This weekend, my daughter, who is eight, had an amazing soccer tournament. She hustled, made smart, strategic passes, and executed some gorgeous crosses in front of goal. She also scored seven times, helping her team win the final and take home the trophy.
Then someone (who shall remain nameless), as I was hyping up how well she played, interjected, “And guess what? While you were playing, a group boys stopped and pointed at you and said, Who’s that girl? She’s so cute.”
Not only was it a lie (it was an all girl’s tournament, the only boys there were a few bored younger brothers glued to devices), it implied that she should be more excited by boys thinking she was cute while playing than by her actual playing. No harm was intended, of course; it was this person’s version of a compliment. But why, pray tell, should my strong, fast, fierce daughter who just kicked arse in back-to-back games be excited by being cute while she did it? (Also: she is eight.)
The idea that a girl’s attention should be diverted away from those accomplishments to be happy that boys were looking at her is obviously antiquated and absurd. The only saving grace in this interaction was that my daughter blessedly had zero clue what this person was talking about, or why she should care. That let me know, at least, this type of BS beauty-based praise-baiting isn’t on her radar. At least not yet.
But it reminded me that the way we have traditionally spoken to young girls, and the toxic messages embedded within that speaking, are bothersome at best and confidence-eroding at worst. The traditional focus on girls’ appearance when they’re little can cause their looks be an overwhelming factor in their self-worth as an adult. The National Organisation for Women reports that by age 13, more than half of American girls are unhappy with their bodies, (growing to 78% by age 17). Similarly, The Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report 2016 found that more than one-third of girls age 10-15 in the UK are unhappy with the way they look.
The tricky part is, kids are super cute. It’s hard not to compliment kids on their appearance when they’re all spruced up (especially when their hair is be-decked with bows, feet click-clacking in Mary Janes, or when you genuinely like their sparkly nail polish). We’re not saying never compliment these things, but we need to avoid focusing on the cuteness to the detriment of celebrating that child’s other qualities (intelligence, energy, thoughtfulness, or curiosity, to name a few.)
The point is not to shame anyone for using these knee-jerk go-to phrases; it’s how we’ve been trained as a society to talk to girls and women. (If I can go to book club without someone’s haircut, clothes, makeup, purse, or earrings being mentioned in the first five minutes, then strike me dead.) The point is to bring alternatives to the classic appearance-based tropes that roll so effortlessly off our tongues when talking to little girls.
Next time, rather than a litany of: “You look so cute,” “I love your dress,” “what a princess you are,” “look at your pretty nails,” and the dreadful “how many boyfriends do you have?,” try one or more of these alternatives to connect with the little girls in your life.
What you can say instead of commenting on a little girl’s appearance
It’s so nice to see you! (Period.)
What are you reading these days?
What did you like most about that book?
When I was your age, my favourite book was ____.
What’s your favourite show/movie?
How is piano/ballet/karate going?
What is your favourite thing to do right now?
Do you have a favourite board game?
What sports do you like to play?
What did you do today?
It seems like you are really good at ____.
What did you do that was kind today?
I’d love to see your favourite toy. Can you show me?
Do you play video games? What’s your favourite?
You seem so happy today! What are you thinking about?
What’s your favourite thing about school?
If you find yourself glitching trying not to compliment something about how they look, try shifting the focus away from a value judgment like pretty, beautiful, or cute and make descriptive, neutral statements instead. Things like:
Wow, you are wearing so much purple! Is that your favourite colour?
Those shoes are cool. Do they light up?
Did you pick this outfit yourself?
That sweater looks so cosy.
I love sequins. Can I borrow your shirt sometime?
I had shoes/a dress/hair clips just like that when I was a kid.
I bet those sneakers help you run really fast, don’t they?
Hopefully, with enough de-emphasis on appearance and redirection to their inner qualities and interests, we can un-train girls that how they look is the most noticeable, important thing about them.