As a woman with a brain who grew up in the late 20th century, I'm well aware that it is a scary time to be a young woman. Advertising and marketers are acutely tuned into the fact that our developing brains and bodies are searching desperately for what makes us fit in, what makes us beautiful and desirable, and what makes us feel connected to our peer groups. And then they exploit those vulnerabilities to the nth degree.
I wish I could say that my self-confidence and high intelligence made me immune to these overtures, but that would be a blatant lie. I went through the "starving myself" phase (from which my metabolism has never really recovered. Sidenote: I think if we told all girls who were starving themselves that later on, when they ate normally again, they would gain a lot more weight, it might prevent them from doing this?), I went through the "desperately seeking attention from males" phase, and even the "stealing expensive clothes so I could fit in" phase.
So when I found out we were having a little girl, my mind clouded over with concern. What if she wanted to dress in a little cheerleader outfit and dance in front of crowds? What if she wanted to look like a teenager when she was five and participate in pageants? What if I was unable to build a secure enough foundation for her self-worth that she searched for affirmation in dangerous places?
There are a lot of articles out there right now on "how to talk to little girls." And I totally get the point. Don't make your primary way of affirming your daughter about her appearance. Don't only tell her that she is beautiful or cute or gorgeous. Balance your attention: tell she has great manners, or that she is tries so hard to do right, or is so smart.
Way easier said than done. Because you know what? My daughter is freaking beautiful! I just want to tell her all the time how pretty she is. She is also really smart. So I try to engage with her on that level too.
I was talking this over with the old playgroup in Lawrence (which was appropriate, since all but two of the babies in that group were girls), and my friend Tai had a very intriguing viewpoint. She agreed that it is harmful when the only cultural message girls receive is that appearance makes you worthy. However, she also said that she thought the secure, unwavering, nonsexual attention of a male (usually the father) was very important in establishing firm self-worth in little girls. In essence, that it was important for little girls to hear their fathers (or male parents) say that they were beautiful.
Confession: I have spent most of my life feeling like my areas of primary worth were intelligence and humor. I decided really early on that I would never be the prettiest girl at the party, so I needed to excel in some other areas. And when I think back on my childhood, what did I hear my mother tell me most often? Emily, you are such a smart little girl! I also thought my role in the family was as comedian. Not that any of this is really bad, objectively. Just making a point.
I didn't hear very often that I was cute or pretty. My stepdad Mark, who is made of gold and thinks that I walk on water, affirmed me in every other way. How smart, how dedicated, how funny, how capable I was. But never really beautiful.
So now I don't feel so bad when I hear Jeff gushing to Vicki Jo that she is so cute. I don't feel like he is setting her up for a lifetime of valuing appearance above all else. Rather, I see that he is setting the foundation (in a very natural, organic, un-self-conscious way) for her to have a balanced assessment of herself and what she can offer the world. And that is very beautiful to me.
*Anybody else remember this great kid's church song? Be careful little eyes what you see . . .