Girls often hear praise like, “You are so pretty,” “Your dress is beautiful,” or “You are so skinny!” While there is nothing wrong with thinking someone is pretty or telling them you like their dress when that is the first thing they hear from people it sends the message that being pretty is their most important trait. Only focusing on appearance can become harmful to a girl’s mental and emotional health. Rather than focusing on things associated with appearance, boost your daughter’s confidence through all their incredible positive traits so they can grow up to be a strong, confident woman.
The Problem with Appearance-focused Praise
Society is extremely preoccupied with a woman’s appearance. Advertisements and media are focused on women looking beautiful and although there has been progress in some areas, most of the time they are also focused on women being a certain size (small, thin, tiny-waisted). That then feeds into what regular, everyday people focus on. This leads to girls being raised in a culture where women’s bodies are continuously objectified and they believe their positive traits are all appearance-based.
When girls grow up in a world where their bodies are the common topic of conversation, it makes them start to look at their bodies from other people’s point of view, or from a third-person’s point of view. That means, rather than looking at themselves from their own point of view, women (and girls!) start to look at themselves through someone else’s eyes.
Rather than looking in the mirror and simply thinking I like the way my hair looks today or this color looks good on me, they start to think things like kids at school are going to think I look fat in this dress or the people at the store are going to think my hair is a disaster if I go out like this. How crazy is it for a young girl to worry that she is not pretty enough? But any woman knows this to be true.
Women, have you ever fixed your hair until it looked like a “cute” messy bun, changed your clothes to look “better,” or put on makeup even when you had no plans to leave the house or see anyone? That is because over time this sort of third-person thinking makes women, even young girls, start to constantly worry about how they look – even when they are alone. What if someone sees me? That is at least in part because you were taught from a young age without realizing it to hear that third-person voice in your head.
This kind of thinking not only reduces a girl’s mental performance – a girl’s mind becomes so preoccupied with thinking and worrying about how they look to other people that they become mentally exhausted and either cannot focus as much on other things or have a hard time with complex tasks – it also has the tendency to increase feelings of shame, anxiety, and can lead to eating disorders.
Focus on Positive Traits
While changes are happening and so many people are fighting against this appearance-focused society, there is still a long way to go. But one huge way we can change things is to teach our daughters that their positive traits go well beyond looks. If we instill in them that the positive traits they have beyond appearance are what make them incredible, we can reduce the chances that they will grow up worried, anxious, and preoccupied with how other people see them.
It can be all too tempting to see your little girl dressed up and tell her she looks beautiful. Rather than make the compliment about her looks, turn it towards one of her positive traits. Rather than saying she looks pretty today, tell younger daughters how independent they are for picking out their own outfits. Tell older girls you love their eye for color or their creativity in matching pieces or picking out accessories.
Creativity, thoughtfulness, independence, strength, intelligence, and confidence are all positive traits our daughters need to have praised. Think about how much of a difference it would have made to you if the grown-ups in your life had told you how kind, strong, creative, or thoughtful you were when you were little. Surely, someone said some of that to you at some point in your childhood, but were those positive traits the focus or the majority of the praise you received as a little girl? Probably not. That is why a lot of women absolutely relish being praised by their friends, colleagues, and especially their partners for the positive traits they are (often secretly) proud of possessing.
If we can shift our thinking from appearance to positive traits, we can work against the increased tendency for girls to develop those feelings of anxiety and shame, mental fatigue, and have such distorted ideas of what their bodies should look like. Imagine a world where your daughter grows up without having a constant voice in her head asking if she looks pretty enough or skinny enough or worrying if she looks “good enough” in the event someone were to see her.
If you find that it is hard to shift your compliments, think about it in these terms. The key is to focus on positive traits that say something about that person’s personality and strengths – who they are as a person – rather than what they look like. What are they good at? How do they treat other people? What are the unique things about them that make them who they are? Why are they incredible in their own right?
This does not have to just be something you do with your daughter. Praise the positive traits of all the women in your life. They grew up in the same appearance-focused society and have the same sort of screwed up view of themselves that you probably do of yourself. Tell the friend who recently started a new exercise routine that she looks strong. Tell the woman who you see walking her dog every day in cute sweaters and leggings that you love her sense of style. Let the check-out lady at Target know that she has the kindest smile.
The more we can spread the idea that women are more than their physical appearance, the more women will start to believe it and recognize all the other incredible positive traits they possess that are far greater than looks.
Be Kind to Yourself Too
Besides boosting your daughter by focusing on her positive traits, it is also important to model the behavior you want her to have. This cannot be a “do what I say and not what I do” situation. If you are saying things about her thoughtfulness, intelligence, and strength, but all she hears you say about yourself or other women are things about appearance or looking a certain way to leave the house, then she is going to pick up on that and manifest the same problems you are trying to avoid.
If you are constantly counting calories, weighing yourself, and applying a full face of makeup when you have no intent to leave the house, your daughter will learn to do the same. That does not mean you have to abandon any care about those things. You can watch what you eat and get the right amount of exercise. You can put on things that make you feel good about yourself and put on makeup. Just do those things for yourself and not for the rest of the world.
So be kind to yourself and the other women in your life. When you are talking to your daughters, point out some of the positive traits you like about yourself, your friends, and the women you see on TV. By living by example and focusing on the incredible positive traits that all of these amazing women have, hopefully, our daughters can learn to focus on those things instead of on whether or not their makeup is flawless or their hair is perfect.
When the first thing a little girl hears from their family, teachers, or even strangers in line at the grocery store is that she is pretty, she starts to subconsciously think that it is all she has to offer or that it is the only thing people notice about her. But we can easily teach our daughters that they are worth more than their pretty hair or the things they wear. Once you get in the habit of focusing on the positive traits of your daughter, it is likely you will find that you start to focus more on the positive traits in yourself too. Now, how brave and powerful of you is that?
WANT TO READ MORE?
Check out this article on Raising Resilient Children: Why It’s Important and 3 Key Tips
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