Pretty Hurts – Mamma Said, “You’re a Pretty Girl”

How old were you the first time you heard your mother say she needed to lose weight? For the life of me, I don’t remember. But by the time I was 9, the message was clear: my mom was fat.

The ridiculous thing is she wasn’t fat at all. Come to think of it, she was probably smaller than average, but hey, if the woman I idolized and tried to emulate in every way said she was fat – and said it with such disdain – then by gosh by golly, I was fat and gross, too.

Making little girls worry about being fat is not the only way we break them down. I know it seems harmless (or even beneficial) to compliment a girl on her outfit or hair, but it’s not. All children want attention, and unfortunately for little girls, we tend to praise them primarily on their appearance. What kind of message do you think it sends?

My niece is five years old and she is a pretty girl. Not only did she win the genetic lottery, she also loves clothing and dressing up.  Her parents don’t stifle her passion; she’s allowed to choose her outfits and she decides how she wears her hair. However, they don’t praise her choices, or comment on her looks in any way. Instead, she receives praise for independent thinking. “I love that you know what you like,” her mother says. An unfortunate by-product of this is that most everyone else applauds her appearance. Several times a day she hears, “Wow! You’re so pretty! I like your dress!” and she basks in the attention.* But how great would it be if our society praised little girls for meaningful things, instead?

On her first day of Senior Kindergarten, my niece’s teacher sent home a form for parents to fill out. “My two wishes for _____ this year at school are:_______.” Her father, who is also a teacher, wrote this,

“My first wish is for my daughter to be praised for her efforts, accomplishments, and achievements, not for her clothing or appearance. My second wish is I want my daughter to enjoy school and develop a love for learning.”

My niece is lucky her parents are involved and care this much. They don’t want their daughter to grow up believing what she looks like is the most important thing she has to offer the world. I’ll admit, it’s difficult for me not to comment on her clothes (we have basically the same taste in fashion and she’s 5…not sure what that says about me…moving on).

“What did you learn in school today?” I’ll ask instead.
“Ummm…I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You silly monkey. OK, tell me about the last book you read. You know how much Auntie Ana loves books, right?”
“Yeah, I do! I read Dora the Explorer and…and she went to the tree! And she found a box that had, ummmm, a lot of things to, ummmm, take to the beach and…and play with Diego!”
“WOW – that’s so cooooool! What else happened?!”

The next time you meet a little girl, or see one you already know, resist the urge to tell her how pretty she looks. Eliminating the word, “pretty” from our vocabularies entirely probably isn’t a bad idea. Let’s teach our daughters about beauty, instead. My niece and her mom had a conversation that went like this,

“Aunty Ana is so pretty!”
“Auntie Ana is beautiful, yes. But not because of her clothes or anything like that. She is beautiful because she has a kind heart and a warm smile…just like you!” she said, squeezing her daughter in a tight hug.
“And I like her nails.”
She bit back a smile. “Yeah, she has nice nails, too. But her heart is what makes her beautiful.”



*I’ve told this story before and some people are appalled. They think my cousin should not allow her daughter to wear “pretty clothes,” and I give those people a proverbial middle finger. You have to allow children to express themselves and discover who they are. If she likes clothes, let her like clothes. Just don’t let it be the thing she values most. Besides, clothing is a way to express your imagination, too. Didn’t you play dress-up as a kid? My nephew is allowed the same free rein with his outfit choices. Sometimes he goes out dressed like Batman. You be you, kids. Unless you can be Batman. Then you should always be Batman.