Mamamia’s Managing Editor Lana writes: It’s hard for me to greet a child without commenting on how cute they are, how pretty or gorgeous or sweet they look. It’s like it’s hard wired into me to compliment children as I see them (maybe because I genuinely love children) which is why I read this piece from Professor of Gender Studies, Hugo Schwyzer published in Jezebel with glee. He writes:
This past Christmas night, my wife, daughter, and I went visited some friends for dinner. When my daughter walked through the door resplendent in a new outfit from Santa, our host, Tom, exclaimed “You look beautiful, Heloise!” His partner, Kate, shushed him. “You’re not supposed to tell little girls that they’re pretty,” she said, offering Eira and me an apologetic smile. “It gives them a complex.”
As Heloise ran off to play with the other kids, my wife and I assured Tom and Kate that we had no problem with a friendly compliment on our daughter’s appearance. But as she soon explained, like so many others, Kate had read and been influenced by one of the viral articles of 2011, Lisa Bloom’s How to Talk to Little Girls. (According to Facebook, it was the 12th most-shared article of 2011). In her much-read piece, Bloom argues that the best way to inoculate little girls against poor body image is to focus on everything but their looks. Praise their intellects but not their prettiness, she urges, telling the story of her encounter with a friend’s five year-old daughter, Maya. Bloom recounts spending an evening talking books with little Maya, forcing herself to stay away from any discussion of appearance.
Not once did we discuss clothes or hair or bodies or who was pretty. It’s surprising how hard it is to stay away from those topics with little girls, but I’m stubborn.
Bloom suggests that this stubborn avoidance of “beauty talk” will constitute “one tiny bit of opposition to a culture that sends all the wrong messages to our girls. One tiny nudge towards valuing female brains.” As a father to a daughter as well as someone who lectures and writes around body image, I’m all for pushing back against our society’s toxic messages about women’s bodies and their self-worth. But I’m not at all convinced that refusing to talk about fashion or beauty is the best answer.
For many years, I’ve offered a class at Pasadena City College called “Beauty and the Body in the Western Tradition.” The course looks at the intersecting histories of fashion, faith, and body ideals from the classical era to the present. Every time I teach it, I hear from students who express excitement about being able to study beauty as an academic subject.
Many explain that they were shamed or teased for having an interest in dress and hair when they were younger. A common theme: many very bright young women who were passionate about clothes report having had these interests belittled or mocked. They tell stories of being called “shallow” or “vain” for their interest in fashion. Caroline, one of the best students I’ve ever taught, told me that her high school math and English teachers were always surprised when she did well on tests or answered difficult questions. She said they saw her assiduous attention to her appearance (and the copies of Vogue that poked out of her bag) and dismissed her as a lightweight. “The message I got — from teachers even more than other students — was that smart girls don’t care about clothes, and girls who care about clothes aren’t smart. I said ‘fuck that.'” When Caroline told that story in class one day, she got vigorous nods of agreement. Her experience of being shamed for her interest in beauty is, as my students continually remind me, painfully common.