Don’t Call Me Beautiful.

“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.)

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14 responses to “Don’t Call Me Beautiful.

  1. Good thoughts Gemma.

    I’ve noticed that I have a natural tendency to tell our daughter she’s pretty every time I see her. I don’t think it’s a bad instinct, but it did strike me that with our boys I’m usually focusing on praising something they are doing well, rather than telling them they’re handsome. As a small corrective I’m trying to follow every “aren’t you beautiful?” with “aren’t you smart?” or something similar…

  2. Really like this – thanks, Gemma! I love the idea of beauty referring to the whole person – that’s the kind of beauty that lights up a room rather than just decorating it :-)

    It makes me wonder if perhaps one of the reasons why we have such a problem calling ourselves beautiful is because it’s become a word that, by definition, has come to involve a second opinion – someone else’s. Our beauty is assessed by whoever is looking at us. Would women have the same problem calling themselves intelligent or witty? I don’t think so. But being ‘beautiful’ is no longer our call. So yes – redefining and reclaiming that word would be a great thing to do!

    All credit to your parents for giving you and your sister the support and encouragement to express yourselves and be creative rather than focus on your physical attributes. We do still need to be seen, crave to be seen, but to be acknowledged completely for who we are as a human being, not what we look like from the outside.

    It’s also a thought-provoking point that young girls are skipping meals to get the ideal body shape rather than getting active. More exercise and a decent diet would make them feel better about themselves on many different levels, giving them self-confidence, strength, stamina and a shapely and – more importantly – healthy body. That’s something else we can do: educate our kids about the way their bodies work and help them get in touch with their physicality so they can feel really and truly ‘in their skin’ and deep down beautiful. xO

  3. Great, insightful post.

    I was not told I was beautiful; I was told I was smart. Fortunately, I also valued intelligence over beauty and hung out with people who valued intelligence over beauty, so I wound up with a pretty good self-image.

    I think more powerful than telling someone they are beautiful is to tell them you ‘find’ them beautiful – that you love to look at them. There is a subtle difference – and I wonder, does that solve the problem?

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tanya. I worry about the helpfulness of defining beauty or worth by being found by someone to be so – it seems to me that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ etc only give the power to the beholders whose opinions will change. Beauty as being seen or recognised by someone else makes me uncomfortable. What do you think?

      • Yes, I see what you mean. I think I was meaning, when we say to someone, “you’re looking beautiful” we’re putting that on them as part of their identity (and then what if they change?) I think what I was trying to get at was more of a ‘I find you beautiful – because I love you- and that won’t change’. I can honestly say that about my baby; that his beauty is tied up in my love for him (ie I love him, so I find him beautiful; not he’s beautiful, so I love him). Trying to find a way to communicate that?

  4. Gemma – love your thoughts on all these issues that really matter. Thank you for starting these conversations, because ‘beauty’ (as culturally defined) needs ‘redemption’ (as Kingdom defined). You’re bringing the light.

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  6. We were looking after our friends’ kids the other Saturday night while they went out to a hotel for the evening to celebrate his birthday. Their 3-year old girl, NoemKa, is a very pretty child.

    When Fi was dressing her for church in the morning and suggested that she wear a nice full-length dress, she preferred rather the ugly neon orange shorts and sweaty T-shirt that we’d taken her cycling in on the previous day (which was her first time on a bicycle. I felt like I was cheating her parents out of an experience.)

    Fi asked her why she didn’t want to wear the pretty dress. The subsequent conversation was suitably adorable..

    “Are they gonna call me beautiful auntie FiipKa”

    “Yes, of course they are.”

    “Then I don’t want to wear the dress..” (she’s shy and doesn’t like to be the centre of attention.)

    “OK, I’ll tell everyone not to call you beautiful.”

    “Do people call YOU beautiful auntie FilipKa?”

    “No, not usually.”

    “Oh.. don’t you mind that?”

    “Well no, uncle Graeme tells me I’m beautiful.”

    “Oh… Is he going to tell ME that I’M beautiful?!”

    “No sweety, I’ll tell him not to.”

    Fi managed to convince her to wear the dress as long as she was allowed tennis shoes to go with it instead of her “ballerinky” sandals.

    Then she came out hiding behind Fi’s knee, afraid that I would call her beautiful.

    I should just let that story stand by itself. But one comment I have about it is that it made me reflect on our Sunday morning rituals. Where we pay so much close attention to appearing good outwardly. Perhaps it would be better to spend some time allowing God to search our hearts, and see if there is any wicked way in us, without neglecting the outward concern for our appearance.

    I think I’m going to start writing down all the telling and insightful things that Noemka says.

    On her first bicycle ride she came out with this little gem

    “I’m scared uncle Graeme. But I don’t want to be scared. I’m going to learn how not to be scared.”

    Then she stopped being…

    • Graeme, this has stuck with me all day. Thanks for sharing. Interesting how it does seem to be innate, both the desire for recognition of presence and self, but the desire also to be taken as more than a body.

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  9. I feel like this post is permanently stuck in my mind. On Facebook I frequently see other women receiving lots of likes and positive comments about their appearance on their profile photos and, honestly, it upsets me that I don’t really receive responses like this when I upload a new photo of myself. But I don’t want to feel that way, I don’t want to find my worth in the fact that other people think I’m pretty. I think what’s even more disheartening is that people actually think (and not just in reference to myself but for every woman), “Oh, she looks really nice so it’s important she knows that I think that/Oh, well she doesn’t look great so I won’t say anything.” Why do we think that we have the right to build up or tear down God’s creation is such a destructive way?

    I don’t tell people they’re pretty any more, not because I’m bitter or anything silly like that, but because I don’t think it does anyone any favours, it just gives people false hope in something that, as you talk about in this post, isn’t something that they’ve used any skill or ability to create. I realise the post itself is about children but I think grown women could do with taking some of this advice in their relationships with other women too.

    The challenge now is figuring out how I can know I’m beautiful because God created me like an artist paints a picture, not because I can apply make-up well or wear the “right” clothes.

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