“I want to apologize to all the women
I have called pretty
Before I’ve called them intelligent or brave
I am sorry I made it sound as though
Something as simple as what you’re born with
Is the most you have to be proud of when your
Spirit has crushed mountains
From now on I will say things like
You are resilient or you are extraordinary
Not because I don’t think you’re pretty
But because you are so much more than that.
“What a pretty dress!” “You look so beautiful!!” “Look at those perfect curls.” How often do we dish out compliments to girls based on their appearance? I do it all of the time. We mean well. We want to build up their confidence. Make them feel beautiful before they enter a world of ruthless comparison. We do it for the right reasons, but when we overemphasize girls’ looks or how they dress we unintentionally send the message that these are the qualities that give them worth, rather than emphasizing intelligence, leadership qualities, or naturally inquisitive minds about nature and science. I’m not proposing we never talk about appearance, but If we shift our flattery at least twice as often to focus on intrinsic qualities, we can help girls build a quiet inner confidence that is not only valued, but unbreakable. We can help set them up for a future of strength and self-assuredness with less need for constant, superficial approval from others.
Developmental Specialist, Aileen Jackman, recently led a lunch and learn about confidence at the Suzuki Buckhead campus. She started off the session by asking, “Do you remember a time when someone said something to you as a child that negatively affected you?” In a room full of women every example was related to physical appearance - no comments were related to a skill, intelligence, or abilities to accomplish something. I’m guessing this experiment would have gone differently in a room full of men.
So how do we change the conversation? How do we take the focus away from looks while still ensuring girls grow up confident and proud?
Focus on effort and process-oriented praise, rather than product-oriented. Make a conscious effort to balance out compliments on looks with twice as many compliments on who a girl is and what she does. Point it out when you notice she worked really hard to complete a task or project, or came up with a creative solution to a problem.
Model self acceptance. Our most relentless critics are almost always ourselves. Next time you go to make a comment about what you look like or how much weight you want to lose - remember who is listening. Instead of making negative comments about what you look like, talk about the positive healthy habits you’re focusing on, like exercising or eating fruits and vegetables and celebrate what your body is capable of. In over-complimenting our children on their looks, we may be inadvertently communicating our own insecurities. Practice more self-compassion so the inadvertent messages you send are positive ones.
Encourage skills and activities that are independent of appearance. Sports are a great way to encourage healthy habits that focus on developing a skill and build self confidence. If your little one is more creative and is interested in playing an instrument or dreaming up stories and writing, foster that. Celebrate her interests and individuality so she feels accepted for who she is, not just what she looks like.
Provide examples of women you admire for their spirit or strength. Read books together about women who faced adversity and prevailed, or accomplished amazing things to change the world. Television and social media provide a plethora of princesses, damsels in distress, and girls whose primary concern is what they look like. It’s up to us to supply examples of the qualities we want our children to value in themselves.
Allow your little one to solve problems on her own. We don’t get self confidence from being told what a great little girl we are or from having others solve our problems for us. Our self esteem comes when we overcome obstacles on our own, establishing a strong sense of competence. By letting our children know we are there if they need support but are not going to do everything for them, we send the message that we know they are capable of meeting challenges themselves and don’t need rescuing.
According to the US department of Commerce, women filled 47% of all US jobs in 2015 but only held 24% of the science, technology, engineering, and maths jobs. The difference in the way we treat girls and boys begins at a young age. Girls are typically given dolls or encouraged to play house, while we give boys Legos and blocks to build with. If we begin to be more mindful about the subtle messages we send, we can start to change the script. With more thoughtful compliments our girls will grow up less concerned with what they look like and have much more time to focus on everything else they bring to the world. We don’t need to stop communicating to girls they are pretty - but rather emphasize the fact that they are so much more than that.