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Don't tell me how to talk to my daughters

A friend posted a link on my Facebook news feed last night and rage spontaneously combusted inside me.

It was celebrating a blog by author Lisa Bloom, titled “How to talk to little girls”. Have you read it? It's all about giving girls a "life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments" rather than our looks.

It does the rounds on Facebook every few months and women everywhere "like" the living crap out of it and write soppy "share this with every mum you know" comments.

I, on the other hand, responded with the comment: "I HATE THAT POST."

And yes, I wrote it in capital letters. 

I hate it for so many reasons. Oh, I know that in an ideal world it would be so very wonderful if women were valued solely for their brains, but that's NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN. Because we don't live in an ideal world. 

So I lean far more on the side of Amanda King and her blog, "Why we SHOULD tell our daughters they are beautiful", who says: "If you spend your daughter's first years of life never telling her she is beautiful, never making a big deal out of her physicality, because you rightfully recognise that it falls absolutely dead last on the list of things that is important about her... what will happen when she gets out into the world without you, and absolutely everybody and everything thing around her, every piece of sensory and social input she receives will be telling her, "You are nothing if you're not beautiful?"

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"I believe that helping to shape her ideas of beauty, by exposing her to all kinds of beautiful things, including the beauty in our own varied shapes, in our own bodies as mothers, as the biggest role model our girls will ever have, is a better idea than not talking about beauty at all."

Bloom's article, on the other hand, bemoans the fact that 25 percent of young American women would prefer to win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize.

Try as I might to muster moral outrage about this statistic, it just annoys me. It presumes everyone should aspire to win the Nobel Peace Prize, despite few women (or men) being capable of it and 25 per cent of the young respondents probably being unsure what the Nobel Peace Prize was exactly when Bloom asked them.

So I’m not surprised they chose winning a modelling competition.

To illustrate her point, Bloom uses the example of meeting a little girl and not discussing her appearance, but having an intelligent conversation with her about books and “deeper issues” – this is a five-year-old we’re talking about – like peer pressure instead. The little girl was surprised and thrilled by Bloom’s line of questioning, as she happened to be an early and prolific reader.

“Will my few minutes with Maya change our multibillion dollar beauty industry, reality shows that demean women, our celebrity-manic culture?” asks Bloom. “No. But I did change Maya’s perspective for at least that evening.”

I wonder how Maya’s parents feel about that. I’d be a little insulted if I were them, because it presumes Maya has never been asked such things before. That she’s only praised for her cuteness.

I’m also wondering how the conversation would have gone if Bloom had chosen a child who wasn’t quite so precocious. The poor pet might have found Bloom’s conversational forays a little intimidating and preferred to discuss her favourite colour or doll or, heaven forbid, outfit.

Me? I’m all for free discussion. Whatever twiddles their knobs. My eldest daughter loves talking about books, the youngest hates it. She’d much rather discuss shoes and soft toys. As for a meaningful discussion about peer pressure? Huh?

I’m also all for complimenting girls (and boys) generally. Their appearance, their intelligence, their sporting prowess, their kindness ... I’m not choosy.

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I don’t buy just praising their brain, not their appearance. Because that’s not a one-size-fits all solution.

I think it’s about confidence, believing in yourself, inside and out.

I had terrible self-esteem issues as a child and having someone tell me I was smart wasn’t going to solve that. I already knew I wasn’t dumb from my report cards, exam results and breaking into the teacher’s storeroom in year 6 to get my IQ test results.

But a few compliments on my appearance wouldn’t have gone astray.

I spent my entire younger life thinking I was ugly. I remember being told that my sister "got the beauty and the brains". And I believed it. It sounds simplistic, but it's coloured my whole life and affected every relationship I've had with a man. 

It's meant I felt pathetically grateful for a boy's attention, like they'd done me some sort of favour by dating me. And I'd cling onto them way too long because I was convinced no other man would ever be interested in me. 

Recently, I looked back at old photo albums and was genuinely surprised to discover I wasn’t that manky. Not a knock-out, but not ugly.

I had absolutely no idea.

Lack of confidence in my appearance held me back professionally too. Bizarrely, I chose to work in the magazine industry, which values appearance as much as talent. I defy anyone to watch the parade of gazelles in the foyer of any magazine company and disagree with me. It took me twice as long as the "pretty" girls to climb the career ladder. Not necessarily because they beat me in the looks department (though I've often wondered about that too ...) but because I didn't believe in myself enough to compete.

Yes, yes, that speaks to bigger problems in society than my self-esteem. But I don’t think solving those problems is as simple as telling girls they are smart.

The way I’ve chosen to prepare my daughters for the world is to say they look lovely in their new dress or cool in their new skull T-shirt, to compliment them on their beautiful eyes, to praise them for doing well with an assignment, to cheer when they come 17th in their cross-country race, to tell them how proud I am when they are kind to others.

I want them to know that I love them for who they are and they should too.

No, their looks are not their most important asset. But being comfortable in their own skin matters. It matters A LOT.

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