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Please don’t tell my daughter she’s beautiful

The Ottawa Citizen by Claire Bellefeuille 11 December 2013

I’m dreading Christmas, and it’s not because of my inability to stay away from the canapés at holiday functions.
I love the decorations around the city, being in close quarters with family, and I don’t even mind the crowded malls or steady stream of Christmas music that seems to start earlier every year. No, I’m dreading Christmas because it means ample opportunity for friends and strangers alike to generously, but unfortunately, exclaim over how adorable my daughter looks in her fancy holiday attire.
I understand that telling my three-year-old she’s beautiful, pretty or cute may seem like a harmless, well-intentioned compliment, and believe me, we indulge in the sentiment ourselves. Like many proud parents, we find it hard to resist the urge to praise our “beautiful princess” or “handsome little man.” We are culturally — and maybe even biologically — conditioned to appreciate, and reward physical attractiveness.
But ever since she was born, she has been constantly showered with remarks about her appearance. Evidently, blond and blue-eyed with a Japanese-Greek-Irish-English-French heritage makes for a striking combination. In addition to the expected comments from family and friends, we are regularly stopped on the street, in the grocery store and out running errands by strangers praising her looks. The owner of our local Shawarma joint sends over an extra plate of free chicken for the “little beauty,” she’s often given extra treats from shop owners or vendors that are offered along with a compliment, and when we accidentally left her passport on a flight from Hawaii to Vancouver, we entered the country with no problems, breezing by the customs agent with only a birth certificate and a “she’s gorgeous.”
Being first-time parents, we didn’t think much of this — of course we think she’s beautiful, she’s ours! So why would we object to others expressing appreciation for this magnificent being we managed to create?
The problem is that receiving constant accolades about her physical appearance gives my daughter the impression that her value is predicated on how she looks. Three years in, we’re starting to see signs of the toll it’s taking. During a struggle to get her to replace the dresses she’d worn all summer with a pair of jeans when the weather turned cooler, she exclaimed “I can’t wear these, Mama; no one will say I’m cute!” She insists on girlie clothes every day, won’t wear green because it’s a “boy colour” and doesn’t like to mess up her hair by putting on a winter hat. She’s barely out of diapers.
The alarm I feel is well-founded. A growing body of research shows that when young girls become too focused on their appearance, it disrupts their mental capacity, increases their likelihood of developing eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. But this isn’t my only concern. Insisting on wearing pretty dresses, and not wanting mess up her hair means she’s less likely to engage in physical play and athletics that will keep her healthy. Studies have shown that by the time girls reach adolescence, their participation in sports declines by as much as 23 per cent (more than double than that of boys). And she’s still 10 years away from that milestone. I’m not denying that projecting a positive physical image has its place. I wear professional attire for work, and enjoy getting dressed up to attend events. Being able to look in the mirror and like what you see plays a big role in self-confidence and the way you present yourself to the world. Of course I want my daughter to see herself as beautiful.
But I also want her to know that her physical appearance is only a small part of her value. Her kindness, intelligence and incredible sense of humour are all equally important aspects of who she is. I want her to grow up understanding that being a loyal friend and loving sister and daughter are worth more than a compliment from a stranger. That if something were to happen to change how she looks, she would still be worthy of all the love she has now.
So here’s my Christmas wish: over the holidays, when the young people you know are dressed in their finery, and the standard superficial compliment is what first comes to mind, take a minute and consider how else you might share your affection. Tell a child or a teen how much you appreciate their thoughtfulness or generosity, instead. In the spirit of the season, give them a reason to glow from the inside out.
Claire Bellefeuille is a mother of three and the project manager of Informed Opinions, an initiative that promotes the inclusion of more positive female role models in the media.