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Darlena Cunha Headshot

Tell Your Daughters They're Beautiful

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There's a lot of noise about women and physical beauty these days. From outrage over the sexification of Merida to outrage over the Dove Beauty Campaign commercials to outrage over Abercrombie and Fitch's ridiculous marketing strategy. It all has to do with looks, with physical perceptions of beauty, both our own and that of the world.

While many are looking outside, trying to fix the world, for a moment, I'd like to look inside. Because I'm hearing a lot of the old, "Stop telling little girls they're beautiful. You give them the idea that's the only thing life is about and that's the most important piece of their personality. You're part of the (huge) problem."

I don't agree with this. I don't think that complimenting a little girl on her looks chips away at her self-esteem. I cannot see how simply telling a girl she's pretty somehow translates into telling her she's not pretty enough. The problem, as I see it, isn't that parents or family or even strangers are remarking on physical attributes positively. The problem is beyond that. It's entrenched in a society that shows women with botox and boob jobs as prettier than the average girl. It's in the magazine spreads and celebrated celebrity lifestyles. It's in the television, as reality stars spend hours in the bathroom to get themselves ready for the next random hookup. It's not us. If anything, I think, our daughters need us to tell them they are pretty more now than ever.

I don't mean saying things like, "You'd be prettier if...," or "Let's try to do your hair this way to make you pretty." I also don't mean dwelling on it. Once is enough, per surge of emotion. No need to repeat it a thousand times. That makes the words lose their meaning. They lose their context. If you are a broken record, your compliments cease to be compliments and your daughter may begin to only hear, "pretty, pretty, pretty." Which is what the original fear is.

But there is another side of the coin that cannot be ignored. Our society, as it stands right now, is not blind to physical looks. To turn away from this does nothing to solve the problem. It will not help your little girl's self-esteem as she grows older. Yes, it's important to focus on her inner beauty and her skills, but there's no reason to pointedly ignore the physical. Because if you do ignore it, you'll be the only one. And you'll be leaving a gap where your daughter needs you most as she grows.

Because people are going to call her ugly. I don't care what she looks like, some jerk is going to come along and try to make her feel bad about herself. And while the thought that "looks aren't important, it's the beauty on the inside that counts" is true and important for her to know at every age, that's only going to help her when she's already a fully grown adult, when she's already determined who she is and what her personality is like, when she's already stable in her place in the world.

Looks aren't important, it's the beauty inside that counts. That's not going to help her when she's nine or 12 or 15. At those ages, how the outside world perceives you is important, and a parent ignoring looks will become just another example of how "mom doesn't understand me," or "mom doesn't want me to be happy."

These are treacherous years. During them, your daughter is going to need to know in her subconscious that she is beautiful, inside and out. The way to give her that nugget of truth is to tell her when she is young. So that when that A-hole comes along spouting filth about your daughter's looks, she doesn't have to rely on a philosophy too complex for her years to get her through. No, she'll be able to draw strength from a subconscious well of knowledge that she is, indeed, pretty. You told her so. Your friends told her so. Everyone she met from age 2 to now who is not this person (or these people, as the case may be) told her she was pretty. Her own self-esteem isn't developed enough to get her through the attacks unscathed, but with help from you in her growing years, she may find strength.

Little girls, teenaged girls and women in general should not have to worry about their looks, especially not obsessively like we've begun to do. But that doesn't change the way of the world, and your daughter needs your support in the world in which she lives, not in the ideal world in which you wish she lived.

So, yes, I will continue to tell my daughters they are beautiful. I will tell them every day. Because I feel it every day. And there will come a day when they no longer believe me. But my words to them now will be lodged in their subconscious minds. My words to them now, I hope, will form a base of knowledge from which they won't have to waver. I can only hope that they'll understand that looks are not everything, but that even so, they look beautiful. Always.

Why not be honest with our daughters? Instead of ignoring an ugly side of society that we don't like, hiding in the sand, why don't we face it head on, acknowledge it, and give it its proper place in our daughters' perspectives as they grow? Because without our guidance here, without our acknowledgement and understanding of this part of life, our daughters will be forced to figure it out all on their own. And the only people they'll have for help are those magazine spreads filled with botoxed beauties. The only people they'll have for help are those kids at the bus stop calling them names.

We need to be a positive force in our daughters' lives as they live, not as we wish they could live.

See more on parenting and feminism at Tales of an Unlikely Mother or follow along on Facebook.

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