The “Pretty” Problem

Girls are led to believe that their self-worth is measured by their appearance. But teaching girls not to think about their appearance is not the answer.

After reading a post by Angela Noel called “The Problem with ‘Pretty Girls’ & Princess” in Open Vortex Magazine I was left with conflicted feelings.  Angela describes her emotional evolution from being a pretty young girl that was frequently complimented because of her appearance, to having her self-confidence diminished through the unsolicited criticisms of her appearance as she got older.  She is not alone as people, particularly women, are constantly judged and measured in part by their physical appearance.  Angela also describes how she has to stop herself from complimenting her nieces because they are pretty.  Is that the solution?

There is clearly a problem in American society (and many others around the world) where women are made to feel that the only thing that matters is their appearance.  It is a cruel burden to place on anyone given that as we get older it is impossible to preserve youth and what our society deems as “beauty”.  I do like that Angela says as she closes her piece that the next time she compliments a girl she will think more about what she does, but she goes on to say that she will not think about what she looks like.  I wonder if this is an over-correction, and that we are trying to ignore a natural instinct to favor the things in the world that one finds more attractive.  It may not be a politically correct thing to say, but the way people look (and I refer to both their natural features in conjunction with their efforts to dress and groom themselves) influence the way people perceive and treat them.  This is true in our personal relationships as well as professional ones, and while some people might try to push those preferences out of their minds because of recent social pressures that imply that those thoughts are evil, those preferences will still exist subconsciously because it is a natural instinct.  Seeing something or someone who is pretty evokes an emotional response, and that is why we will spend our money buying the prettiest house, the prettiest clothes, the cutest dog or cat…  and yes, when finding a mate or even hiring someone, the person’s appearance does affect the outcome.  Aesthetics matter.

Kamlani FamilyWhy can’t we teach girls to be proud of their physical beauty, understanding that it won’t last forever… at least not in a youthful form, as one aspect of who they are as a person?  Instead of banishing the concept of a princess from our minds, let’s redefine what a princess is.  Sina and I teach our girls to put some thought into their appearance.  But we also encourage them to be strong and take calculated risks.  They are not afraid to get their hands dirty, or of what minor injury may occur if they climb a tree or rocks.  If they see a cockroach, they will pick it up and put it outside versus most men and women I know that would just step on it in fear.  They are bad-asses, and I love it.  We are attempting to raise our girls not to be afraid, and to own who they are.  What matters is what they think of themselves, and not what other people think of them.  That said, if they take the time to brush their hair and dress nicely, it is a reality that they will be treated differently.  That goes for men too by the way.

I have always been scrawny, and not what society considers to be desirable when it comes to men.  I too spent many years between the ages of 10 and 33 thinking that I was unattractive.  While it may not be as pervasive as it is for women, the images of men with 6 pack abs, large pectoral muscles, broad shoulders and chiseled arms that grace the covers of magazines and movie posters most certainly make most men feel physically inferior.  I can honestly say that over the years, my frequent but ephemeral attempts at working out on a consistent basis were driven 70% by a desire to be more attractive to women, and 30% by how it made me feel on a day to day basis.

After I married Sina though, she taught me to shed my self-consciousness, and that one should not try to live up to the aesthetic standards of society.  That’s because most people just want to fit in, and not be singled out.  I never noticed it before, but just walk through any department store or shopping mall and look at the mannequins in the men’s department.  Khaki pants, blue blazers, blue jeans… these are staple clothing items of the American male and if you wear them, you can’t go wrong.  You can choose from skinny, slim, tapered, baggy, or even distressed, but in general the colors and styles are just safe.  Why can’t I wear an purple pants with flowers on them without people questioning my sexual orientation?

Sina has made me more aware of how people dress and I have definitely noticed that most people in America prefer to go to the grocery store or even travel in sweat pants or leggings, and choose comfort over style.  This summer we spent 3 months in Mallorca and noticed a distinct difference in the way people dress, even just to go out and run errands.  Dressing fashionably and making an extra effort to look nice definitely makes me feel more confident in my personal and professional  life, and I suspect that more people would feel better about themselves if they made the extra effort to look nice even if they’re just going to the grocery store.

The focus of our parenting is on being good, honest people, learning as much about as many cultures and languages as possible, and not being afraid of anything.  But both Sina and I want our daughters to embrace their appearance.  While we do not want them to define themselves or their self worth based on how they look, we do want them to to be aware that how they look, how they carry themselves and how they dress does have an impact on how people perceive and react to them.  We believe that this will contribute to their being confident individuals that don’t feel the need to conform or fit into the crowd.