A few months ago, I was shopping at the local dollar store with my three-year-old daughter. As we went through the store, row by row, my daughter asked for everything she set her eyes on, as she always does.
I usually let my kids pick out one “prize” when we go to the dollar store. I steer them to the craft section, where they can pick stickers, craft supplies, or books — stuff we use.
That day, the craft aisle was overflowing with tempting offerings. Some were on my approved prize list; others were not. We spent a long time negotiating over what constitutes a prize, and after that we spent an even longer time going through the arduous decision-making process. After changing her mind about a zillion times, she finally settled on the stickers. My body sagged with relief; we had passed through the minefield unscathed.
So you can imagine how I felt when we hit the housewares aisle and my daughter experienced a profound case of buyer’s regret. She really, really, really, really wanted the glitter paint. She needed it. I told her we could trade the stickers for the glitter, but by that point she had grown so attached to the stickers that the only way I could possible satisfy her soul was to buy her both. I said no; she cried.
My daughter is really good with the crying thing. She lets the tears stream down her face, while aiming big, sad, disappointed eyes right at you. She says things like “you broke my heart when you said no, mommy” and “I will never be happy again.”
She was right in the middle of a pretty magnificent expression of pathos when an older man came up to me and said, “Aw, come on. Let her have it. She is too pretty to say no to.”
I’d like to say that I gave the guy a piece of my mind. But I didn’t. I am far too conflict-shy. I just gave him a fake smile and walked away.
There was a lot about that little episode that pissed me off. First of all, I really don’t like it when people contradict my parenting in front of my kids in a matter of discipline. You just don’t do that.
But what really got me going that day was the whole, “she is too pretty to say no to” part. I mean, my daughter is gorgeous, so I get where he was coming from. People are constantly commenting on how pretty she is. They especially rave over her bright blue eyes, which are pretty stunning. And I appreciate the compliments. I really do. After all, I made her.
But here is where it gets problematic. First of all, I really don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that it is her prettiness that gets her recognition and appreciation from people outside her family. I desperately don’t want her to feel like when she is out in the world she is defined by how she looks. Sometimes I think we grownups forget how watchful our children are, or how much they observe from life as it goes on around them. And even though she is only three, I can tell that this little girl is aware of how her looks influence other people.
Secondly, I have another daughter. Another gorgeous daughter with brown eyes you can get lost in. And all she ever hears when we are all out together is how beautiful her little sister is. People notice the little one because she is at the peak of her cuteness. But they always seem to miss the older one, the brown one, the one who is as pretty as she is smart.
The one who told me the other day that she is ugly. That her eyes are the color of poop and dirt. That her sister is prettier than she is. The six-year-old who is unhappy with the way she looks because “the pretty one” gets all the attention.
I know that, as much as we wish they didn’t, looks do matter in our society. And I know that when people compliment little girls on how they look, they are doing it out of kindness, with only the best of intentions. I’ve done it myself often enough. There are times when it is biologically impossible not to rave over how cute a small child is. I also know there are times when people need to be told that they are pretty, or attractive. There are times when it is welcome and appropriate.
I just wish that when people engage with little girls out in the world, they notice more about them than just their pretty faces.
And I wish we had a better understanding of the subtle ways our words and actions shape a world that puts far too much value in the way women and girls look.
I also wish that when people see two little girls together, they notice them both.