When I was 4, a well-meaning woman walked up to my sister and said “your little brother is so cute”. I’m sure my face contorted into a very displeased scowl as I responded tartly, “I’m her sister“.
When I was a ‘tween, at least I was recognizable as a girl now that I had grown out that awful bowlcut, but I certainly wouldn’t have been called a pretty girl. I sure would have been called smart, though. In fact, in grade 3, I was labelled gifted. At first, I was tremendously proud to be only one of two children in my grade to qualify for the gifted class, but as my classmates started having their first experiences coupling up over the next few years, I began to wish with all my heart that I was pretty instead of smart so that I could couple up too.
Through the following decades, I struggled to conform to the identity I thought the world wanted me to have. I became acceptably pretty, but then needed to work on being more outgoing. Once I became outgoing, I needed to work on being sexually adventurous. Once I became that, I needed to work at becoming a good housekeeper. And so on. Frankly, I’m exhausted. It turns out being pretty is just the beginning of a lifelong set of ridiculous expectations imposed on women.
This morning, a 3-year-old girl was approached by a woman whose first comment to her was “Ooo you’re such a pretty girl. Look at your pretty hair. Veeeery pretty girl.” Can we pause to think for a moment about the message that is sending to this little girl? My looks are what is most valued in the outside world. Being pretty is very important. People like me when I’m pretty. Of course, as she interacts with men throughout her life, they will reinforce this message, as will the media, as will other women in her life. We’re all doing it to her. We’re all doing it to each other.
Eventually, at some point maybe in her twenties, or thirties, or forties, this little girl will realize how much of an impact this messaging has had on her life, and how completely wrong this thinking is. Hopefully.
She’ll realize that her value as a person is in the original thoughts, unique perspectives, and positive actions she brings to the world. She’ll realize that her own belief of her physical beauty being of paramount importance is rooted in our patriarchal society, and has become so normalized that she has bestowed it on girls younger than her without even realizing it.
Or maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll live with this belief her whole life, feeling that her words have no weight, and her feelings have no importance, and her actions are irrelevant. She’ll go shopping for new clothes, spend hundreds of dollars on haircuts and makeup, and she’ll wonder why she’s still not feeling satisfied when she’s acquired the latest Coach purse or Manolo stilettos.
But wait, here’s a thought. What about if we all took a moment to pause before reinforcing these messages with our daughters, nieces, sisters, cousins, aunts, neighbours, friends, etc. What about if instead of regurgitating ‘such a pretty little girl’, we trained ourselves to actually engage girls in conversation and comment positively on their thoughts and ideas. “You have such smart ideas.” “I love how you told that story.” “I’ve never of thought of it that way before, you have such a cool way of looking at things.”
What if we started treating little girls that way from the moment they were born? What if we started treating women that way consistently, no matter what their age? What would women start to believe about themselves? What would the next generation of women be able to accomplish? I would really, really love to find out.