A dad discovers a common compliment for girls is not as positive as many think. It is a trap. Here is his plan to free his daughter from its grasp.
Our words matter.
For someone who communicates for a living, it’s a constant, ever-present truth.
Words don’t just express the thoughts of the speaker, they form thoughts in the hearer.
When people say anything about us; when they question our character, or evaluate our actions, or critique our appearances, they force us to react; to sift those words for truth or defend against what is false, and in so many ways, they define, and shape, and renovate us.
I think a lot about the words I use with my children these days, because I remember.
I remember the words spoken by my parents decades ago; how so many are burned into my memory; random, trivial things that they would never have realized were going to stick.
I know that the words I simply spit out in fleeting moments of anger, or silliness, or celebration, all do something to my kids. They all alter them in some way; building confidence, shaping identity, forming fears, paving paths.
I may be wrong, but lately I’m beginning to worry about calling my 4-year old daughter “pretty” so much, not because I don’t think she’s beautiful, and not because I don’t want her to feel beautiful, but because I think “pretty” can be a prison for a young girl.
Having spent nearly two decades ministering to teens and pre-teens, I’ve seen just how destructive and insidious and claustrophobic the pressure can be, for young women to be attractive and thin and sexy.
I’ve walked alongside them as they starved themselves to be some unattainable perfect weight, I’ve watched them desperately fishing for compliments with a parade of revealing Instagram photos, and I’ve seen them use their bodies as currency, to try to purchase attention, and affection, and love.
I’ve always wondered if these were somehow the soul-responses, of little girls trapped in “pretty.”
I look at my little girl, and I wonder what I can do to give her a sense of identity and worth as she grows, that isn’t tied to her physicality.
Pretty. It’s so easy to let that word come out, not just because she is certainly that to me, but because it seems like a kindness. It feels like encouragement to speak over her, but I’m just not sure anymore.
Does acknowledging my daughter’s appearance so frequently and so explicitly, force her to find value in it, above anything else?
It’s always seemed like such an odd thing to me anyway; to compliment someone on the one area of their being that they can’t claim ownership of or really control; their height, or eye shape, or hair softness. (Heck, if she is physically beautiful, thank me and her mother. All my daughter did was show-up!)
Years ago, I remember talking with a mom, whose 11th grade daughter was dealing with the fallout from some really horrible substance abuse choices. As the woman relayed the previous night’s conversation, she recalled saying to her daughter: “Shelly, how could you let this happen? I mean, you’re so pretty! You’re so beautiful! How could you end-up doing this?”
I knew this girl and her family well. I knew she’d been told over and over and over how gorgeous she was, and I saw this girl strive and strain to try and live into that identity, to her detriment. Now that identity, (her pretty-ness), was supposed to be some sort of Kryptonite against bad choices; that because she was beautiful, she ought to also be fine.
I really want to get this “words” thing right with my daughter, and I feel like I’m not going to cut it.
I can try to glean all I can from the years I’ve spent working with teenage girls, and I can have hours of conversations with my wife. I can read tons of books and studies, and I can do all I can to be compassionate, and wise, and diligent, but ultimately I can’t be female.
I can’t really step into her shoes, and so I may be totally off-track; sounding an alarm where there’s no real danger.
This may not even be the right question to ask, but I’m asking it, because my daughter is worth it.
I want her to grow-up feeling amazing, and creative, and smart, and loved, and funny, and yes, beautiful, but I don’t want her to have that beauty defined by the mirror or a magazine, by her waistline or her cup size, by the length of her lashes or her legs.
I’ve seen “pretty” become a prison for so many young girls, and I want more than anything to make sure my daughter lives freely and lightly; feeling a beauty that gives her heart wings, not weight.
Originally published on JohnPavlovitz.com
Photot: Flickr/Anna Imhof