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My daughters are beautiful and I tell them so all the time. Sometimes I beg them to look away from me. “Your face is so pretty it hurts me to look at it,” I’ll mock-scream. Sometimes they giggle, other times they roll their eyes at me. When they do I pretend to melt like the Wicked Witch under the burning halo of their crushing good looks.
Journalist and CBS News legal analyst Lisa Bloom would surely be horrified. In a recent HuffPo piece plugging her new book (Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World) that has been making the rounds on Facebook, Bloom makes a rather compelling case for deemphasizing looks to our daughters. She writes:
"Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What's missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments."
It’s a smart, funny and well-written article and I’m looking forward to reading the book. But here’s the thing: When I was a child, my parents never once told me I was pretty. I’m not looking for sympathy here, nor am I suggesting I was some elite physical specimen that deserved special recognition. I was a decent-looking child, average on any cuteness scale. While we like to think that modern-day dysfunctions always trump yesterday’s, even back then there was an undeniable emphasis on looks.
My folks were quick to tell me when my hair looked “ridiculous,” or to point out when I’d gained a few pounds (as if I didn’t know this?) or to tell me how pretty this friend or that cousin was or to ask if they could take a picture of me so that I could see later just how awful I looked. The very clear message I got was that looks mattered -- and that I didn’t have them.
“You look like a clown,” they’d tell me when I plastered my face with makeup (apparently not the way to get your folks to acknowledge any slight degree of attractiveness you might possess).
For this reason I probably overcompensate with my own girls. They are 6 and 8 and have the poise and confidence of children much older. Neither has ever asked me if she was too fat or too skinny or too tall or not tall enough. When my younger daughter saw me straightening my hair and I asked if she wanted me to do hers she replied, “No thanks, I like the hair I have.” We talk about what beauty is, and that it’s not this eye color or that body shape. I tell my girls that they are beautiful, because I don’t want them ever to worry that they aren’t, and because I know from experience that not telling them would be emphasizing looks in an equally powerful and possibly even more damaging way. I tell them that they are beautiful not in addition to being smart, kind, funny, tenacious and brave, but because of it. Hopefully, that will be good enough.