – and there never were – but as you describe it your father missed the target by a couple of lightyears. Probably everyone has negative experiences with their parents, but in your case there apparently only were negative experience. It is pretty common that father’s are a bit distanced or simply worn out from work and not as open and engaging as they should be, but generally my observation is – among the guys I know – that they are caring and protecting and try to be guides for their kids and give support as good as they can. I don’t know how you could “unwash” your brain. I can only tell you that most families are not like yours was.

    • I’m a sexual abuse survivor. There’s always a place for healing. Always. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. A friend of mine was raped by her father over 200 times between the ages of 9-18 when she left home. It room a good amount of time, but she is now happily married and running a successful business. It happens. Don’t accept that you will be unhappy the rest of your life. Get up, fight. You have what it takes.

      http://www.superbetter.com

    • Laura Elizabeth says:

      I grew up in family similar to yours. My dad was the same and my mom just denies it all and protects him. I sometimes envy that father/daughter relationship some people have. Now I’m emotionally disabled and come off as cold. I can’t keep relationships together because I don’t let anyone in. A while back I started seeing a psychiatrist and for the first time I acknowledge that I was molested when I was very young by a relative. When I told my parents about it my mom said it was my fault for playing with boys and my dad said it was a lie because I wasn’t pretty. I’ve come to realize that my dad is mentally fucked up and his male ego is really fragile. He hates not being the center of attention and if he doesn’t get it, he throws fits. I’ve been slowly getting through my problems thanks to my psychiatrist and I don’t let his destructiveness trample through my peaceful mind.

  3. Amanda, big credit to you for wanting to also raise your son to appreciate girls and women as people and desiring to teach him that while realizing that naturally he will be attracted to some of them as well. I don’t think that men have to object women to be attracted to them. But often in our culture, objectification seems to be the only way a lot of men know how to communicate attraction.

    I think this is an important issue to teach to both genders as well. Little boys need to be taught the same message about female beauty that girls do. Unfortuently, we tend to want to teach these messages to women but allow for “boys to be boys” where their father’s might make comments about other women to their sons or encourage pornography use.

    This is a vastly complicated issue with responsibility on both sides. Women need to stop being critical of themselves and making negative comments about their bodies infront of their daughters. I remember my Mom doing this to herself. And men need to be more consistant in not only teaching healthy concepts of beauty to their sons and daughters, but practicing themselves and not letting their lust or attraction to women blind them to how to treat women. I remember the many pretty young waitresses that my Dad was flirty with. Those things stick with you. I think I was about 10 when I started to realize how my Dad interacted with other women. And sometimes, it left me feeling sad.

    Growing up, and even now, there is no shortage of people that are ready to comment on your body as a woman. I have heard it all. Where each part of my body part as been commented on at times from men and women. Positive and negative. It’s really true that women are always up on the chopping block. And today, we don’t really get much reprive from that. So this message is important to teach to boys and girls alike. Not just girls. And Fathers do need to pay attention how they treat, talk and interact with women infront of both their sons and daugthers and not hold a different set of rules for how they behave with their sons vs their daughters because this is what sets up disconnection and double standards.

    • @Erin: I’d like to stress that it is not only about looks. Yesterday I watched the movie “Whale Rider” with my daughters, which is about a Maori girl named Paikea Apirana, struggling against tradition to find her way – and her voice. At one point she managed to fix and start an outboard motor, and her grandfather ran up to her, shouting at her “Stop that! Never do that Again! This is dangerous!” I asked my daughters if he would have reacted the same way if she had been a boy. Sophie, 8, laughed and said “No way. He would have said ‘Well done!’ ” So here we have an 8 year old who, I hope, is totally free in this respect (she is a martial artist, climber and swims like a sea lion), but at the same time acutely aware that boys and girls often are treated differently.

      The movie by the way ends on a positive tune: there are other Maori men, from the next generation, like the girl’s uncle, who treat girls as equals.

  4. Katie Makai with some amazing poetry on “pretty”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6wJl37N9C0

  5. What I can say is,I lost the beauty wars in my house and on one Christmas eve was forced to go find the lastest Barbie doll for our daughter.Which brings me to my point.I think far too much power and responsibility for changing this problem is placed on men. At some point the power of beauty seduces some women.This article fails to address the benefits of beauty in society.I mean young girls see the Kardashians,the Paris Hilton’s, the Beyonce’s,the Angelina Jolie’s and figure dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about.When women begin to understand the role they play-wanting easy power and sex and money and popularity- in all of this, maybe there will be change.Maybe when women stop asking to be told-romance anyone?- they beautiful they will be change.Too many times,on this site women have asked/demanded that men fawn over them in order to feel wanted enough to have sex. Over and again one can find that message on this site.At the end of the day it’s,as usual, is a bunch of contradictory advice that as a man one is damned either way.

    • Yes most women appreciate being told they are attractive (as do men!), I feel like you are selling young women realllyyyyy short. My teen and her friends could care less about the standard crap role models (chortle) of celebrity worship – they don’t buy fashion magazines, shop as entertainment, and they don’t define themselves by their looks, even though they are by common standards, attractive.. And sure, some girls and women are on the power trip of being sexy and getting male attention, but if they received more positive feedback for other aspects of themselves there would be less of it. It’s normally just a phase anyway, and frankly with the value that society places on older women (as in very little), they should maybe get to enjoy it a little since it’s not a permanent condition :) It’s like the stereotype that all boys and men care about sports. It’s just not true. For all of societies focus on looks, there is also a lot more lattitude for young people of both genders to define themselves in the world today by meaningful measures if it’s encouraged.

  6. Two daughters (now in their 40s) and 4 granddaughters (all under age 6) later (and not mentioning 2 sons) – What happened for the daughters was that Feminism then in full stride got through the haze of messages, reinforced on a daily basis to varying degrees gently at home and conditioning at public school. One of them rejected commonly held standards of beauty, and the other embraced those.

    The former is attempting to raise her daughter accordingly, e.g. at birth “Dad, do not send anything pink!” – which color of course her child instantly demanded along with frills and ribbons and princess attire/equipment. However, she also demanded Wonder Woman and usually selects bold geometric daily garb. Beauty is a game to her.

    The latter as a mother seems intent upon continuing a baby doll approach, judging from early visual evidence. However, being no shrinking violet, without doubt her daughter will demand and evolve as a self-respecting beauty too.

    It is impossible to fully predict or condition a child’s basic self when an adult but, for certain, negative reinforcement and gaslighting of them is almost certainly irreversible. A father’s innate kindness toward and shear love of the children as they are means blocking out whatever else we are able.

    I tried to do that, really hard.

    Excellent article, good advice especially for young fathers/parents of today.

  7. Toward the end of this article, the writer says parents should train themselves away from talking about beauty at all. I don’t think that’s necessary. As a child my mom used to tell me veeeery often that I was the most beautiful girl in the world. I don’t know where she got the idea from, but I believe it surely helped to beef up my self-esteem. So much so that even though I actually might not be the most beautiful girl in the world, later on in life, when people had negative comments or the world forced its idea of beauty on me, they just rolled off me like water on a duck’s back.

    And the reality is that society values beauty (flawed as it may be), but because it is flawed is precisely the reason that parents must talk to their kids about it.

    my 2c

  8. I agree with this article to a certain extent but feel like the absence of any compliments to looks or intelligence hurt the child also. Neither of my parents ever told me I was pretty, not once. Beginning at age 6 I thought I was ugly and told myself so everyday while looking in a mirror. Would every kid who wasn’t complimented do what I did? Maybe not, but by being given SOME self-worth in the form of a compliment could have stopped my belief. I see pictures of myself at age 6 and I was a pretty child. I was absolutely floored at age 18 when I heard my best friend’s father complimenting her…I didn’t know that was a possibility in a parent-child relationship. My parents also never called me smart, which I was, yet I got punished for having one C on a report card.
    Girls self worth is a touchy subject and it seems there are no true great answers, keeping in mind every child’s personality and private thoughts come into play as well as the parent’s actions and words. But I am here to say: the absence of compliments does as much harm as telling your child every once in a while that they are pretty.

    • I never got the message I was pretty either. Ever. And my father wasn’t absive to but he completely ignored me while seeking lots of bonding with my brother. (The irony is that I was and am much more mechanical and outdoorsy than my bookworm bro, but he never noticed) Then, as it happened, I turned into a pretty teenager with giant breasts pretty much overnite. Suddenly I had lots of male attention, of a kind I was completely unprepared for and didn’t want. And teaching me that my value to men was only based on my sexuality, a huge mind f*ck for sure for a girl who had been a skinny tomboy two minutes earlier. Fathers are so important in so many ways to their daughters. Just wanting to spend time with her as a human being is huge to helping her grow up to be a strong woman who enjoys men.

  9. How about telling your daughter she is beautiful, but not referring simply to her “looks” or what she is wearing? My dad often told me, “You look nice today!” but I knew it wasn’t ONLY my outward appearance he was talking about. It was mostly his love for me, evidenced by his desire to spend time with me, that gave me a lot of self-confidence… but him telling me that I looked beautiful really meant a lot too. I don’t think dads should stop talking about beauty PERIOD, they just need to remember to compliment the beauty within.

  10. buffamazon says:

    A fine read with some great thoughts. Thanks so much for writing this. I grew up constantly being told that I was not only not attractive, but my father was quite clear on the specifics of what I should DO to BE attractive. I needed to grow out my short hair and put on a dress, and stop having opinions. I still carry the weight of that, but now it is mostly due to the fact that I never see my father and my hair is still short. Oh. And about those opinions…

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