“You’re just so pretty, aren’t you?”…”Look at that beautiful smile!”…”Aw, what a gorgeous dress!” In the world of children (and especially girls), compliments on physical attributes are just as common as “More juice, please” (the “please” is optional) and “There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo!”
Dove has reported from its global research that only 11% of girls are comfortable using the word “beautiful” in describing themselves. Frightening news in itself, but look ahead: its study in 2004 found that only 2% of women worldwide considered themselves to be beautiful. Just the other day, The Independent brought to us the findings of a study suggesting that primary school-aged girls are skipping meals to meet their “ideal” body shape.
At first glance, these 2 paragraphs don’t add up – little girls constantly being called ‘beautiful’, growing up with the aversion and inability to use the word in reference to themselves. It is clear that calling people beautiful does not guarantee healthy body image or self-acceptance. Indeed, could these two things correlate negatively?
As I seek to understand the link between being over-complimented on beauty and then becoming disconnected from it, my personal battle has helped me tremendously. I was a little curly-haired, blue-eyed, frilly-dressed girls who was complimented for her physical appearance (NB: the picture below depicts a loving scene between my sister and I, for your viewing pleasure/relief from a bit of an intense blog).
In and of itself, there was nothing wrong with this. People’s intentions were good. I should have been told that I was beautiful, and every other little girl on the planet should be told the same. But somehow, over the years, comments about my appearance have fuelled the very wrong -but difficult to challenge- schema that the better I look, the more liked I am; and that if I don’t look a particular way, I am “less me”. The thought that because I don’t look a certain way (the way that is dictated to me through unrealistic images of unattainable standards), I am not beautiful, and that therein lies my worth as a human being. I fight this daily, as do most other women, and it is a heavy burden. I struggle to call myself beautiful.
I remember a very minor incident of my sister’s quirky style being somewhat picked on at the dinner table by a visitor - my mother jumped in like a lioness and shared the philosophy that laced our upbringing: children receive enough knocks from the world (the media’s unattainable and objectifying messages included) and she made it her mission to build us up and fortify us with love and support. My sister and I were taught that we were beautiful, and this did to a certain extent protect us from being beaten up by the world.
But the debate must move from solely encouraging positive body-image to appreciating people as whole beings, in part because parents cannot protect their children all of the time: and I did receive the message, loud and clear, that mainly, I was an object to be looked at; but primarily because that very message is wrong. I am a good enough human being and I am more than an object (See this excellent piece about looking beyond beauty by Melanie Klein for more). As my high-school music teacher told me when discussing the next 15 years of my life (he thought wanting to get married was silly and passé), “being pretty isn’t going to cut it when you’re divorced and have 3 kids running around you, Gemma.” Harsh and I hope not to experience what that feels like: but true. He should have added that “being pretty isn’t going to cut it when the media tells you you aren’t good enough.” That is where the rubber meets the road: no matter how beautiful we are told we are, we are NOT going to meet the standards forced upon us by society and media and co because they are not real. So at some point, we will be not beautiful (according to the narrow and superficial definition we throw around).
Indeed, much more than being told we were physically beautiful, my sister and I have always been encouraged to express ourselves, to engage in creative activities, to study, to aim for the stars. Our creativity and intellect and interests have always been held in higher esteem than our physical appearance, and I believe that this is the key to fortifying and protecting girls: telling them that they are beautiful, but telling them that they are also gifted, intelligent, creative, competent, important people so that when the world tells them their physical appearance is not good enough (and we all know that it will), they are able to still stand up. Perhaps then, in redefining the word “beautiful”, women are able to see themselves as such – perhaps if we say that in chasing dreams and aiming to fulfil potential, by exercising talent and pushing ourselves, by demonstrating kindness and showing compassion, by fighting for truth, by meaning the word to encompass much more than what we’ve reduced it to, we are beautiful. More beautiful than any pretty face could ever be.
Practically, what can we do? For ourselves; check our definitions of beauty and pursue truly beautiful qualities. For others; the task is great. Rarely do I hear “What a cool picture – can you tell me what’s going on in it?” or “Why is this your favourite book?” or “You seem to love birds…which is your favourite?” or “That was fantastic counting!” in the context of working with children. Little girls (and boys) should not be taught through our compliments and words to them that their physicality is the most important thing about them. Nor that it should be something upon which they build their lives. This translates into the world of grown women, too. Refrain from complimenting someone based on something they have no control over or something purely physical – choose instead to praise their work, to encourage them in an action, to admire their character. Feel free to (and please do) call others beautiful…but in your definition of the word, be true to the whole person.
(Thanks to the founder of the Reelgirl blog, Margot Magowan, for bringing this issue up last week. She shares her views here.)