By Angela Noel

A woman with a cloud of yellow-tinted hair compared my face to a series of shapes and declared it too round to be the coveted oval of beautiful people. I was eight years old.

Why this lady, grandmotherly in age, appeared in my second-grade classroom to teach “grooming” to the female students at St. Cecilia’s Catholic School I can’t tell you. But I can tell you her comments about my face, the way she studied it and pronounced it wanting made an impression.

Like most girls I knew, I idolized princesses. I watched as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White lay, still as death, waiting for their princes. I envied Cinderella, chosen above all other eligible ladies to be the wife of the future king. Each girl (slim as a willow, lips plump and puckered) said little, communicating primarily with her beauty, poise, and the occasional song.

Up until the yellow-haired lady, I have no memory of thinking of myself as anything other than pretty as a princess. The adults in my life all told me so. Complimenting a girl-child on her looks is so common it’s almost the first thing one says when meeting her for the first time. I had pretty hair, a nice smile, and certainly wore a beautiful dress now and again. If my nails were painted, wasn’t I fancy? Didn’t my shoes sparkle? Didn’t my eyes shine?

Of course all these things were said to me. And I liked them all. Yes, I was a pretty girl. Thank you. And then the yellow-haired lady and her oval entered my life. Until she compared my face to the ideal and told me I couldn’t be perfect, I believed in my beauty as thoughtlessly as my princess heroines believed in their dwarves and fairy godmothers.

The illusion of my prettiness didn’t come crashing down right away. I remember my disappointment at my imperfection vividly. But I still had my books, my family, my friends. I still had dodgeball at recess and the stories I wrote about fantastical creatures on islands in azure-blue seas. Compliments on my outfits, my hair, and my freckled cheeks still sounded in my ears. I was still a princess, albeit an imperfect one. But not for long.

A Longstanding Narrative

In the fourth grade, my teacher used a projector to draw silhouettes of her students with white crayon on a piece of black construction paper. I remember seeing my picture and wincing. The nose was too big. The face was too round. Surely I didn’t look like that?

In the fifth grade, I lost the coveted part of Southern Belle in the classroom project to reenact scenes from the Civil War. Was it because I wasn’t skinny enough or pretty enough? I played a dead confederate soldier instead.

In the eighth grade we ordered portraits for junior high graduation and I cried when I opened the package on my way home from school. The teeth were all wrong, the smile not quite right. The face was too round, always too round.

Meanwhile, I’m writing stories and winning essay contests. I’m singing in the choir and playing on softball teams. I’m on the honor roll every semester. But it’s not enough. I want to be pretty.

During a church retreat when I was fourteen years old, we did the thing where everyone tapes a piece of paper to their backs and has a Sharpie in hand. Wandering through the crowd of teenagers and adults people write compliments or observations on other people’s backs–an intended affirmation exercise. When I read my paper I saw comments like “smart” and “funny,” “creative” and “sweet.” But not pretty. My friend with her long blond hair had note after note about how beautiful she was, but not me. I cried in my bunk when everyone else ate s’mores.

These years, pre-adolence and adolescence when studies show the greatest dip in self-esteem among girls, can be painful for a number of reasons. Though some dispute the findings, others take them further, showing that the confidence gap of girlhood lasts into the workplace decades later.  Many articles from parenting magazines to Forbes give advice on how to raise confident girls. These articles specifically call out the challenge of the princess narrative as a thing to be minimized, while encouraging positive body image.

Girls today, with all the advice out there, and hopefully fewer yellow-haired ladies preaching the virtues of oval faces, should be better off than we were thirty years ago. And much has changed . . . I think. Maybe?

My friend Amy Brenengen, in her letter to the editor of our local newspaper enumerated several ideas on ways we can act, instead of just talk, about women and equality. One of her ideas is this:

Don’t say, “But it’s not me!” It is you. And it isn’t you. Social constructs both have a life of their own and are also the product of the decisions and choices of a million different individuals (men and women, by the way). Do your part (and more) as an individual, sibling, parent, community member, etc., while simultaneously working to change the institutions around you. We can do both.

Inspired by Amy, I’ve talked to several friends with daughters in the last week. One mentioned how her daughter does well in school but struggles socially. Another, citing a scary statistic about the likelihood of being raped in a woman’s lifetime (1 in 5 according to the 2015 NISVS Data Brief from the CDC) just wants her daughters to grow up unviolated. A third, a dad, mentioned how a program he and other parents started in his daughters’ elementary school using Vex Robotics has encouraged girls and boys to work together, challenging each other to improve their designs. Yet one group, where girls partnered together, focused only on designing a pretty robot instead of a functional one.

These things give me pause. I see awareness. I see pockets of progress. But I return to my experience as a girl.

We Affirm What We Value

As the parent of a son, I never ever talk about his looks. He never talks or thinks about them either. He actively protests when his dad puts gel in his hair. In the car today I asked him what I compliment him most on. “My behavior,” he said. “This year it’s my kindness. Last year, it was when I followed the rules.” Nowhere in the world of raising boys do looks play a major part. Or, I should say, almost nowhere. Clean is good. Clothes that fit are good. But my kid would wear a bag to school if it was comfortable and helped him climb the playground equipment.

Our world focuses on the looks of girls and the accomplishments of boys. Despite the best efforts of individual parents, the community begins this indoctrination practically from the moment a child is born. Even for my nieces, and even knowing the effects of the “pretty” narrative on myself, I have to actively bite my tongue to keep from complimenting these bright and twinkly girls on how pretty they are, or how sweetly they smile as they toddle about a room.

I don’t compliment my nephews on their looks. It never occurs to me. I might say, “What a fun shirt!” Or the occasional, “How handsome you are in your dress-up suspenders!” For the most part though, the looks of a boy don’t get my attention. But the looks of a girl are the first thing we see. And the first things we teach her to see about herself.

No wonder I remember the yellow-haired lady’s comment on my face. No wonder I reflected on my lack of beauty despite evidence to the contrary and accomplishment in other realms. I saw myself through the eyes of a world that saw a pretty girl first, and everything else after. And in the teen years when faces and bodies change, when sex is ever present, and messages of competition for the scarce resources of a coveted boys affection intrude, what’s a girl to do?

I’m not saying a focus on a girl’s appearance is the only problem when we think about confronting the challenges of gender inequality today. But, it’s a big one. Or at least it was for me. My lack of confidence in my beauty made me vulnerable to insecurity about other aspects of myself. I couldn’t quite get over the fact that I didn’t feel beautiful as compared to my friends, to the princesses, or to fashion models. I couldn’t quite get over the fact that the earliest idea I had of my self-worth lived in the eyes of others, instead of within myself.

So, true to Amy’s advice, I’m looking at myself and my own contributions to this ongoing narrative of beauty-as-value. What am I doing to challenge a culture where a girl’s beauty, her desirability, forms the basis of her self-conception?

Is a compliment wrong? No. Is a compliment to a little girl on her pretty dress or bouncy curls wrong? Not necessarily. But, the next time I want to give a girl a compliment, I’ll think about what she does, and not what she looks like. And, as Amy says, a million different individuals doing just that could change a generation.