Categories: Skepticism

AI: Pretty Girls

As a parent, I am constantly struggling with trying to do things right… or, rather, trying not to do things so wrong my kids will be fucked up forever. When you're me, that's way harder than it sounds.

I find myself often going back and forth on whether to tell my daughter that she's pretty. Whether she is pretty isn't a question. She's the prettiest. But do I tell her that?

I don't want her growing up thinking that being pretty matters. Or that she should base her self-worth on her looks. Or that pretty is a character asset, something that makes a girl superior, and puts her in a place to judge others. And I certainly don't want her thinking that ugly is… well… ugly.

On the other hand, her looks will undoubtedly be brought up by her peers. If I don't tell her she's pretty, and they tell her she's ugly, will she be more likely to believe them? Will it destroy her forever,sentencing her to an entire lifetime of angsty emo poetry, clove cigarettes and paintings made out of vegan blood?

Maybe she's bound to learn the lesson that pretty=better in society. I'm not sure how to counter that. Re-assure her? Lead by example and show her it doesn't matter? I try not to comment on the things I don't like about my own looks when I'm around her… but it's hard not to ask for reassurance before I walk out the door, "Do I look okay?" "Does my hair look ridiculous?"

How do you send messages to the young(er) girls in your life? Do you tell them they're pretty? Do you criticise your own or other women's looks in front of them? Can the message that pretty=best be subverted at home? Does it even matter if your mom tells you that you're pretty? What do you wish someone did or said that may have changed how you feel about your body?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET

Featured image courtesy Girl, Empowered — a website and community all about empowering–and empowered–girls and women.


Elyse :Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

View Comments (74)

  • This is long.  I'm sorry.
    My mom only told me I was pretty if I asked, and she wasn't terribly convincing, "Of course, you're pretty.  But you'll always be pretty to me, I'm your mother."  My mom's kind of the queen of the backhanded compliment.  Pair that with a father who started picking apart my physical appearance as early as 3rd grade (thunder thighs, bubble butt, when I got a purple bathing suit "Moby Grape), I was a trainwreck for a long time.  Still am.  But now I'm surprised when I look back at pictures of myself in my teens (after accutane got rid of my acne), and I was kind of really damn hot, and never knew it.  Some people may say that was a good thing, but it wasn't.  All it did was get me suckered into shitty abusive relationship after shitty abusive relationship, mostly just mentally abusive, with guys who could smell victim a mile away.
    And it's awesome that you don't want your daughter to feel like looks are everything, but society is going to pound it into her head, her peers, magazines, TV and movies.  I just hope that when she desperately needs to hear that she IS pretty, that you won't with-hold it from her based on an erroneous desire to rise above society and culture.  I think also and mainly emphasizing that she's smart, strong, athletic, creative, a good dancer is INCREDIBLY important.  Just don't cripple her by telling her she's "the smart one" while inferring that is contradictory to being cute, pretty, beautiful, attractive to someone. 
    Also, I'd like to remind everyone that "pretty" is incredibly subjective.  There are people I find beautiful that other people would probably refer to as "dog-fight ugly."  There are other people who I just don't find attractive at all, and everyone else appears to be over the moon for.  So, those of you saying you can't be/aren't pretty, odds are good that you are pretty to someone.     

  • Call her pretty. Don't make a big deal about it, beause it's not a big deal. But make sure she knows you think she's pretty.
    Nobody ever talked to their therapist about how screwed up they are just because their mom called them pretty. But there probably quite a few who got called ugly by classmates, and were devestated when mom's response was "well honey, looks don't matter much."

  • Mom always told me I was pretty. And I thought, each time, "well, she's saying that because she's my mom." I wished so hard that my DAD would tell me I was pretty. I think it would've meant more to me if he had. Once, he told me that I would "get a man with those eyes of yours." (It was the seventies.) That was the only time he ever said anything nice about my appearance. I clung to those words the rest of my life.
    This kind of thinking was really, really hard to get over.

  • I comment on my daughters' looks (well, mostly on #1's, who is 4), usually when there actually is a reason for doing so. That she really picked out a nice outfit, that she had a great idea for a hairdo (she tells me how to do them, I'll never understand how you can actually enjoy that somebody braids your hair for 20 minutes) and so on.
    I also compliment her on what she does, the ideas she has, her creativity, her intelligence.
    Recognizing how easy it is to comment girls on their looks and boys on their achievements I've made a habit of routinely not commenting on the looks of other girls (other people do that enough) unless they ask me about something or have an obviously different feature like a new haircut, but like the boys on what they're doing.
    It's obviously a thin line to walk. Don't do it at all and they will think that they're ugly or you don't care. Do it too much and they'll become self-absorbed littl beauty queens and unhappy if the world actually doesn't think them to be Miss Universum.
    Actually, I seem to be pretty unique in talking to my daughter's kindergartenfriends at all.

  • After more thought I began wondering if resilience is missing from the picture. There will always be someone percieved as "more pretty" not to mention more successful and charming, etc. I knew some girls in high school who were not billboard pretty but they so clearly did not care because they were busy with martial arts, educating themselves, volunteering, in other words making themselves useful. Being productive members of society is part of what kids should focus on as well. How we teach them that I don't know; but being a good role model and giving them a chance to explore all sorts of activities and careers can't hurt.

  • And ps anyone can be more "pretty" just by taking care of their health, their appearance, even something silly like buying new socks. Self-respect and being cleaned up can make anyone, boy or girl, feel better about themselves.

  • I grew up with three brothers and I loved the fact that I was never singled out for being the only girl, and I was never treated as anything less than an equal. I think our parents did a great job of just focusing on what we were each accomplished in and always accepted each of us. I was always told I was pretty when I was trying, like at prom, but I was also told that I was intelligent, smart, creative, etc and so were my brothers.

  • I don't much remember hearing anything nice about my appearance when I was growing up. While it didn't have too much to do with my self-worth, I did end up completely believing that I was more or less unattractive (until about age 25).
    I can't even imagine what it would have been like to grow up thinking that all kinds of people are beautiful. That I could be beautiful too.

  • I don't remember being told that I was(am) pretty. I remember my step-mom telling me I was cute and I told her that I was pretty, not cute. I think I was trying to be "grown up" at the time. It's a little stange thinking back because I was never a "girly girl" or anything like that. I didn't do make-up, clothes, or anything else in that realm until I started opening up in college. I credit one of my friends for this change. I only put on make-up and dress up on rare occasions, but I do quite enjoy it.
    What really mattered to me was hearing, "I'm proud of you." My dad said that to me a number of times, but I cannot remember hearing it from my mom. She probably finally said it when I got a BS. I lived with my dad and was a daddy's girl, so that may have contributed to the difference, but it bothered me that she never told me she was proud of me. She did tell me that she wished she had a daughter that was smart like a little girl she had interacted with that day. My friend that was present gave an awkward laugh not knowing how to respond in a situation like that. That is definitely something that will stay with me for as long as I live.
    Long story short, "I'm proud of you" >>>>> "You're pretty"

  • From my relationships with girls between the ages of 12 and 25, their conversations always lay on the subject of escape from whatever reality they found themselves in (school, family, friends and other stressful environments). Prettiness to them, helped them attract people that helped them escape. Prettiness meant freedom or the ability to attain it whenever they chose.
    As an experiment, I'd offer your daughter freedom or at least flexibility in her life, in place of superficial hopes and dreams.
    Also, I'm not sure if this helps, but from a boyfriends perspective, I felt duped, while at the same time, enjoyed every second. Boy's (and maybe girl's) reproductive systems are about as simple as narcotics; they're not that interesting in the long run. It hurt to know I was simply biological and that was all that mattered to other adolescents, and even at the age of 25 I still can't escape the sinking feeling in my loins.
    I'm not certain what you're going to do, but if you're living in a simple, working class neighbourhood, you'd better hope art class is awesome (or maybe yoga) if she's going to out run that feeling. I would hope that education would be more interesting and exciting to a child than one's reflection, but most schools seem to fail in that regard.