Don't Tell Her She's Pretty? Screw Off: Self Esteem and the Case For Compliments

Friday, September 19, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Psychology of Motherhood

The self esteem of our daughters may be statistically lower than at any other time in history. Women’s happiness and well being has been on the decline since the 1970s1 and it is possible that our current standards of beauty along with our sociological situation is to blame. This may be why, in recent years, I have had a number of women ask me in session whether they are messing up their daughters by telling them that they are pretty. 

At first the question confused me. But no, they insisted, they had heard that telling a girl she’s beautiful is akin to sin, something you should never do or you might end up damaging them. 

And then I heard it everywhere, this debate about whether telling girls, “You’re so beautiful!” is really a good thing. Will she grow up to think that her worth is based on her physical appearance?

“We don’t want that! Tell her she’s smart, not pretty!”

The argument usually ends with someone saying, “If we tell her to put all her energy on being pretty, if we push the idea that the physical matters, she’ll end up relying on that to get what she wants.” 

AKA: Tell her she’s lovely and she’ll surely turn into a gold-digging whore. 

That, or we think that if we tell her she’s beautiful she won’t focus on being smart. 

AKA: Tell her she’s lovely and she’ll become a bimbo instead of an engineer. Fuck all that Toddlers in Tiaras bullshit. Without us pushing her to be smart, she’ll never aspire to it. Obviously. 

Perhaps instead you have heard the argument that later damage and disappointment may occur if she sets her expectations too high based on an inflated sense of self that isn’t reflective of reality. 

AKA: Tell her that she’s too pretty, and she’ll be crushed later when the world tells her she isn’t. Or she’ll end up a goddamn narcissist. 

We could also argue that it is better to focus on those things a child does, putting forces squarely on elements we want to nurture. “I love how hard you worked at putting your hair into that ponytail,” as opposed to, “Your hair looks beautiful.” That way we bolster the actions leading up to it, giving them something to strive for. 

AKA: If she thinks it just is, she will stop trying so hard and turn into a lazy asshole. 

Bollocks. 

While I am an advocate for focusing on things children do to encourage a growth mindset and a  sense of empowerment, there is no shame in telling a child that they are beautiful as well. Clearly, telling anyone that the most important thing is beauty has the potential to be damaging, as does putting all the focus on things someone "is" instead of things they can become. But very few parents do this. They say she looks cute in her tutu, that her eyes are lovely. Most parents who give their child compliments of this nature balance it with exclamations praising intelligence or kindness or creativity, often in ways that encourage competence: 

"I love how hard you worked on that picture! It's awesome!"

"Thank you so much for apologizing to your brother, it was very kind."

In these instances, children more accurately hear, “I love you,” as opposed to, “If you weren’t so pretty/smart/nice I wouldn’t value you.” Certainly if you only give physical compliments, you may be on a slippery slope towards a focus purely on outward signs of attractiveness, and this is especially true in homes where attachment security is damaged. But I am reluctant to embrace the idea that telling a child that they are beautiful is a bad thing, particularly in a context where a balance is being offered. 

Of course there is the whole double standard of, “We don’t treat boys the same way!” But that is an easy fix that starts with us. My sons have beautiful eyes and I would be remiss if I did not alert them to this fact. It doesn’t mean that I will be changing their names to "The Long Dong Ranger" and "Johnson Freeballer" and pushing them into the Chippendale trade in the near future. 

Why would we assume that this is what we are doing to our daughters? Give them some credit. Our girls are just as strong, just as resilient, just as smart. They are just as able to take a compliment and understand that, while we are complimenting a physical attribute, this is not all there is to her.

Hell, I know I am awesome in ways besides my outward physique, but I like to hear that I look nice sometimes too. We all do. It is not a crime. And if we want her to be able to take compliments well, we better show her that being complimented is something she is worthy of, whether we call her “smart” or “hard-working,” “funny” or “pretty”. Plus, we know we’ll be upset if she ends up with someone who refuses to tell her she’s beautiful regardless of his reasons. Because she fucking is. And she deserves to hear it, dammit. 

And as much as we don’t want it to, beauty does matter. Our daughters will be bombarded with this notion, no matter how much we hate it. She will be pandered to through triple-zero clothing sizes and photo-shopped ads. She will be forced to see idealized notions of what beauty is and find that she doesn’t fit into it, at least at some point. And no matter how we tell her it doesn’t matter, we have an evolutionary predisposition to want to be beautiful according to the standards set forth by the environment around us, though there are other elements that go into this attractiveness quotient such as wit, intelligence and kindness (discussed more here in "You're Not Pretty (Enough)": The Media, Porn and Rush Limbaugh). 

Though “pretty” is part of an evolutionary imperative as well as a societal one, it is true that the way we treat women exaggerates those drives in ways that are potentially unhealthy. Did I say potentially? I meant to say, "These drives are exaggerated by the media's unrealistic portrayal of beauty, which leads women to see themselves as less than and it makes me fucking sick."

But this doesn't mean that parents are implicit in destroying their daughter’s self esteem by complimenting a physical attribute. 

And lest we forget that simply replacing the word “beautiful” with “smart” can backfire too. Because some days she will feel less smart, like when she fails a test, or god forbid, makes a random spelling mistake in a blog post. Will her world crumble for that moment because her entire notion of worth is centered on being smart, being perfect? Does she see this as something she cannot alter? Or will she come out okay because she has a more well-rounded sense of self that informs her that she has control over things like learning, that she is more than simply this, that she is the sum of her parts and far more? Our actions speak louder than our words, and caring, attachment security and love will let her know that she is always good enough for us, whether she looks pretty right then, whether she fails a test, whether she falls down at a dance recital.

It is that attachment that will make her feel beautiful, inside and out, in a way words can't. Her sense of worth is more fluid than a simple word. Beauty is more than just one element, but even if she likes being physically beautiful, we may be the ones in the wrong if we insinuate that this is shameful. 

We cannot make her not care about her appearance, just as no one else can make us not care about our stretch marks, our weight, our wrinkles. It is a society-wide effort that we are currently failing at as a nation. The next generation will not be one where physical appearance is irrelevant, though that is surely a wonderful thought.

So what does telling her she’s pretty do? It shows her that regardless of this “you’re not pretty enough” media pandering, there is someone who thinks she is beautiful. For whether her beauty lies in her eyes, her hard work, her smile, her caring, her kindness, her empathy, or her scholastic excellence, she is beautiful because she simply is. 

Reminding her that she is beautiful to you simply because she is who she is won’t condemn her to a life of prostitution, gold-digging bimbo-ness, or entitled laziness any more than telling our sons that they are beautiful encourages man whoring. For in a world where she will be reminded often of her shortcomings, a word here and there may help her to see herself the way you do, if only for a moment. For it is through our eyes that we hope our children can one day see themselves: as the beautiful, wonderful people we see in them, who are amazing and perfect just as they are. Our perspective will shape hers. And that perspective matters. 

Let her see her beauty through your eyes. So that one day she will be able to see it through her own. 

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Citations
  1. http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/files/wp09-11bk.pdf



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