Saturday, June 28, 2014

Don't Stifle Me Because I'm Beautiful (Another False Dilemma)

I'm probably going to get some flack for this, but I really think I need to put my thoughts out there.  Recently, I've been reading a LOT about how you shouldn't tell little girls that they're pretty.  Many of these articles I've read state that telling a little girl that she's pretty or beautiful leads them to focus on their physical appearance as their self-worth.  Some of these articles (a good number of them, actually), have gone so far as to imply that if you tell a little girl she's pretty, you're going to discourage her from pursuing a career in math or science.

I don't completely disagree with ANY of these articles, but I think most of the ideas behind them have some problems.  I'm not going to post any links to articles (just go type "don't tell a girl she's pretty" into Google, and you'll be set, friend), but here's a popular YouTube video (ad for Verizon) that's been appearing up on my Facebook newsfeed a lot over the past week.

Now, let me just start by saying that I do think that perhaps the parents in this video were just a little bit harsh to discourage "Samantha" or "Sam" the girl in the video (she has a gender-bending name--don't think I didn't catch that) from being curious or for getting her hands/dress/house dirty in the pursuit of curiosity.  But I also think it's a HUGE jump to say that telling a girl she's pretty is going to lead a little girl away from academic pursuits.

Perhaps it was because I was raised in a home where my parents taught me to use my brain.  My dad was a Science teacher, my mom an English teacher.  They both told my older sister and I that we were beautiful girls.  They bought us pretty dresses and mom put our hair in barrettes.  But they also encouraged us to be curious, to be avid readers and explorers, and to think for ourselves.  Sure, mom fussed at me sometimes for getting dirty or for messing up some of her stuff, but for the most part, my parents were great about letting my sister and I (and my brother too, but this is a post about girls) have freedom to figure things out for ourselves.

But here's the thing.  My sister grew up and became a rocket scientist.  I didn't.

And the reason I really think I need to address this issue is because I think people are in danger of over-correcting.  They see that girls are being told that they're pretty, and that seems to make little girls think that their appearance is more important than their intelligence.  So people start to think that the solution is to emphasize intellect and completely eliminate beauty.  And I think there's a lot of danger in this.

I think this whole MOVEMENT started when I was in middle school, or maybe a little bit before, back in the 1980s or 90s.  I started seeing PSAs then about how girls should be more interested in math and science, about how girls who loved math and science were really smart and smart is cool, about how pursuing math and science was the BEST THING EVER.  Only, I wasn't really good at science (it was fun, but not something I wanted to study the rest of my life--I much preferred science fiction!), and I was AWFUL at math.  I have always been awful at math.  Add to that the fact that my older sister was always brilliant in math and science, and that was just a recipe for low-self-esteem issues.  This was the opposite of what the PSAs intended, but I think other girls might have had similar reactions to them.

Because, believe it or not, 'Merica, there are other fields of academics besides math and science.  And the reason I didn't go into math and science wasn't because I was told I was pretty.  It was because I'm just not good at math and science.  And, contrary to what these over-correctors seem to be indicating, I'm NOT an idiotic bimbo who only thinks about my appearance because I didn't become an engineer.

And in case you think I'm being too harsh with the accusation above, let me just point out that in some of those articles I read, it was suggested that telling a girl she's pretty would lead girls away from math and science and into menial careers like childcare.

I am in childcare.

I happen to love it.

I happen to have gifts for it.

I happen to think I'm brilliant at it.

I happen to think I'm making a difference in the lives of children and families.

I happen to think that childcare is NOT a menial career.

And I didn't go into childcare because people told me I was a pretty little girl.

In fact, I wasn't even the prettiest of children.  My parents made me get my hair cut short because it was hard to take care of (I still have unruly hair, but I possess great magic known as a flat iron, now), so I looked like a boy.  I had glasses that were too big for me.  I was overweight.  So I didn't get the "pretty" compliment as much as a lot of other girls.  But let me tell you something else, I CRAVED it.  Even though I consider myself an attractive woman now, I still crave to be told I'm beautiful.

And if you wanna disagree with me about gender stereotypes or whatever, I'm just going to agree to disagree with you.  I just really think it's ingrained in a woman's brain to WANT to BE beautiful.  Please don't misunderstand what I said.  I didn't say women want to LOOK beautiful (although that's often the case, too).  I said they want to BE beautiful.  They want other people to recognize the beauty in them.  And that's the point I really want to make here, is that there's nothing wrong, absolutely NOTHING wrong with telling a little girl she's beautiful.  There's nothing wrong with telling a girl to twirl in her pretty dress for you.  There's nothing wrong with telling a girl that she has cute freckles on her button nose or big brown eyes or pretty curls.

The only time that there's anything wrong with that is if that's ALL you tell a little girl.  Because what we really have here is a false dilemma.  I think people, these over-correctors, are assuming that you have to EITHER tell a little girl that she's beautiful OR you have to tell a little girl she's smart.  People, people, people.  It's NOT an EITHER-OR situation.  It's a BOTH-AND.

Leonard Hofstadter knows what's up.

I'm going to use my sister as an example again.  She is a BEAUTIFUL woman who wears makeup and loves jewelry.  But, as I mentioned before, she's a rocket scientist, y'all.  She's an engineer.  She designs jet propulsion systems and does a lot of super-genius stuff and holds her own in a world that is male dominated.  She ALSO is a fantastic cook, a gardener, a more than adequate seamstress, a former wedding planner, and is a wonderful wife and a terrific mother to one adorable boy and three beautiful little girls--with another little girl on the way.  With so many little girls in her house, things get interesting.  And one of the most interesting things is that she once told me, back when she only had one little girl and one little boy, that I was never EVER to call her daughter "princess" or "diva."  She wanted to raise her kids up without excessive girliness.

The thing that happened though, with the second daughter, was that there was no way to KEEP this little lady from being girly.  She's six now, but I think my second niece had a Diva Princess party for her fourth birthday.  Why?  What changed in my sister?  Well, my sister is an amazing mom who has come to understand that kids have minds of their owns, and she wants to encourage them to think for themselves.

She also acknowledges VERY often how extremely intelligent my second niece is--seriously, the kid is a genius, and I'm not just biased.  My sister compliments her on her appearance (because my second niece will DEMAND to be told she's beautiful if you don't say it often enough) and on her intellect and fearless attitude.  My sister brags on all her kids, to others and to them, about ALL their talents and attributes.

And I personally watch three young ladies that have been in my care for almost 6 years.  I've watched them grow up, and they're still growing into beautiful, talented, intelligent young ladies.  They're all beautiful girls, and I tell them so, but I also make sure they know how proud I am of them for their intelligence and athletic ability.  These girls are soccer stars!  They're beautiful, intelligent soccer stars.  And there's nothing wrong with that, and there's nothing wrong with TELLING them that.

It really frightens me a little to see where this MOVEMENT is headed.  I'm not saying it's wrong to encourage girls to study math or science or other academics.  I just think we're in danger of over-correction.  I think we're trying to push something, but at the risk of losing the other.  It's a balance, people.

And I know this world is just full of things that fight to destroy a woman's self-image.  The battle DOES begin at childhood.  But don't make the mistake of pushing a false dilemma.  Encourage your daughters (and your sons) that it's okay to be curious and get their hands dirty.  Encourage your children that they really are cute (I have also seen it's a double-standard, that apparently it's okay to tell a boy he's cute, but it's no longer appropriate to tell a girl she's pretty--what up with that?).  I think there's a way to balance letting a child know they're adorable without making their entire self-image revolve around their adorableness.

Basically, appreciate each child for who he or she is--both in your words and actions.  Don't push them towards science if science isn't their thing.  Don't push them away from fairy tale princesses if they are drawn towards fairy tale princesses.  There's more than one kind of beauty and intellect in this world.  If we push too hard for a child to be interested in something he or she is just not interested in, we're just as guilty as we would be if we pulled a child away from something that really did interest him or her.  And the tragedy is that we're going to miss out on who that child really is.

And chances are, that child is beautiful.

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