How Do We Respectfully Teach Young Girls About Beauty?

Family Matters on 07.16.12
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Photo: Mijori / Creative Commons

I almost titled this post "The More Feminist Approach to Teach Young Girls About Beauty" but it's such a loaded topic - feminism and beauty. We've been instructed that discussing appearance with girls at all is destructive. However, by not mentioning appearance (when it's true that girls are judged by their looks, whether we like it or not) we can unwittingly give them the idea that they don't measure up in that area. As I've written before, standing in the checkout line of the grocery store could convince anyone that appearance is the most important news to hit the stands for the past century.

I do call my daughter cute because I can't help it! She's cute! But I admit that I've been wondering, after reading Lisa Bloom's article "How to Talk to Little Girls", if I'm doing my daughter a disservice by acknowledging her appearance.

Hugo Schwyzer, Pasadena City College instructor of a class called "Beauty and the Body in the Western Tradition" that examines "the intersecting histories of fashion, faith, and body ideals from the classical era to the present" wrote an article for feminist blog Jezebel that changed the way I think about talking to little girls about their looks.

Schwyzer writes:

In a culture that reminds them at every turn that their primary value is in their looks, girls do need constant encouragement that their minds matter as well. It is vital to talk to girls about books, about politics, about art, about sports, about ideas. But girls also need help navigating the confusing messages they get about their bodies. Very few problems are solved by not talking about them. That's as true of girls' feelings about beauty as anything else.

There's a difference, of course, between never talking to girls about clothes or make-up (which sends the unhelpful message that such concerns are trivial, or evidence of superficiality) and actively praising little girls for being pretty...Certainly, many adults do lavish attention on girls' looks. But that's only a problem when they don't compliment anything else. When girls are lauded for their other qualities, when they get support about their other interests, then attention for their appearance gets healthily integrated into the symphony of encouragement that all children need and deserve.

I'm also a big fan of British feminist Caitlin Moran's approach. When we look at the media's overriding fascination with what passes as "successful" for a female and how many women get there (Be young! Be Flawless! Be Skinny! And for God's sake, don't get fat!), I'm reminded of Ashley Judd's awesome smackdown of the media for speculation over her "puffy" appearance. But back to Moran: she has noted that these young ladies often got there - success? In the eye of the media anyway - with the help of what they aren't wearing, as opposed to what other talents they have to offer. Moran tells her girls:

Look at Rihanna: She's one of the biggest pop stars in the world. She's really famous, really powerful, really rich. Yet in every single video she can only wear panties. Poor Rhianna! We'll know when she is properly powerful and successful when we see her in a lovely cardigan.

These days, the bar is set low. Wearing pants in public is half the battle.

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