Growing up, I resented the focus on my femininity. Pink was prominent and a demure, graceful existence was prized. I did ballet, not well, for 14 long years. My brothers were smart, athletic, and funny. I was pretty. Or could be pretty if only I’d pull my hair back and smile more. Of course, we were each a mixture of many qualities.
But smart, athletic, and funny are substance, while pretty is surface.
Fast forward a generation and we know that we shouldn’t focus on our daughters’ appearance. Yet there are moments when I feel tempted. When my middle school daughter looks adorable, I want to flatter her with, “You look so cute.” Or when my tween is balled up in tears, feeling ugly, I want to say, “But you’re so beautiful.”
Steering away from assessing physical beauty is not easy, but when I remember how trapped I felt as the girl in my family, I become more determined to change. After all, beauty is skin deep.
From infancy onward, a girl’s appearance is commented on far more than her male siblings. Girls learn early that how they look is their single most important attribute. Hours of creative energy are redirected to obsessing over “flaws.” Time and money are spent covering blemishes and considering various body parts that need tightening, flattening, and perfecting.
Perfect is the Enemy of Great
Focusing on our daughters’ appearance magnifies cultural messages that girls should look a certain way. Trying to meet these impossible beauty standards can stunt their growth in areas that bring more lasting happiness: meaningful pursuits and relationships.
We’ve long known that during the younger years when femininity matters less, girls are confident, outspoken, and passionate. They are budding scientists making home-grown volcanoes and uninhibited artists putting their quiet or chaotic feelings on the page. Their shared secrets and giggles reflect an intimacy that many adults long for in their own relationships.
With puberty, things change. Girls often become hypercritical of their abilities and begin focusing more on their appearance. Likewise, their friendships are threatened when they realize appearance is their currency and other girls are the competition.
Research shows that girls who self-objectify are not only less happy, but also have more difficulty with cognitive tasks and getting into flow states necessary for performance and achievement.
Yet today’s average teenage girl spends countless hours trying to create the perfect selfie rather than, say, perfect pitch.
5 Ways to Move Past the Surface
As parents we’ve grown up, too, in a culture that objectifies women so it’s no wonder we constantly scrutinize and compliment our daughters. Consider these tips to help nurture them to withstand the cultural pressure that diminishes their sense of selves:
1. Focus on their achievements and character.
As parents, we’re shaping how our children see themselves. So we shouldn’t tell our daughters they’re beautiful, at least not nearly as much as we comment on other identity-shaping qualities. Instead of their long legs or crop top, we need to notice the things that offer depth of character and make someone interesting—those things can be developed.
Observe their wit, smarts, creativity, courage, athleticism, imagination, story-telling, critical thinking, or empathy. There are hundreds of ways for our daughters to feel good about themselves that have a more profound effect than being pretty ever will.
2. Don’t rush to reassure.
We’ve all done it. It’s hard not to insist that our daughters are beautiful because, to us, they are. But this only emphasizes that pretty is important. And they don’t buy it. They’re well-aware that certain bodies are revered while others are denigrated.
3. Teach them to care for their bodies but don’t nitpick.
Every time you smooth the baby-hairs away from her forehead or straighten her clothes, she’s reminded her presentation is being evaluated. Ask yourself first if it matters at that moment. Would you rather she spend time writing in her journal or in front of a mirror? If she’s going to her BFF’s house, does it matter if her hair is messy or there’s a teeny tiny hole in the knee of her leggings?
4. Be mindful of your own self-objectification and don’t comment on the appearance of other women, ever.
Research repeatedly shows that a mother who frets about her weight or criticizes her appearance is more likely to have a daughter who says she dislikes her own body. Criticizing other women’s appearance teaches children of any gender that 1) It’s okay to judge a woman based on her looks, and 2) Certain looks are more valued. Teens learn that how other people evaluate our bodies—our look, feel, and smell—matters more than how we feel about our own bodies.
5. Show appreciation for how your body functions.
If you notice all the amazing things your body can do, chances are your daughter will too. You don’t have to run marathons to observe that your strong legs allow you to play chase with the family dog, and that your arms allow you to shovel snow or give comfort. If we embrace our bodies’ many abilities, our daughters will, too.
We often find others most beautiful when we’re in the midst of sharing joy or intimacy. When you and your daughter are pausing to catch your breath from the belly laugh she just gave you, or after that thoughtful discussion with her on climate change, tell her she’s beautiful and she’ll know you mean all of her.