Please Stop Telling My Daughters They’re Pretty: How Our Appearance-Focused Culture Affects Girls

Focusing on young girls’ looks might seem harmless, but it can be damaging in more ways than one. As a mother of three girls, I’m respectfully asking you to stop…

Two sisters doing homework together

“You look so cute today!”

“Your dress is so pretty!”

“Look at those gorgeous eyes!”

I have three girls – a six-year-old and three-and-a-half-year-old twins – and I’d be very rich if I had a dollar for every time a grown-up commented on their appearance.

No one ever asks them what their favorite book is or what sports they like to play. Think these questions are too grown up for children so young? They’re not. I hear little boys being asked those same questions all the time. If boys can handle them, girls can too.

One thing I never hear is an adult complimenting a boy on his cute t-shirt or lovely hair. Actually, I did witness it once and you should’ve seen the boy’s face. He stared up at the offending mom and yelled “What? I don’t get it!” before running off to ride his bike in the dirt. She just laughed in embarrassment and said, “Oops, I’m a mom of girls!” Enough said.

I’ve fallen into the trap myself more often than I’d like to admit. I swear I won’t comment on little girls’ looks anymore, but before I know it, I’m blurting out, “I love your dress!” Ugh. 

You might be thinking, “This woman needs to relax. It’s just a harmless compliment.” 

But sadly, the research shows that our looks obsession is far from innocuous. Here are three ways in which it’s hurting our girls:

1. It affects their health and development

When we deck our little girls out in pretty dresses, we inadvertently thwart their development. 

Because their movement is restricted, they’re less physically active. With more than one in six American children aged 2 to 19 suffering from obesity in 2016, we don’t need more reasons for our children to be sedentary.

Girls who wear fancy outfits are also less likely to play outdoors. They miss out on priceless opportunities to develop their gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, creative thinking and connection with nature.

Oregon State University philosopher Sharyn Clough even believes that our obsession with keeping little girls neat and clean may contribute to higher rates of disease in adult women. She hypothesizes that a lack of exposure to allergens, infectious agents and parasites in early childhood can suppress the development of the immune system and explain the higher rates of asthma, allergies and autoimmune disorders in women. 

2. It destroys their self-esteem

In the U.K., the 2016 Girlguiding Girls’ Attitudes Survey found that 36 percent of girls aged 7 to 10 say that people make them feel like the most important thing about them is the way they look.

You read that right: not they feel but people make them feel. Unsurprisingly, 40 percent didn’t feel pretty enough and 16 percent were ashamed of their looks.

In the U.S., research has found that 50 percent of 13-year-old girls and a whopping 80 percent of 17-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies.

No wonder. From the day they’re born, their looks are constantly scrutinized by adults. Once they’re exposed to mass media and social media, they’re continuously pummeled with images of women who are heavily made up, photoshopped and filtered.

Even if they’re told that things aren’t as they seem and it takes hours of preparation for women to look that way, they can’t help but covet these unrealistic beauty standards. If highly intelligent and educated women fall into the trap, what chance do little girls have?


3. It could expose them to violence

According to a 2018 report by Australian non-profit organization Our Watch, perpetuating rigid gender stereotypes can hinder both boys’ and girls’ career prospects, emotional health and capacity to engage in equal relationships. Worst of all, it leaves girls and women exposed to violence.

While dressing girls in princess gowns and boys in superhero costumes might seem natural and harmless, it reinforces a historical system of gender inequality. If we continue to perpetuate the notion that women are meek and agreeable while men are strong and dominant, we have no chance of reducing the shocking domestic violence statistics in our country.

With 1 in 3 American women having experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, we need to make changes now. Our Watch believes that parents of young children can play a powerful role in preventing violence against women by challenging rigid gender roles and modeling equal relationships in the home.

One family’s fight against pretty-girl culture

When Toronto mother-of-two Jemma was growing up, her mom dressed her up like a doll every day. “I’d have these fancy dresses with pearl bracelets and ringlets in my hair and blue hair ribbons,” says Jemma. “I hated it with a passion and I swore I’d never do that to my kids. Well, I had two girls! My 10-year-old is very boyish and she likes to wear baggy shirts and short hair. My two-year-old is super attracted to princess dresses for now because they’re everywhere, but I’m always trying to redirect her to less girlie outfits.”

Jemma admits that she constantly argues with well-meaning friends and family members who insist it’s “just a bit of harmless fun” and that she should “let girls be girls.”

“I know people mean well, but I really don’t think it’s harmless,” she says. “If people tell my girls they’re pretty or comment on their clothes, I politely tell them that we don’t say that in our family. People get offended all the time, but if we keep letting our kids fall into those traditional gender roles because we’re too scared to speak up, nothing will ever change. I’ll speak up. I’ll do it for my girls and girls everywhere. We owe it to them.”

Let’s make a pact, mamas: I won’t tell your daughter she’s pretty if you don’t tell mine.

We do owe it to them.


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