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Please Don't Call My Daughter Pretty

Photograph by Leah Campbell

If you place a premium on your looks or if you're obsessed with being recognized for your beauty, I hope my daughter turns out nothing like you. There it is: the hard, uncomfortable truth.

I know it sounds harsh, but hear me out. There’s a difference between taking care of yourself and being obsessed with beauty. And, while I absolutely place myself in the former category, it's the latter where I feel like the most self-loathing often exists.

These are the women who need the constant validation of being told they're pretty. They're the ones who also tend to be forever striving toward an impossible ideal. It seems they can't ever be happy, because the level of perfection they are trying to achieve is completely and totally unattainable. Even as they slap a smile on their face for the perfect Instagram post, they’re obsessing over the angle and the lighting, jutting their chin out just right and tearing themselves apart in the 200 images that didn’t make the cut.

That's not a future I want for my daughter. I already cringe when family members, friends or strangers on the street lead with telling my little girl just how beautiful she is—not because she’s not pretty (she’s stunning, as far as I’m concerned) but because I fear what will happen if her looks are constantly prioritized.

Again and again, from the time they are very young, the word "pretty" is thrown in their direction more than any other compliment girls receive—to the point where they begin to believe that beauty is the only thing they have to offer the world.

So, of course, they fight to hold onto it. Of course, they strive to maintain the one thing they've been consistently praised for. That obsession eventually drives them down a path of self-loathing that I would do just about anything to save my daughter from.

I’ve known a lot of these women in my life. There was even a time when I might have been one of them, when my own need to be seen as beautiful (or in my case, perfect) fed a serious eating disorder and too many years of self-harm. I come at this from experience when I say the focus on "pretty" that we put on little girls is dangerous.

People have this innate need to comment on how pretty little girls are, without thinking about the damage their words may cause.

Unfortunately, at 5 years old, we've reached the stage where my daughter is absolutely focused on "pretty": pretty dresses, pretty hair, pretty twirls. She loves to wear jewelry (even though she has a mama who never wears any at all), and delights in fancy dresses and intricate hairdos (I’ve had to painstakingly up my braiding game over the years. )She has also realized that when she wears certain things or acts a certain way, people are more likely to tell her how pretty she is. Further, from my perspective, she has started to crave it.

I've been surprised by the ways I've played into that, even feeling as strongly as I do about the subject of "pretty." But I do love how delighted she gets with those twirls and how confident she seems to feel. I can’t help but smile as she does.

I just hate that we're already here. Despite my best efforts and the times I’ve tried to redirect the conversation when others have told my daughter how pretty she is ("Why yes, she is, thank you! She’s also funny and kind and smart!"), "pretty" is what my little girl has latched onto. All because people have this innate need to comment on how pretty little girls are, without thinking about the damage their words may cause by allowing that to be the sole focus.

But what can I do now? I don’t have any intention of shaming who she is or what she loves, but I do want to instill in her a sense of worth that extends so far beyond "pretty."

So, we've embraced a new mantra, one a friend introduced me to a while back. It's a way to spin "pretty" back to the ideals I am far more interested in helping my daughter embody.

'Mama, do I look pretty?'

When my little girl asks, "Mama, do I look pretty?" (a question she now poses with every new outfit change), I am quick to tell her that yes, of course, she looks beautiful. But then I ask her a question that is now well-rehearsed, "What is it that makes you so pretty?"

She'll smile and say, "My heart."

I nod and respond, "Exactly. You have a beautiful heart. And what is it that makes your heart so pretty?"

This is when she recites a list we’ve discussed a million times over now. "I’m a good friend," she’ll say. "And I’m helpful. And I use kind words." The list goes on. There are so many examples we've included over the last year that she picks and chooses based on her mood. You get the point.

I encourage her, again and again, to remember that her beauty comes from who she is, not what she sees in the mirror.

We’re working on it. Every day, we’re working on it and counteracting the messages about "pretty" that she gets from the outside world. I hope and pray that it makes an impact, so that she grows up knowing her worth lies in so much more than her outside appearance. As far as I'm concerned, her beauty has nothing at all to do with pretty dresses and perfect hair.

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