I’ve seen several articles over the years warning against the dangers of telling little girls they look pretty. We shouldn’t praise beauty in little girls, the general arguments go, because doing so sends a message that their worth lies in their appearance. Beneath it all seems to be a desire to protect girls from objectification, and to help them develop confidence that comes from within.
Those are noble goals. It is important to teach girls that physical appearance isn’t their defining characteristic, and to help them understand the importance of the internal beauty that comes from building good character. But an all-out ban on complimenting a little girl’s appearance is unhealthy in its own way; it disregards the value beauty can have in the lives of girls and women, as well as the positive effects that can come from such remarks. Rather than teaching girls to think compliments about their appearance are taboo, or to bristle at such comments, we need to help them grow into women who view beauty in a balanced way.
Seeing the value of beauty
Beauty is part of the feminine experience—and, no, not just as it relates to men. Beauty is also an important part of female relationships. As Margaret Brady previously wrote for Verily, “What we often don’t notice, and what I didn’t realize myself, is how important and central the women in our lives are to beauty.” As Brady explains, when done in a group setting, beauty practices can become “heart-lifting play” and draw women together. Beauty can also connect us across generations as we pass down tried-and-true tips for makeup and hair. To this day, when I need a classy updo, I turn to the soft, whimsical “fun bun” my mom used to style my hair in for ballet. She steered clear of tight, austere styles, and that preference for loose looks has stuck with me.
Giving compliments on appearance can be part of that bonding experience. A compliment doesn’t have to subject a young girl to societal pressure to look a certain way—instead, it can introduce her to the affirmation that’s part of the sisterhood of womanhood. Through a simple remark, she learns that women can and do build each other up. She learns that, rather than being threatened by another woman’s good looks, or falling prey to comparison, we can admire and praise the good in each other.
Beauty, after all, naturally draws us. One of the books I cherished on the cusp of my teenage years discusses the appeal of beauty. Beautiful Girlhood, originally written by Mabel Hale and later revised by Karen Andreola, puts it this way: “Every girl is a lover of beauty. Beautiful homes, beautiful furnishings, beautiful flowers, beautiful fruits, beautiful faces—anything wherein beauty is found, there will be little girls to admire it. From the time her little hands can reach up and her baby lips can lisp the words, she is admiring ‘pretty things.’ And when a little of that beauty is her own, her delight is boundless.”
I’ve seen that in my daughter. At two years old, she calls attention to all things pretty, no matter where we are. “Pretty necklaces,” “pretty trees,” and even “pretty rocks” don’t escape her admiration. I want her to know that she, too, has a pretty part in this pretty world. And it’s my job to teach her to see her own beauty in the proper context.
I can help her enjoy her beauty without getting too carried away. When she learns to put on makeup, I can show her that cosmetics aren’t meant to change her, but to highlight the lovely features she already has. When she approaches her teenage years and self-consciousness begins to creep in, I hope she won’t feel compelled to rely on beauty “hacks” or take drastic measures to change herself, but will instead hear the steady voice she’s heard through the years: “You are beautiful.” And I can teach her about inner beauty that comes from kindness, joy, generosity, and the other character traits I hope to instill in her.
Beautiful Girlhood also provides a lovely perspective on both external and internal beauty, and how they can be in union with one another: “My dear friend, be not careless of the good looks that nature has given to you; take care in dressing yourself and attending to personal neatness, that you may ever appear at your best. Seek goodness and purity first, then strive to keep the body in harmony with the beauty of the heart.” While the language may strike some modern readers as old-fashioned or off-putting, I think the message is timeless and valuable: taking good care of ourselves is a way of respecting ourselves. And, like it or not, our appearance says something about us. As an interesting and beautiful woman on the inside, it’s okay to want to look interesting and beautiful on the outside, too. It’s important to note that looking beautiful doesn’t mean conforming to a certain size, shape, hair color, or the like, but rather, embracing our beautifully unique bodies, in all their variations.
Raising gracious girls
Compliments about appearance, or about anything else, for that matter, are an opportunity to learn how to receive praise graciously. I've seen a few examples of parents or children responding to compliments about appearance by highlighting a different attribute: "And kind and smart, too!" The intention seems to be to remind the child that appearance isn't everything.
I can’t help but wonder if, beneath the good intentions, the real root of such a dismissive response can be our own insecurities. Many women struggle to accept compliments, particularly regarding appearance. But when little girls are praised for their looks, they simply smile with unashamed delight. Rather than trying to strip that away, or deflect, we can instead teach them that it’s okay to accept such compliments. And the response can be as simple as a gracious “thank you.”
Telling little girls they are beautiful doesn’t mean we’re reducing them to their looks, just as a comment about how smart they are doesn’t mean we’re defining them by their brains. An affirmation of one characteristic is not a denial of another; when I tell my daughter she’s a good singer, I’m not diminishing the fact that she’s also a good big sister.
Little girls need to know they can be many things all at once: pretty and smart, compassionate and strong, assertive and tenderhearted. They are not defined by their bodies, their minds, or their emotions, but are a nuanced blend of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. To put the physical in a separate category and to say we ought not to praise it, is to ignore one of the parts of who she is.
Let’s tell little girls they are intelligent, creative, kind, talented, thoughtful, and whatever else is true of them. But let’s not neglect praise of their appearance. After all, telling little girls they are beautiful, in all their innocence, is to praise their authentic beauty—it lets them know that, yes, they are beautiful, just as they are.