A couple of people recently posted a link on Facebook to Lisa Bloom’s piece on the Huffington Post website called “How to Talk to Little Girls.” To sum up, Bloom, a CBS legal analyst and author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World, says that if, when we talk to little girls, we focus on telling them that they’re pretty or complimenting their outfits, that we are really only saying to them that looks are more important than brains. She illustrates her point with a story about how, when she met a dinner party host’s five-year-old daughter, she purposely did not tell her how cute she was, but instead asked her about books. Her story goes on to say that the two of them read a book together and then discussed it. In a nutshell, Bloom says that we have to cultivate girls’ brains over their beauty or they’ll end up diet-addicted and stupid.
Now, I am a nerd from way back. I have always been way better at math than mascara. I’m a feminist, a physics major, and a math minor, and I have my master’s. You would think that I would be one of the first to stand up and applaud Bloom for championing brains over beauty. But that article bothered me.
My problem is that the way Bloom seems to present it (and I’ve only read the short Huffington Post piece, not her book), you have two choices. You can either go with the establishment, tell little girls they’re cute, and set them up for obsessing about their looks, or you can engage their minds by asking them about books and encourage their cerebral development.
To me this paradigm smacks of early ultra-feminists who said that if you were going to be a feminist then the only choice in the career vs. family debate was career. You could not claim the title of feminist and also want to stay home with your kids. I am a feminist (I know I already said that), and I did choose to stay home with my kids. Feminism is not about dictating what choice to make, it’s about having the freedom to choose at all.
This is why I don’t believe that you have to avoid complimenting little girls in an effort to give them confidence in their intelligence. Nerd that I am, growing up I was also told, constantly, that I was beautiful. I was also told that I was worthy, smart, and talented. I got a lot of hugs and a lot of kisses. I was never told that it was beauty or brains. I was raised to believe that it was beauty and brains.
I have a little girl of my own. I will tell you and anyone else who will listen that she is ridiculously beautiful. I tell her probably eight times a day that she’s beautiful. Is she going to develop weight issues by the age of five? Probably not. That’s because I also tell her that she’s smart and funny eight times a day. I spend two seconds telling her that she’s beautiful. Then I spend several minutes working on colors and shapes and telling her she’s smart.
Where we run into trouble is when we only praise our girls (and our boys for that matter) for certain aspects, while ignoring the others. If complimenting a girl gives her the idea that looks are important, not complimenting her, while all other things in our culture remain equal, will not therefore tell her that looks are shallow. That strategy is just as likely to tell her that if no one mentions it that it must be because she’s not pretty.
We have a problem that it is caused by too many people buying into patriarchy’s idea that women should be only beautiful. I think that Bloom and I would agree on that point. But ignoring beauty doesn’t make that problem go away. Only by truly empowering our daughters as full and complete women can we do that.
We have to raise them to feel beautiful no matter what and also to devour the world intellectually. We have to tell them being smart is important. We have to read to them. We have to play with them at more than just dolls. We have to encourage them at sports and arts. We have to show them that science and math are fun. We have to deny that there are subjects that girls just aren’t as good at. We have to tell them that their voice is important. We have to teach them to be thoughtful. We have to teach them to be kind.
If we succeed in all those things. If we raise daughters that are smart, thoughtful, well-read, adventurous, outspoken, and kind. Then. Then we have raised truly beautiful daughters.
So I would challenge you, that when you meet a little girl, tell her that she’s beautiful and make sure that she knows that you mean that her entire being is beautiful. Compliment her dress and then ask her about school. Compliment her hair and then ask her about dance class. Compliment her shoes and then ask her about her science project. Bloom is right; you need to talk to that little girl like a person and not a living doll. But she’s wrong in thinking that because she didn’t compliment the host’s daughter that the lack of compliment was the only reason they went on to have an intellectual conversation. That little girl would have gotten just as much out of the evening with a compliment thrown in. The only problem would have occurred if Bloom had said, “What a pretty princess you are!” and turned back to the adults. When we only talk to girls to tell them they’re pretty is when we tell them that looks are the only things that are important. When we take the time to follow it up with a sincere interest in them as people, we tell them that they’re people—beautiful people.