There has been a lot of chatter recently about whether or not to tell young girls that they are pretty. This post is going to be more of a conversation starter than a conclusion maker, because I’m torn. Simcha Fisher has a thoughtful post “Please tell your daughter she’s pretty.” She recounts an Ad that implies if you tell a young girl she is pretty, she will think that’s all she is.
Simcha countered that line of thinking with the simple logic that you praise all her attributes and if God’s beauty is shown through a little girl, you can tell her that.
Now, I admit I do see logic there and I want to agree with her, but again, I’m torn. Having gone through an anorexic stage myself, I am very sensitive to this. I received average attention through my scrawny, scraped-knee kid stage, and put on a few pounds when I hit puberty. So, I decided to go on a diet and was very – very – successful. What sent me into a tailspin of anorexia was the attention I received after that dieting success. I was feeling confused about myself, not entirely confident (probably like most preteen girlies) and then BOOM. All of a sudden everyone noticed me, everyone praised me, telling me how great I looked and how impressed they were with me. Whether they praised my compulsive exercising (obviously unaware that it was compulsive, obsessive exercising) or the fact that I could lose so much weight and “look so good!”, it was positive, affirming attention. I loved it; it was a balm to the pain of insecurity and feeling un-chosen. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together. So, one 11 year old girl realized that “if I lose weight, people like me and I am impressive.”
Instead of facing my problems and slowly conquering them, it was much easier to get a “feel good” fix from the positive attention I would receive when others thought I looked good. But the reality was – I never “looked good” to myself. There was always another pound to lose, and then, then I’d be happy. Looking back, I can see how the feeling of control over my weight in order to feel loved began to spin out of control – it began to control me. I remember one time going to Academic Game Olympics (if you don’t know what that means, it’s a nerdy, brainy competition, and if you place high enough you get to go to the national competition, the “Olympics”) and my team placed in the top in the nation and I even personally came in third in the nation in one competition! You would think that I would be so proud to come home and tell everyone. Do you know what I did when I got home? I had seen a week away from home as an opportunity to not eat and no one would bug me about it. When I got home, I ran not to my family but to the scale for affirmation. 96 pounds! My lowest yet! I was so proud of myself . Thinking about it now makes me want to cry.
And it all spun out of the extra attention I got on my looks when I first lost some weight. So, yes, I’m conflicted. What if someone would have questioned my efforts from the beginning? What if someone didn’t tell me I looked so good but instead said “Well, that’s nice, but how did you do in such and such”?
I do see beauty in so many things. I see beauty in my boys when they are caked in mud and laughing at themselves hysterically – I see God’s beauty radiating through them. I do think we ought to recognize that and tell them how beautiful they are – boys and girls. But perhaps “beauty” and “pretty” are two different things? It is so easy to lavish compliments on a young lady’s physical appearance (especially when they look nice), but perhaps we should hold back? Not completely, I’m not saying that. Because I do believe a total lack of compliments can lead to an entirely different string of problems. Yet, perhaps we compliment more than we should because our society has taught us to?
Either way, I really think it is a discussion worth having. I have been through the negative side of positive compliments of your physical self, and it’s taken so many years for God to heal that (and I’m still a work in progress!). What do you think about telling young women they are pretty?
(If you are someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please get help. A couple helpful books: Hope, Help and Healing for Eating Disorders: A New Approach to Treating Anorexia, Bulimia, and Overeating is a wonderful, holistic approach. From a spiritual p.o.v., Weightless: Making Peace with Your Body is also very good.)
Theresa Martin is a published author, Woman, How Great Thou Art, and blogs at New Feminism Rising.
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