My 5 year old son made a new friend this week. He was telling me about how nice she was, that he loved the sound of her name, and how great it was to have a new friend. As the conversation drew to a close, I asked him if she was pretty.
In retrospect, I'm not sure why I did. It didn't seem an important factor to him - indeed he seemed a bit perplexed and didn't immediately answer. I certainly don’t consider myself to be one to judge a book by its cover, and yet for some reason, I was compelled to ask.
As he was considering his answer, my 7 year old daughter piped up:
"Are you kidding mom?!?", she exclaimed, with a tone of voice indicating my question was utterly laughable in her mind, "ALL girls are pretty!"
I felt so proud in that instant - of her, for speaking out against a question that she felt wasn't crucial to the conversation. For setting me straight, that the insides of people is far more important than the outside; enough so as to have an unshakable belief that all people ARE pretty. I felt too, a bit self-congratulatory; heck, I must be setting a good example, right? Of course, if I am actually doing so well at this self-image stuff, why did "is she pretty" even cross my mind - enough to care, enough to ask?
In my defense (assuming my question was defensible), I think it's ingrained in our society to comment prettiness or looks - especially when it comes to girls; it's almost expected etiquette, polite even. "What a cute dress you have on" or "awww look at those pigtails!" just flows in conversations with girls, right from the start. Harmless chatter from strangers in the grocery store, neighbors, grandparents….
But, I wonder. Is it entirely harmless?
When our girls hear mostly about their hair being shiny, their clothes being pretty, what is the message they are receiving about WHO they really are? When they hear more often about their cuteness than their strength or skills, what do they learn about what other people - and thus, maybe themselves - think is important? Isn't it a real risk that in simply being nice - what we're conveying isn't a boost in self-love, but rather a lesson that praise and positive attention comes from looks; something we can't truly even control? Shouldn't we, instead, be greeting our girls with complements on their hard-earned skills, not their prowess at, well, hitting the genetic jackpot? And wouldn't it benefit our boys, too, to hear more about their female contemporaries' skills than their beauty?
I do try to complement my daughter on her skills: You really nailed that math problem! or You did well combing your hair yourself this morning! - instead of generic "good job" or "you're so pretty". It's not that I NEVER say those things, but I work to tip the balance of complements in favor of pointing out real skills she's worked at or participated in, over praising her for her looks.
Now, this isn't to say that looks are completely unimportant, nor that being drawn towards or interested beauty is entirely wrong. As an artist, aesthetics are naturally important to me; I find beauty in many things - the human form being one of them. Human beings even as babies pay more attention to faces considered more "beautiful". But, to overly value beauty, to the exclusion of all else is a detriment - not only to those not considered "beautiful" by our society's standards (feeling like you're always striving for an unattainable ideal perhaps, or, just a feeling of being overlooked), but also to those who Do fit the standard of beauty - in that being considered pretty, being EXPECTED to be pretty, runs the risk of taking precedence over personality, education, skills, conversation, creativity.
When my son told me about his new friend, he didn't tell me how pretty she was, he told me she was nice to him. I should, we all should take a lesson from that. Cliché as it may be, inner beauty - character is what is most important.
Because, as my daughter adeptly pointed out: ALL girls are pretty.
And isn't she absolutely right?