It was bedtime and my daughter was standing in front of me, blinking sleepily and rubbing her eyes.
“I’m not tired,” she insisted, stifling a yawn.
“Mmmhmm,” I said. “Come on, let’s get you ready for bed.”
She was wearing a frilly “princess” dress that she’d been flouncing about the apartment in.
“Let’s put on your pajamas,” I said.
My daughter’s face crumpled. Her lip began to quiver, and she sucked in a few short breaths, visibly upset. Fat tears slid from her eyes.
“But Mama,” she cried, “if I take off my dress, I won’t be beautiful anymore!”
As I looked down at my weeping child, I felt my heart sink and my stomach turn. She’s only 4. I thought I had more time before she started worrying about this kind of stuff.
I dropped to my knees and gently took her by the shoulders. I swept the tears from her cheeks with my thumbs and put my hand under her chin. I looked her in the eyes.
“My darling,” I said, “you are always beautiful. Always. Inside and out. You are a very beautiful girl, but more importantly, you are smart. You are funny. You are kind. You have a generous heart. And you are so very loved. You are a beautiful person with or without a princess dress.”
She shook her curls adamantly, her tears continuing to flow.
“No, Mama, no,” she insisted. “I won’t be beautiful if I take off the dress.”
It was an eye-opening, smack-in-the-face moment for me. I knew that my daughter would one day be affected by ridiculous, unattainable beauty standards, but I didn’t think it would begin so soon. I didn’t think she’d fall apart at the thought of not being “beautiful” at the age of 4. I vowed to do better and to make more conscious efforts to instill in my daughter a sense of confidence and self-worth-independent of her physical appearance. But how?
I don’t say things like ”Hello, beautiful.”
When I read Lisa Bloom’s article “How to Talk to Little Girls,” it was a big wake-up call. She talks about how to speak to young girls; instead of greeting them with appearance-focused statements, simply say hello. Introduce yourself. Ask them how they’re doing. It’s such a natural reaction to fawn and gush over a little girl in an adorable dress that it takes a conscious effort to stop. I myself am guilty of focusing on appearances in little girls: What a pretty dress! You look beautiful! Aren’t you precious? When the first thing one says to a little girl is a remark on her appearance, it teaches her that her appearance is the most important thing; and to be honest, it objectifies her a little. The latter statement is a bit of an extreme viewpoint, but the objectification of women starts incredibly early, and it often begins as seemingly harmless little statements.
I focus my praise on things other than her looks.
My daughter frequently asks me if she looks beautiful. As soon as she slips on a skirt or a dress, she will twirl and ask, “Mama? Do I look beautiful?” She does, of course. She is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in all of my life, and I want her to know that; but following the previous point, I am careful to assure her that she does look beautiful, but not to the point where that’s all she focuses on.
“Yes,” I will say, “you are beautiful, and you are wearing a beautiful dress. But you know what I like even better? I like your imagination. That is one of my very favorite things about you.”
Most of the time, my praise will be met with a twirl and smile. I don’t press the issue; I just trust that she heard me and that my words are bouncing around in her head and will eventually stick.
I don’t criticize myself.
I’m guilty of standing in the mirror, pinching my bare belly and lamenting about how squishy it is. The shiny white stretch marks that decorate my stomach make me wrinkle my nose. I throw miniature tantrums in the fitting rooms at Target like everyone else does (other people do that, right?). But I don’t do these things in front of my daughter. Daughters often emulate their mothers, so if we are constantly vocalizing how much we hate our bodies, what does that teach our girls? If there’s something about my body I don’t like, my daughter doesn’t know about it. It is my hope that if she has a mother who is confident in her own skin (or at least seems that way), she will pick up on it and adopt that trait, too.
I encourage self-expression.
Now that my daughter is old enough to put her clothes on independently, I let her choose her own outfits from top to bottom. Sometimes, she picks out combinations that match; sometimes, she doesn’t. I am not the world’s most fashionable person, but I will admit the first time she mixed something that clashed, it made me twitch a little bit-but I still let her wear it. I want her to express herself in whatever way she sees fit. I want her to challenge society’s expectation of beauty and what women “should” wear. I want her to be comfortable and confident in her own skin, and if that means wearing an orange sherbet-colored top with a purple and black Halloween skirt, so be it.
I don’t know if the words I say, the values I instill and the examples I set are the right ones. I don’t know if they will help my daughter build the confidence she needs to navigate the judgmental, awkward teenage years. I don’t know if the steps I’m taking now will help my girl grow into a confident woman who walks through this world self-assuredly. All I can do is my best and hope that my best is the right thing to do.
Natalie Green is a Chicago girl living in Chattanooga with her husband and their 4-year-old daughter. When she’s not working full time outside of the home, she enjoys reading, writing, singing, zombies and running. From zombies. And also beer. You can stalk her blog, Mommy Boots, or follow her on Twitter @mommyboots; or you can email her directly at [email protected]. She also has an (Im)perfect Parenting Facebook page. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.