It never fails. My girls and I will be out and about — at the library, in the grocery store, even at a science fair — when some well-meaning but unthinking stranger will compliment them on their looks.
"Look at those beautiful blue eyes," or "I wish I had those freckles," or even, "What a beautiful dress."
These are all very kind comments offered up more as icebreakers than as actual commentary. Often, the conversation gets around to what they are working on in school or the conclusion of their science experiment. But what my daughters hear first and foremost is almost always "What you look like matters."
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Sarah Powers recently wrote an editorial in The Washington Post about the best ways to compliment little girls. She, too, lamented about the stream of appearance-based messages that we send to little girls. In her article, Powers argued that we all need to do a better job of complimenting our daughters with messages that speak to their character and accomplishments rather than just their looks.
The problem with Powers' suggestion is that she is for the most part preaching to the choir. As a mom, I am well aware of the undertone of physical judgment constantly assailing my daughters. They know that I see them as beautiful and kind and strong and creative and crazy good at math. They know that the compliments they get from me are more likely to focus on their minds or their hearts than their outward appearance.
But it's the stranger at the store who only sees them for their looks that sends the message to them that society as a whole wants them to look pretty and not much else. And as much as I enjoy one-woman campaigns to change societal views, I think it's more productive to make sure our daughters know how to accept compliments graciously while filtering out the ones that focus only their appearance.
As much as I try, I can't control the rest of the world. And I can't shelter my girls from the fact that even in this day and age, many people still see young boys as "strong," and young girls as "beautiful." But what I can do is make sure that my daughters know how to say "thank you" the next time someone compliments their hair while simultaneously steering the conversation toward the triathlon they completed over the weekend or the latest book they are reading.
In a perfect world, society as a whole would catch on to the fact that we all need to be more mindful of the way we talk to little girls. And to little boys. But it's a far from perfect world, as we all know. So rather than toss a guilt trip at the well-meaning store clerk or great-aunt who compliments my daughters on their looks, I hope to teach them how to deflect those comments and move on about their day.
Will it help them grow into young women who are cognizant of society's fixation over looks without falling prey to it's trappings? All I can do is hope.