Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Beauty Myth is alive and well

My almost-four-year-old daughter often tells me she wishes she had "flat hair". What she means is she wishes her curly hair was straight. Some might put it down to the early adoption of a lament from women throughout the ages - wanting the opposite of what we have. But it's more than that. For a while I was concerned that it was some kind of self-loathing at the ripe old age of three. But it's not that. For my daughter, I realised the reason she was keen on "flat hair" was because she was bothered by the number of comments her curly hair attracts. She told me she doesn't like people talking about her hair all the time. And especially doesn't like being called "cute", which she associates with babies. And she is not a baby, she is a three-year-old girl. 

Maya gets attention pretty much wherever we go. Most outings include one or two or sometimes several instances of well-meaning friends or passers-by telling her how cute, beautiful, gorgeous she is, specifically in relation to her hair, eyes, eyelashes, skin. She's over it. My son, who's six, used to get similar comments up until around the age of 4, but they were never as frequent. Now that he's a bit older and his hair is not as curly and not as blonde, he escapes the running commentary. My fear for my daughter is that she will never escape it. Well, maybe when she's about 40 it will start to drop off. At which point hopefully she will feel liberated rather than disappointed that her social currency is waning.

So what's the big deal? I know people are well-intentioned, why can't she (we) just take a compliment and get on with life? Is my 3-year-old ungrateful or just shy? Or is it something else? I don't blame her for being uncomfortable with having her looks scrutinised. While I can see it's in some ways a natural inclination to comment on something that is pleasing to the eye - aesthetic beauty is and always will be important to humans - I also think there's something else at play. Girls are socialised to be as beautiful as they can be - and to bask in the glory of said beauty. Beauty is the ultimate aim and the ultimate prize.

I understand the urge to praise beauty aloud - I certainly feel it in relation to my daughter, and my son for that matter. They are so beautiful to me. I do occasionally indulge my urge to tell my children (and other people's children!)  how amazing they look, but most of the time I bite my tongue, or I try to re-frame it with emphasis on how clever they are or how hard they tried, because it's not all there is, and it will fade as other qualities go from strength to strength. 


  1. This resonates for many of us, I imagine, Sarah. My daughter (11 tomorrow!) has always been subject to endless commentary on her 'gorgeousness', and has alternated between quiet gratitude and combative 'yeah, but isn't being kind more important?', which I've tried to instill in all three of my brood. I've always replied to comments about her looks (which are most relentless from both sets of grandparents) with, 'I'm just blown away by her kindness and cleverness, personally'. As you say, my boys have had it too, but less than Antigone. More comments on their strength or cheekiness it seems. What's that about gender being a non-event these days?

    I always think of my dear SIL, who tells the story of everyone calling her 'Pretty Penny' her whole life, from a very young age. Her image issues are sometimes crippling, and she has struggled since adolescence with eating disorders. It's not all from the commentary, of course, but none of that helped. And what a shame, as she's also very kind and clever. Let's hope our generation does better with our kids. Good on you for contesting this seemingly incontestable space (ingrates unite!).

  2. Really interesting post. Reminds me of Lisa Blooms essay on girls and how we need to stop complimenting them on their beautiful shoes and instead ask them what they are reading at the moment, what they are interested in, etc etc.
    Of course as parents we cannot but marvel at our children's beauty in all its manifestations, mostly quietly to ourselves but sometimes aloud too. But when that is all a child hears from the outside world it is problematic.
    Of course, I know that Maya will be receiving an entirely different message from you, about what you value in her (which is not to dismiss her beauty but not to elevate it to being the most important thing).

  3. I always joke with Mrs Woog that beauty is fleeting; rat cunning is for life. LOL.

  4. With three girls I think a lot about this. A lot. But still have no idea how to tackle it. love this post x