‘I still remember the names of two girls my father identified as pretty in a fifth-grade class picture.’
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 the 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.
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, a victim of an 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.”
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, GMP 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-filled 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.
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 every day 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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