The Problem with “Pretty Girls” and Princesses

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.

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Comments

  1. Rica

    Absolutely love this! As a mother of boys, I see the difference in how we treat each gender and how they respond to attention. My sons certainly don’t aspire to be beautiful, rather we have programmed them (inadvertently) to be strong and masculine. This hurts too and every so often, I have to remind them to cry if they need to and be vulnerable in ways that don’t come easy. Thank you for spotlighting this shortcoming in society. I wish we could get better at teaching our kids real values. We have so much progress to make!

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      angelanoelauthor

      Thanks, Rica. I agree with you–girls have the beauty problem and boys must wear that masculine mask. I think what you’re doing with your boys is exactly right. This year, we’re working with our son about emotions too. He has them, it’s about finding the right outlet. In many ways it’s little corrections.
      I don’t think my commitment to avoid commenting on girls looks will change the world, but maybe it’s a tiny step. Little bits of progress. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Janet Mary Cobb

    Angela – you are so right! Thank you for a vulnerable and powerful post. As one with two boys and a girl, I became aware of this early on. I remember my husband olding our daughter in his arms, staring into her eyes and listing as many positive attributes as he could; you are smart; you are kind; you are strong; you are brave….beautiful being just one of among many. When people heard him, they would comment that he would make her conceited. We simply explained that we had about 5 years to engrain self-esteem in her before classmates and society began to tear her down. Because society certainly does! And I do think that the tides are changing and your commitment to avoid commenting on girls looks – along with others – will change the world! And if not the world, at least the lives of those little girls.

    1. angelanoelauthor

      I love how you and your husband handled this with your daughter. You’re absolutely right—beauty is one of many and not the most important. Yet, we have spent generations making it most important. That won’t change overnight.
      Frankly, I’d be sad if no one ever again thought I looked nice and told me so. I considered as I wrote this piece if people would say, “what, now I can’t ever compliment a woman on her looks anymore?” And to them I would say, of course you can, just think about it. And think about it especially hard when you’re talking to a little girl. Like eating sweets, those kinds of compliments are a “sometimes” treat. Whereas affirmations of a job well done are the nutritious stuff.

  3. Kathy

    Thank you for sharing this. My mother took me to a “beauty” class when I was 12. As we vulnerable, self-conscious girls sat side by side, the instructor went down the row and, as you say, studied each face. My eyes were not quite rights (she actually laughed), my face was between round and oval, and I was fully freckled. I remember nothing else about that day. But I knew I wasn’t pretty. And Seventeen Magazine confirmed it. Especially the freckles. Now that I’m 71 the emphasis is on getting rid of wrinkles and not going gray. And I’m still buying into it.

    1. angelanoelauthor

      I hate that you had this experience. And it’s no excuse that it was a “different time.” Or is it? Can we only grow as aware as our culture is willing to allow? No matter the good intentions of our parents, they too are subject to the overarching narrative of the time.
      With my son, I know life will be better for him if he has some control over his emotions. Tears can’t be the answer to every frustration. But I want to be careful not to say, “toughen up,” because it’s not about being tough. Tears are normal. Boys can cry. Vulnerability is strength. But crying because you struck out at the plate in baseball practice isn’t a productive way to manage disappointment. So, just as we have to think about how we seek to de-emphasize beauty in girls, we have to stop crushing emotion in boys.
      Perhaps some would argue we’re messing with the natural order, but I don’t think so. Strength and beauty can both stand to be redefined.
      Thank you for sharing you’re experience. And for the record, I’ve always thought you are beautiful.

  4. thebeasley

    Absolutely. Lots of tiny actions make for a big change. I do tell my daughter she is beautiful, but I always tell her she is both beautiful inside and out. I also tell my friends they’re beautiful. And the day Bessie told me that I was beautiful, I knew giving her this compliment encouraged her to compliment others. HOWEVER, I tell her all the time what she looks like is the least important thing about her and others. I tell her it’s whether people are kind, hard working, a good friend that matters. She understands this. I compliment her other ways too. I don’t ever just focus on her looks. I compliment her when she’s worked really hard on something, when she’s been independent, when she’s been kind & thoughtful. I make more of a fuss of those things whereas when I tell her she beautiful- it’s more of a passing comment. You’re right, there’s always more we can do as individuals. I’m going to ensure I talk this to me niece and my daughter’s friends (and my friend’s daughters) this way too. If we all did this it would make a huge difference. On a personal level, I was told on several occasions that I was ugly as a child. Being skinny, pale, with frizzy hair and huge 80s glasses doesn’t encourage compliments on your beauty as a child. So I grew up thinking I was ugly and focussed on my personality instead. Honestly, in a warped way I’m thankful for those awful glasses I wore as a child. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them!

  5. angelanoelauthor

    I love it when my son calls me beautiful too. Somehow though, I think beautiful means something different to him. It might mean he thinks I’m “beautiful” in the normal sense, or it might mean because of who I am to him and become he loves me so, his eyes are influenced by his heart. And I think that’s perfect. It doesn’t really even matter if I’m “actually” beautiful by some cultural standard–it matters how he sees me. And I think that’s similar to you and Bessie. You are both objectively lovely, but being beautiful in the eyes of someone we love is a heart thing. Seeing people through her heart is what I think you’re teaching Bessie, and what I hope I can help instill in my son too.
    It’s awesome that you appreciate your glasses! I can only be grateful for them also, as I have never met you in person, but have benefitted from your awesome personality. 🙂

    1. thebeasley

      That is so adorable that your son calls you beautiful. And I agree, I think when you tell someone you love deeply that they’re beautiful, you’re not just talking about their looks. You’re talking about them as a whole. As a person.

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  6. Samora Henderson

    I absolutely love this, I remember my 4th outline when my teacher Had the same idea for PTA NIGHT. My outline came out like a boys and it remained a memory that never seems to allude me.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Thank you for sharing your experience, and for reading. These small little messages do tend to stay with us.

  7. Bjørn

    Important article, it says: “We Affirm What We Value” and “Our world focuses on the looks of girls and the accomplishments of boys”.

    I agree that this helps creates low self-esteem in girls and it is imperative that we address it.

    However, I believe that if we wish to achieve gender equality we can not only talk about the problems girls have, we need to address the problems WE have.

    I have two major problems with the article:

    One: it is binary, girls and boys.

    Two: It is implied that boys do not have a problem, and that affirming accomplishments is a good thing, which I believe setts boys up for failure.

    Both affirmations are quantifiable, meaning it is hierarchical and that there can only be one that is the prettiest or that there can only be one winner.

    This is not to say that we should give medals to everyone. No I believe we should value the struggle instead of the goal.

    A counter argument I often get to my point of view, is that this is and has been a mans world and now it is time to focus on women’s issues to achieve equality. To that I say, then one is following binary logic, which is playing within the sandbox created by male dominance, and with that one will not achieve equality as there will always be an opposite fighting to be heard.

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      angelanoelauthor

      I think you make some excellent points. Men and boys do have their own issues. As I mentioned in response to another reader, as a mother of a son I’m conscious of the cultural impacts of the “tough guy” stereotype that can be so damaging to raising an empathetic human. And I think you’re right, where competition and dominance is the goal (or the preeminent goal) we miss the point of community and the value of individual struggle as essential character-builders.
      I like your point that if we argue in a binary frame we can only teeter between the two. Expanding beyond those definitions to a more human dimension is a valuable goal.
      Thank you for your thoughts.

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  8. Sadje

    A great article. You have nailed it. It’s so true that our attitudes are breeding a sense of insecurity in our daughters and may be our boys too, when we pick out the qualities that please us, to compliment them. Time for a change.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Indeed! We can make a change and I think small corrections can have a big impact. Thank you for reading.

  9. pramegha

    As I read on, I noticed how relatable it felt to me. People around me compliment my siblings and friends on how slim they are, or how slim they have gotten. I always compare myself to the model on the screen. I have herd my friend say that she doesn’t like herself, the reason being her appearance. This definitely kills confidence, for my friend is extremely shy. I will definitely remember to tell girls around me how wonderful they are, instead of how their eyes sparkle!

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      angelanoelauthor

      I appreciate your willingness to see a new way to affirm your friends and colleagues. I definitely don’t want to ban compliments about sparkly eyes–but I do think we can emphasize the deeper, more lasting aspects of others and affirm those more often than what’s on the outside. Thank you for reading and adding your thoughts!

  10. Pingback: The Problem with “Pretty Girls” and Princesses – Curiosity – Start Something

  11. letscarpediemblog

    Thank you so much for writing this. I will reflect and see how I can change my approach to fellow women and certainly to little girls. Being aware is key, time to spread this message to my friends 🙂

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      angelanoelauthor

      Yes–being aware is key. I love that you want to spread the message to your friends. I’ve heard from a few others that they’s had conversations just like that with their daughters or neighbors. I’m so inspired by you and others willing to start the dialogue.

  12. juliaslifetravels

    I love this post and the world needs it, as a female student I see and experience these social construction our society has created. We need to treat everyone equally. Thank you for this post.
    ……
    I’ve recently started blogging, I write about everything i feel passionate about. It is a deep dive into my soul and contains thoughts about traveling, our world and plans for the future. Maybe you would like to check it out?
    https://juliasdiary521944898.wordpress.com/

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  13. Lauren @ BAOTB

    I relate to this so hard. I always wanted to be the pretty one, but I was the nerdy little bookworm, also winning essay contests and writing awards, and was voted “Most likely to be found in the library” as my senior superlative. It was devastating to think that I would forever be remembered as that girl that brought books to class everyday instead of the pretty one.

    I’m getting better now. I’m 24 and I’ve realized I’m never going to be everybody’s definition of beautiful. I’ve found someone who thinks I’m gorgeous, and that’s enough for me. I’ve come to terms with the fact that there’s very little I can do to change the way I look, but I do enjoy wearing pretty dresses (I’ve already got my dress picked out for my Masters graduation in December!) and dressing up in general.

    It’s all about what you do with your life. My boyfriend told me “Comparison is the theft of joy,” (and I’m sure he found that quote somewhere online), and it’s true. The longer you spend comparing yourself to others, the less you’re going to like yourself.

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      angelanoelauthor

      You’re absolutely right about many things here (in my opinion, anyway). First, your boyfriend did crib that saying from Theodore Roosevelt. But it’s a really good one! My boyfriend from long long ago said “Comparisons are odious.” But I like the Roosevelt/your boyfriend’s version much better.
      There will always be someone better, smarter, prettier, faster etc. But, there won’t be someone just like YOU. We are emergent properties–the sum total of all our magnificent qualities and the less-than-awesome too. Your bookishness sounds fabulous to me. I already love that about you.
      Congratulations on earning your Masters! Wear that pretty dress with pride! Beauty is all around us. Nothing wrong with being and feeling beautiful. What I’m hoping to avoid in myself and in perpetuating in others is the sense that without the pretty dress or the conventional beauty of face or body, we’re somehow “less than.” You’re awesomeness speaks for itself. It doesn’t need a pretty dress, but it sure can like one. 🙂

  14. coolreaderblog

    Some things that we do are unnoticed by us and have such a big impact on a kids life. This post was truly inspiring and has changed the way i think. Even as a little kid, i was a little bit of a tomboy…. maybe thats why i never got any kind of body negativity in my head as i grew up. I love my parents dearly for treating me the way they would treat any child regardless of the gender and I hope to spread your word around.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Awesome! Thank you so much for reading this and spreading the word. Kudos to your mom and dad for encouraging you to be you.

  15. The Bath Castle

    Luckily, I grew up surrounded by strong women who didn’t take crap from anyone, who didn’t conform to make anyone else more comfortable, and who were still beautiful in my eyes, kind, compassionate, hard working, wise, and so many other wonderful things! I was a tomboy growing up…I know not everyone likes that term anymore but I don’t care and still embrace it because I was always proud to be a tomboy! 🙂 I have 5 Uncle’s and they were all into boxing. My one Uncle was a Golden Gloves Champion a couple/few times in the Welterweight division. They taught us girls how to defend ourselves and my mom could take down five big men…and did, when she needed to and she was a tiny little thing! Yet, she’d be just as quick to rush in and save a person or animal in need! So, while we struggled with the stigma of being a female and the expectations of what we SHOULD be by some standards, we were who WE wanted to be! I have still struggled with body image and looks, wishing I were more feminine sometimes and still as pretty and skinny as I used to think I was before 5 kids, but I try hard to be happy with who I am no matter what. Funny thing is, I’m always better at seeing everyone else’s beauty than my own…and I can look at almost anyone else and see beauty unless they are ugly on the inside. Even then I struggle to find something good to see…but, society has to stop worrying about what is right or wrong for others to a certain degree. We don’t get to choose who someone gets to be. As long as they aren’t hurting themselves or anyone else, they should become whatever they drram, even if we don’t like it or agree. They’ll answer for their own choices, just as we all do and hopefully, they’ll learn from everything too…even if it’s sometimes a hard and painful way, but it’s still their life to live, not anyone else’s! Woman or men who want to be mechanics or nurse’s, or beauty queens or basketball stars…have the right to go for it no matter what their gender is! When we can learn to love and accept everyone for who they are and not what we want them to be…including ourselves, this world will be a better place!

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      angelanoelauthor

      I so agree with you. We have SUCH an opportunity to see beyond the quick judgments of what’s on the surface and look a little deeper. I LOVE that you grew up in a family that supported you to be yourself and to value things beyond the “cultural norms.”
      Sometimes I think these kinds of pervasive messages are like a fog we can’t help but live in. Despite all efforts to close and bar the doors it still seeps in.
      One thing I notice in myself sometimes is that I blame myself for not being able to forgive myself! How silly is that! Your words reminded me a bit of what I sometimes go through–knowing I should be proud of who I am, but still feeling insecure, and THEN blaming myself for feeling insecure when I should feel proud! I’ll never reach self-acceptance if I can’t accept that it’s okay to just be myself. (Now that’s a mind bender!)
      Thank you so much for reading, sharing your thoughts, and carrying the message forward.

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  17. Ashwin Travel

    Hello Angela, I hope you don’t mind if I offer an alternate view on your post. First of all thank you for writing it. I think it is extremely well written and definitely got me thinking, as I am the only male in a house of women. I agree with almost everything you said. I think it is a major problem that girls are made to feel like their self-worth is solely based on their physical appearance and also agree that this must change. As some have commented boys also experience this, although I agree to a much lesser extent because society tends to attribute our self-worth to many other attributes beyond just appearance. But I wonder if instead of not talking about physical appearance, maybe we should teach everyone (both girls and boys) to embrace their appearance as only one aspect of what defines them? I believe that people to treat each other different based on appearance. It may not be something we like about human nature but that does not change that it exists, and I do not think we can change it. So why not use it as a strength? Your post inspired me and I wrote a blog post about it. Would love to get your comments. https://ashwintravel.com/2018/09/17/the-pretty-problem/

    Thanks!

    1. Janet Mary Cobb

      I visited your blog. I have many ideas swirling in my head in response to your post. While I get what you are trying to say, I think that you are confusing or conflating ‘dressing nicely’ and ‘presenting yourself well’ with ‘beauty’. The former are things we can control – the latter is not. The perception of beauty is inherent — and at the same time very biased. Yes, people will judge us based on our looks — not just our ‘presentation’. But these judgments lead to assumptions, prejudice, and even hatred. And the FACT is, men are not judged the same way – if they were, men would be expected to wear makeup and pantyhose, shave their legs and underarms, etc. And just think about if a woman showed up wearing a gray t-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes EVERYWHERE she went (like Mark Zuckerberg). I could go on — but basically I think we need to encourage minimizing the emphasis on beauty and maximize everything else. Not easy but necessary.

      1. Ashwin Travel

        Dear Janet, thank you so much for considering my point of view and for your response. Maybe we can re-define what beauty means? I think what I have learned from my wife is that even though I might not look like Brad Pitt, I can still be confident about my appearance by making the extra effort to be myself and dress nicely. I have definitely noticed a difference in the way I feel and the way people treat me since. I just wonder if we could teach both boys and girls to be proud of how they look regardless of their looks. Maybe this is a different way to attack the problem than to not talk about it.

        You are absolutely right that men are not judged the same way. While there is pressure to look more masculine and work out, we are judged on many other factors and so it is easier for us to overcome not having the looks that society deems ideal.

        Thanks for taking the time to respond.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Thank you–I’m glad to hear your point of view. I must say though, I think we’re actually in agreement. My point was simply beauty or outward appearance should not be the FIRST or the most frequently noted thing about our girls. I love the idea of using our unique appearances as the physical expression of our unique selves–without judgement based on arbitrary definition of what constitutes beauty on any given day. Little changes can make a big difference.

    3. Unbound Roots

      I agree with both of your comments here. Looks do play a role in how people treat each other, especially when we are considering first impressions. There are many layers to what makes up a person, and looks are one of them. They shouldn’t be the only focus, but they do matter. I’m going to expand on this thought below. 🙂

  18. Cait Carter

    My husband and I are bringing a baby girl into the world at the end of next month, and eschewing some of the gendered assumptions/ways we talk about our kids is one of our biggest focuses as new parents. It’s VERY hard to do–hard to explain to our families (right up there with the “Why we won’t make our kid hug you” conversation) and hard to put into practice–already, and she’s not even here yet–but it matters SO MUCH. I’ve seen a lot of encouraging children’s literature lately–the Ada Twist Scientist types of books, for example–that give me hope that the world we’re bringing Babyface into is slightly less broken than the world we grew up in. But it’s also so focused in our culture–so much a part of how we’re taught to interact with little girls–that it can be hard to break free from that mold.

    1. Janet Mary Cobb

      Cait Carter – congrats to you for thinking about these things ahead of time! We also didn’t make our kids hug anybody. Kids have a 6th sense and we need to help them listen to that! I don’t know if you saw my earlier comment about the ‘litany’ my husband recited daily (if not more) to our daughter from the time she was an infant. It is up in the earlier comments. Congrats on the new baby. Enjoy!

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      angelanoelauthor

      Yeah you! Congratulations on your almost-here baby! There are some really fantastic new entrants into children’s literature. I have to say, I loved Moana–Disney’s newest take on the “princess.” No prince in sight.
      Your daughter will have a different world to inherit, and it will be because of you, people like you, and everyone willing to make little (and big) changes. Being open and listening is the very best gift I believe I have to offer as a parent. Because when I do that, I can learn, adjust, and grow right along with him. (As I know you will too with your Babyface!–love that btw.)

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  20. Matters of Living

    These little moments carry on mindsets that continue to drag us down. Sometimes I don’t feel like the world is becoming a better place for women. There are changes but new trends have also brought new challenges.

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      angelanoelauthor

      I do think the world is becoming a better place for women. But it won’t stay that way unless we keep moving forward–not to roll over anyone–but to keep growing and learning. Too often I think I get bogged down by the notion that it’s so frickin HARD to see the difference between then and now. Why, I ask myself, has it taken so long? But I know in my heart the answer is, “because it does.” And lasting change is slow. True opportunity and empowerment for women must become a healthy lifestyle not a fad diet. We’ll get there–I know we will.

  21. Kimberli Simon

    I raised two sons and we never talked looks. We focused on intelligence, humor, kindheartedness, etc. I recently had a 6-year old step-grandchild quickly enter and exit my life, but in the small amount of time she lived with me all people ever talked about was how pretty she was. It drove me mad. She wasn’t very smart, wasn’t very kind, and had zero empathy for anyone but herself. She would get upset when I would say she was cute but no cuter than any other little girl. That drove her nuts. Her parents focused on her looks to the exclusion of all else. She spent inordinate amounts of time admiring herself and told me she had no need for schooling because of her beauty. It was one of the saddest things I ever heard. We have to send messages to our girls that praise their intelligence, wit, drive, creativity and passions. Looks should come last – if at all.

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      angelanoelauthor

      That is such a sad story. Perhaps the worst part is that sometimes, looks will open the doors her parents think should open for her–but those are not always the right doors (and could be very dangerous ones). As some readers have commented, having unconventional or unrecognized beauty resulted in the development of character, humor, personality. Our culture should not make it an if/then statement: because we aren’t conventionally beautiful only THEN do we develop these things.
      Good for you for raising two kindhearted boys–that too can be a challenge.
      Thank you for reading and sharing your story.

  22. allyalejo

    This was amazing and so relatable. I never believed I’d have any worth if I wasn’t beautiful or skinny. I didn’t know that I was already beautiful where it counts. Love your work 🙂

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  23. Jean

    My mother came from a family of predominantly girls (5 girls, 3 boys) and raised her own family of predominantly 5 girls and 1 boy.

    I do remember abit about her remarks..but it was probably lower than other families. Certainly we were too poor to even think about dressing up in pretty pink princess…. There was enormous emphasis by father for us to do well academically..better ourselves via university because he didn’t want us stuck in low-paying jobs like himself (cook). So father and mother didn’t comment much about looks or valuing us for looks.

    But media and society I would blame as bigger “pressure”.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Yes– the pressure is all around. It’s awesome that your parents set the emphasis on academic growth and progress. Sometimes expectations of any kind can be their own type of challenge when we don’t measure up. But I think an emphasis on academics versus outward appearance pays far greater dividends down the road.

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  24. Unbound Roots

    I tried to comment a few times but it’s not showing here. Hopefully it’s in your “spam” or waiting to be moderated. 🙂 It’s a long comment!

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  25. Sharin

    Loved reading this, some of the aspects mentioned is so real -I had read out aloud. There is so much we can do when it comes to beauty and complimenting girls. I wish I could have read this few years ago when looking pretty is everything I could think about.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Well, if I read your comment correctly it sounds as if you have found better things to think about. And if that’s the case–bravo! Our outward appearances aren’t inconsequential, they just aren’t the MOST important, and it’s hard to keep it in perspective sometimes. Thanks so much for reading and adding your story.

  26. Raney Simmon

    Thank you for such an honest, personal post. I can’t wait for the day when women don’t have to worry about someone making comments about their physical appearance when they’ve accomplished so much.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Thank you for reading, Raney. I think we have a chance to change this. A friend just sent me a link to a book called, “Strong is the new Pretty.” I like that idea a lot.

  27. Wame Muse Gwafila

    this was an enjoyable read. it is true that almost always a woman’s or a girls look is the first thing that’s noticed about them. i observed, once in my neighborhood, girls playing football with the boys and thought on to my childhood. i used to play football with the boys till i was 16. i probably stopped because of the social constructs that came about. i stopped being boyish and had to be lady like because almost always someone would mention my looks… then i started being conscious of them. thank you for this.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Thank YOU for sharing your experience. It’s so interesting how it seems as if the whole world conspires to keep the “pretty girl” theme alive. I’m glad you’re giving some thought to this and I appreciate that you read my words.

      1. Wame Muse Gwafila

        true. that’s why i like what your friend had to say about it being our responsibility to unlearn and disengage from the negative things we’ve learnt and imposed on ourselves. society is not an abstract. it’s me and you and everyone else.

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  28. The Undomestic Goddess

    Loved this article. I also have boys but have had the discussion with my friends with girls-one friend’s mother posted that if you give one girl a compliment on her looks and her sister is beside her, perhaps you should compliment the other as well. I feel like this might be true, but if you take it a step further, perhaps you compliment one sister on her soccer performance and the other on her performance in school, or whatever is appropriate.

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      angelanoelauthor

      That’s an excellent point. It’s happened to me where I’ve been in a group of women and I compliment one on something that seems particularly striking–a dress or a new haircut or something. And then, there I am wondering if I should say something like that to everyone. And then there’s the–“I like your hat.” “I like your shirt.” exchange. It’s a nicety and that’s not a bad thing. But, it doesn’t mean we can’t do what you just suggested–find a way to compliment girls and other women on their accomplishments or their character, and less on their outward appearances. Thanks for the thought!

  29. mikhailavandermerwe

    Thank you so much for this article! It is amazing to see that others are thinking this and speaking up about it!

    I grew up fairly tomboyish and didn’t care much for girly-ness, as my parents raised me to value intellect over the superficial. Occasionally outside interference would try to worm its way into my psych and render me society’s slave. However, the make-up sections at stores would always give me headaches and I couldn’t really care to go on clothes-shopping trips – my preference was spending an entire afternoon at a bookstore.

    Today (at 23): I don’t wear make-up (I think that domestic use of that stuff should be done away with because it is unnecessary and perpetuates self-esteem issues). I don’t shave (why should I be ashamed of something naturally occurring in my body?). I am comfortable in a pair of trousers and loose-fitting shirt (dresses are incredibly impractical wear). I look forward to looking my age. I don’t bemoan the fact that my body doesn’t fit current beauty standards and would punch anyone who recommended plastic surgery to me (I refuse to change myself for the aesthetic appeal of a fickle society).

    Perhaps I am lucky that I see the superficial pursuit and feel disgust and horror. Perhaps I am lucky that my aspirations are for greatness. Because I certainly am not a slave. Once I broke the social construct of what genital X is “supposed to be”, I was truly liberated. I had all this extra space in my head, all this extra time in my day (imagine cutting out hours on dressing and make-up), and the ability to do whatever I want with my life and future.

    I think that we need to destroy the social construct of gender and remove power from the companies that emphasise the superficial pursuit (cosmetics, make-up, fashion, plastic surgery industries). Doing so will be a positive step forwards to gender equality and the de-enslavement of women.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I love how you put that “I had all this extra space in my head…” that’s the perfect way to describe finding a true north on how YOU want to be and present yourself to the world. It sounds as if you’ve found what works for you–and that’s what this is all about. By focusing on our choices and not allowing (or contributing) to the paradigm where someone else is allowed to tell women what makes beauty manifest, we empower.

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  30. Debbie Harris

    A great read especially considering I’ve justxwrkconed a baby granddaughter into our family and the mother of three daughters. Made me stop and think of the things we say to girls. Thanks Angela.

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      angelanoelauthor

      A new baby granddaughter! Congratulations! I’m glad the thoughts here gave you a moment’s reflection. I know I will need to continue to work on changing my own perceptions.

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  31. katebitters

    Thanks for writing this post! My friends with little girls have given a lot of thought to the princess/pretty issue. One friend has a sign with all kinds of adjectives on it that says, “Use at least five of these compliments with my daughter (strong, intelligent, feisty, talented, etc) before you use any of these (pretty, cute, adorable, etc).”
    I do think boys grapple with body issues, but in a MUCH different way. They are complimented on strength and agility, which sets the ideal male body as one with rippling muscles (every romance book cover ever!), rather than skinny or sporting a “dad bod.”
    That said, I do think it is much more acceptable to be a man with a less-than-perfect body (or face!) than it is to be a woman with one. Just look at male TV stars, comedians, and CEOs–many do not embody the ideal male form, yet few people comment on their appearance. It’s their achievements that matter. I hope women will reach that point someday too, but today is not yet that day.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Thanks for reading, Kate, and for sharing your friends strategy. I love it.
      Unfortunately, I have to agree with you that the standard is woefully different. I shudder to think of all the comments women in politics must endure that a man would never have to deal with! But, just as you say, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other challenges for other genders.
      The question is, if we can apply the “high tide raises all boats” theory, if we stop focusing on female appearance could that also have an impact for all people who struggle with being judged by their looks? Perhaps it’s one of many entry points to change.
      Thanks so much for your comment!

  32. josypheen

    As always, you write such thought provoking and interesting articles Angela. Thank you for always getting me to think.

    I agree with everything you said. I struggled with similar issues to you (I wished sooo much to be pretty, even if I did well in other aspects of my life, I longed for affirmation of my looks.)

    It is so hard to change society with one little gesture at a time, but I guess we have to try! My niece is really pretty, and incredibly girly. It’s funny, my sister was keen to ensure she didn’t start out life in pink…but once she was old enough to speak, she only wanted pink things. I try to compliment her when she’s being kick-ass or smart…but I am pretty sure she just wants to be pretty too. Just like I did at her age. Her mum (my sister) is a brilliant role model and a kick-ass superstar, so I’m sure she’ll be fine, but I wish she didn’t have to worry about her looks…

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      angelanoelauthor

      I do find it fascinating that even if we deliberately steer kids away from something in the home, the larger culture (or something else) pulls them back. I wrote another piece for OTV on the threat narrative. How my son saw danger when he saw two black men near our car. The men were doing nothing at all that was threatening–and certainly I never feed the threat narrative at home through my words. But yet, it was there. Where did it come from? Of course, I have to keep looking at myself and not dismissing the possibility that it IS coming from me. But, I think it speaks to what you notice with your niece too. Little people pick up on subtle things–its evolutionarily necessary that they do so for the good of their own survival. It is the “little things” that matter most, I think. Even though, to your point, it doesn’t feel like much to change a gesture or a word. But, maybe it’s the most important thing?

      1. josypheen

        I hope so, that way maybe we can make a difference. 😉

        It’s quite intimidating to think we have way to change outside influences.

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  33. MassageFeels

    Thank you for this great post – really appreciate it and feel it, and certainly have noticed it my whole life thus far. Gender stereotypes and expectations die hard, to say the least, and can be tightly woven into our belief systems, personally and culturally. Thanks again for reminding us to support an individual’s merit based on achievement and growth, versus physical appearance.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Thank you for reading and adding your comment. They do die hard, as you say–kicking and screaming. They’re easy–our brains like easy. Choosing to work harder to understand what’s beneath the surface is not at all easy. But there are times when that work is essential to progress. I think this is one of those times.

      1. MassageFeels

        You’ve expressed this beautifully – thank you for the strength of your words, insight, and direction. I’m am 100% with you. We should all be treated humanely and as true individuals; all of value, all unique, none replaceable. Much gratitude “)

  34. hmaxwell217

    Remember reading Cinderella, and Snow White. Most childhood stories remind us are tell us that Ugly represent mean any hateful.while on the other hand beauty is praised. Check out my blog If beauty was not so important

  35. Billy

    How do we retell a Snow White or any princess story while minimizing the character’s outwardly features? Even the Evil Queen asked the mirror “who is the fairest one of all?” I mean it is hard, but certainly could be done if stories turn the focus on creating beauty around us with flowers, living space, art, instead of mirrors and how we look.

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      angelanoelauthor

      It’s an interesting point, Billy. I think the difference is assigning traits of good and bad to the outwardly features. When every evil female character has black hair that creates an impression. When every villain on TV has an accent from some foreign country–same thing. We begin to associate these things without even realizing it.
      There is metaphor in being the “fairest” one of all, too. The Evil Queen wanted power. And being the fairest is mean to be the ultimate sign of feminine power (in my interpretation of the fairytale). What would have happened if the Evil Queen had wanted to be the kindest or the wisest one of all? Would she have behaved differently? Obviously, I don’t know–but I wonder. Thank you for adding your thoughts. 🙂

  36. Kristofa

    I’m not a mother or a father, I’m not even married. But I’m a boy, and I meet a lot of girls. And I respect all of these girls. And that’s what I think is one of the major factors lacking (at the risk of over-generalizing) in the girls and guys I meet today, at school and at home. We don’t respect ‘us’ enough.
    Everyone strives to be pretty; cute and handsome, and forgo being smart. If we’re pretty, we won’t be picked on, the girls will love us boys and the boys will envy us (and the other way round) and it would mean more likes from strangers and friends on facebook and instagram. Shallow? Yes, but these are our priorities – in our appearance-ridden age at the least. It isn’t stupid, it’s the norm for the moment, and it should be changed.
    I’m not so super at getting my thoughts all in one place, so I’m sorry for going off and seeming all dogmatic… What I want is a tomorrow where I look up at a girl, and while I see the oval face and slender hips, I want to also remember the art she made with her fingers, the music she makes on the piano, what a math genius she is and what a hell of dance she can sprint on those toes. All of these being skills that can be improved and made the best, and not just looks that we couldn’t change, not without hurting our face and esteem.
    A second time, I apologize for being such a long talker. Your writing quite struck a chord. Thank you for sharing…

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      angelanoelauthor

      Thank you for reading and for adding your thoughts. I love your point that we don’t respect “us” enough. It’s true. There are issues for all genders. It’s cultural, biological, and personal. I think seeing the whole person, the impression of the eyes as well as building knowledge of their character and creative accomplishments is a worthy goal.

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  40. Audra Warren

    Growing up as a tomboy was rough. Kids are mean. Grandma said I’m too rough around the edges. I was too tall, too skinny. My hair was too short. My voice was too loud. Blah blah blah. Now I’m a mom of 2 boys and a girl. From the get go, I always made sure to tell my children they were smart, brave, strong, and beautiful…yes I tell my sons they are beautiful. I tell them they are beautiful inside and out. The double standard we have for boys and girls isn’t going to go away easily. We all have to make a conscious effort everyday.

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      angelanoelauthor

      Absolutely agree. I say “My beautiful boy” to my son all the time. “Beautiful” is such an excellent word. Just because culture runs amok at times and assigns words to a particular meaning, doesn’t mean we have to conform. I love that you tell your sons they’re beautiful (and you’re daughter too). I’ve no doubt they are.

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