Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Please Don't Call My Daughter Pretty.

My baby is pretty.

It's not something she earned. It's not a skill. It's an accident of genetics that may or may not stick around. 

Yet everywhere I go, people stop to tell me how pretty she is. I am always gracious, but I've had enough. I want people to stop calling my daughter pretty. 

I can already hear the whining and gnashing of teeth. "What kind of monster doesn't want her daughter to hear she's pretty? Doesn't she want her kid to have good self-esteem?"

Not if that self-esteem is built on something she didn't earn and didn't work for. Not if it's built on something there is no reason to value. As a recovering pretty person myself, I know that pretty often ends up being a prison. I don't want to lock my daughter in the cage of pretty before she has the chance to explore the other, more valuable, things she can be. 

Self-Esteem and the Cult of Pretty
Most adults know that girls and women are supposed to be pretty. It's nearly impossible for women in this society to avoid comments on their appearance--whether from men harassing them on the street or family members commenting on weight loss. 

The results of this obsession with looks are familiar to most women. Most of us struggle with our appearance at some point. We worry we're not pretty enough, not thin enough, not young enough. Society is pleased to instruct us that, nope, we're not. Airbrushed advertisements of unrealistically thin and perfect models are everywhere. 

So I understand why adults want to tell my daughter she's pretty. Many mistakenly believe that by complimenting her appearance, they are protecting her from the inevitable damage our culture will do to her self-esteem. "If she thinks she's pretty," the thinking goes, "then she won't care about all those advertisements and street harassers and sexist bosses." 

The problem is that these attempts to elevate my baby's self-esteem only draw attention to her appearance. They make it more relevant than it needs to be. Children know that adults talk about what is important. If a child hears compliments about her appearance more than compliments about anything else, what is she going to conclude?

That her appearance is more important than anything else. 

What Happens to a Child Who Knows She Can't Be Pretty Enough?
As soon as a child becomes interested in being pretty, she's primed for disappointment. Someone else will always be prettier. That's because the images with which children are inundated are not of real people. The airbrushed models my daughter will see on billboards model a standard of beauty that is literally impossible to achieve. 

She won't know this. 

All she'll know is that lots of people she sees every day are prettier than she is. 

How will she feel about this when the message she gets from all of the adults in her life is that pretty is really, really important? 

Pretty Is the Least Important Thing My Daughter Is
My daughter didn't earn her prettiness. She didn't work for it, and I don't know if she'll still be pretty in 5 or 10 years. I do know that, at least according to this society's standard of beauty, she'll eventually not be pretty. 

Society doesn't consider pregnant women beautiful. Older women aren't beautiful. Women with physical disabilities are not beautiful. If she's lucky enough to live a long life, she will eventually become at least one, if not several, of these women. 

And then how will she feel about herself? 

I know what it's like to lose prettiness. 

For most of my life, strangers have stopped me to comment on my appearance. I always hated it. Sometimes it scared me, particularly when men threatened me for not smiling or thanking them for their attention. 

When I got pregnant, the attention stopped. For the first time in my life, I felt invisible. The trait for which I had received so much attention was gone. 

I've been a feminist my entire life. I've achieved many things I'm proud of. Yet the absence of comments about my appearance rattled me to my core because they had become such a constant part of my daily life. The world taught me that my appearance mattered, and that it made me worthy. Then it took that away. 

I don't want that for my daughter. 

She can't even walk yet. But already she has an engineer's mind. I watch her carefully dissect things with her mind and her hands. I am awed when she gets as close as she can to my lips to understand how I form words. She speaks. She understands sentences. She is kind and affectionate, and so empathetic that she cries when other people are hurt or upset. 

All I hear when people call her pretty is that these other traits don't matter. 

Someday that's all she'll hear, too. She deserves better. 

She deserves to know that the gifts that actually matter are those she works to cultivate. She deserves to know that with age comes increasing skill, and that her value to the world is not as a decorative object whose value inevitably decreases. 

I don't care if my daughter is pretty. Neither should you. 

Call her strong or smart or kind or thoughtful or mechanical or considerate or tough or gentle or compassionate or brilliant or funny or any number of other things. 

Just don't call her pretty. 

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