One of the first social emotional lessons most children receive centers on the “I statement.”
The premise is pretty basic: speak from your own experience, beginning with “I.” So instead of beginning your story with “you….,” the suggestion is that we begin our stories with ourselves. Pretty basic, but also pretty deep.
The I statement assumes listening to each other- and speaking from our own experiences, instead of narrating others’ experiences- is a peaceful way to be in the world.
You shouldn’t be so angry. You’re too negative today, try being happier. You can’t expect a roomful of strangers to give your baby “good” compliments. You should lighten up.
These are some of the comments I’ve received for writing about how my baby and I experience an onslaught of comments about her prettiness whenever we go out in public. Some from people I know, some from trolls.
They all begin with you.
Not a single one of these commenters spoke from their own experience.
Instead, they narrated mine, presumably because me sharing how it feels for me and my baby to receive this onslaught of comments about prettiness threatens them or their way of life.
You functions to make me carry the weight of the comment. It functions to release the speaker from responsibility. It functions to neutralize the speaker and cast harsh light on the spoken about.
I suppose my writing threatens a way of life. I guess that suggesting that a patriarchy exists and that we all participate in it really brings out the feels in people. It’s pretty shocking (though not surprising) to recognize the ugly feeling that leaks out just because I suggested language matters, even and especially to baby girls.
I’ve never before considered the “I” statement as a feminist, political intervention.
But it is just that: speaking from our own experiences is risky. Listening to others speak from their own experiences means making ourselves vulnerable because it means we might have to consider our own everyday participation in some of these challenging dynamics.
Can you imagine, if instead of “you are being negative” they said “I’ve never read anything like that. When people tell my baby that they are pretty, I feel good because no one ever told me I was pretty growing up, so I felt ugly. I want to make sure my child hears that she is pretty.” Ah, now the conversation is open. Now we can get to the real stuff: feelings hurt because we never noticed. Now we can heal.
Can you imagine, if instead of “lighten up” they said… “So what would you say? What do you say? What else is there to say?”
Can you imagine, if instead of “you’re too angry,” they reflected “One time, I was really angry about X and so I did Z,” or they asked “Share your fire with me, and I’ll share mine.”
Can you imagine if they put themselves on the line, shared what’s going on in their hearts, offered up their vulnerability?
Things would be so different. We all access knowledge from our different experiences; our different experiences are born of our diverse bodies, lives, languages, experiences, families, and dreams.
Feminist research methodologists have long urged us to be clear about our own positionality: what that means is that when we are trying to know something new, we need to consider how our lives and histories inform what it is possible for us to know at all. Different kinds of people have different fields of knowledge that are possible.
How delightful, to recognize this value that I hold so dear in the very early lessons we (try) to impart to our children: I statements.
Something I’ve learned from all my work with diverse communities is that we humans are desperate for discursive space. Desperate to be heard. Desperate to tell our stories.
You though, you…. Silences. It shuts us down. The only way to make sense of this persistent you is through silencing. You is a silencer. And so, it really is time to go back to basics: I statements. Let’s speak from our experiences, and let’s offer some softness, some protection, some vulnerability to the stories we hear from each other.
In less than three hours, my seventeen month old daughter received compliments including “you’re so pretty,” “you’re so cute,” “your dress is adorable,” “that bow is the prettiest and so are you,” or some variant of the above more than seven times. And then I stopped counting.
Afterwards, I went grocery shopping and a stranger looked at my gorgeous, radical, wild baby girl and said, “you’re so pretty.” And I looked right at my baby and in earshot of the commenter said, “And you are so strong, and so smart, and so beautiful, and so kind, and so creative.”
My seventeen month old is beautiful, indeed: she has big, soulful, dark eyes. She has a ton of gorgeous, fine hair that I often pull into a top-of-the-head ponytail. She just learned to spin in circles and she likes to dance. She always points out airplanes and she has a sweet little belly that she likes to fill with cherry tomatoes from the garden, and she's got a smile that can light up a room. She is also a baby living in a patriarchy and we cannot possibly understand comments about her outside of this context.
What we say matters, and when we talk about something a lot, it garners importance.
So when the thing folks say the most often to my little girl with the soulful eyes is that she is pretty (and I am here, attesting to the fact that this is what most people say to her, most of the time), the message she receives is that being a pretty little girl is what matters most. This is communicated not by each individual but rather, by the sheer number of comments about her looks. It’s as though everyone got a secret message to comment on her prettiness.... but actually, it’s culture. This is how culture works. This is how we learn gender, through a million tiny comments about looks... all made by people who would surely agree girls are strong. People who give money to Malala and who support their daughters to get graduate degrees and who advocate for equity.
What she hears most is: “You’re so pretty!” She is learning this is what matters.
After all, it’s what we tell her the most.
Almost everyone we meet comments, “wow she is gorgeous,” or “what a pretty little thing,” or “look at those eyelashes!”
People on the street. The cashier at the grocery store. The mom of boys at the park. The neighbor. Someone’s mom’s friend. The aunt, the friend, the dog-walker, the museum attendant. Everyone.
I am her mama, and I hear the onslaught of comments, and I feel them.
And I can't look at her and hear these comments without feeling the little girl inside of me- the little girl who not pretty enough. Sure, no one ever said I wasn’t pretty enough- but there was an onslaught of comments about looks- and then there was their absence.
In the same time frame that my baby was told she's pretty again and again, I heard two comments about a a young woman's prettiness as compared to Disney princesses: “She looks like Snow White,” someone said, and then only a half an hour later about a completely different young woman, someone else commented, “total Disney princess, that one!” To my knowledge, I have never been described as a Disney princess. I have been described as “thick,” “freckley,” “Miss Piggy” and “pasty.”
And because I learned early on, by the sheer volume and frequency of conversation about looks that it matters what girls look like, I knew- early on- that “thick,” “freckley,” “Miss Piggy” and “pasty” were not good ways to look. These comments were the absence of Disney princess comments.
Absence is a tricky thing. And yet, when we are talking gender and girlhood, absence is everything: the absence of feeling beautiful is, but what other than failure? Failure to be, to do, to become girl or woman.
Never was this so clear to me as when I lost all my hair and eyebrows because I had cancer, only to be offered a make-up program to show me how to hide my failures at performing womanhood. There is a cancer-beauty program called “look good feel better” where women who are mostly sicker than they have ever been are taught to hide their difference- their ugliness- by applying makeup to look better (more like a Disney princess?), and in doing so, to feel better. I was handed a mirror and a bag of make-up give-aways and led through a workshop on how to paint my eyebrows on, by a woman who explained cheerily, "your husband will never know!"
She forgot to ask if I had a husband. She assumed my body should be concealed and prettified so a man could consume it.
From when we are babies to when we have cancer, we learn that much of our worth hinges on being and feeling beautiful.
If there is one thing I want for my baby with the soulful eyes and long lashes? It’s for her worth to never hinge on being- or feeling- beautiful.
I don’t care if she is beautiful. Frankly, I don’t care if she feels beautiful.
I care if she feels strong. I care if she feels creative. I care if she feels willfull, excited, sad, nervous, or hopeful.
It is not the same thing as commenting that a baby boy is handsome.
It is not the same because we know that boys receive many comments about their abilities, their actions, and their futures in ways that girls simply, do not. We know that even us parents speak differently to our boys than to our girls.
It’s not the same because boys don’t experience- writ large- a crisis of identity hinged on their gender, a falling out of confidence about what a teenage girl recently described to me as “science and stuff I’m good at but I’m not supposed to be good at.”
I’m sorry, but no. Handsome spoken about a boy and pretty spoken about a girl are not the same.
I only have girls.
I know this hurts boys and girls and genderqueer people.
Pretty is not powerful. It’s not strong. It’s not kickass.
It’s limiting and patronizing.
For girls, but also for those who are not girls- for your boys and your gender queer children.
So yah, the next stranger that tells me my girl is pretty?
I promise you this will happen tomorrow if we go out in public even once.
I’ll be sure to say, loudly enough for her to hear, that the little girl with me is also…. All kinds of other things.
I wish she would say to my little one, instead... "Wow! You are getting so big! Do you love to run?" or "What a love-bug- does she just adore reading books?" Or anything that focused on anything but her looks.
Be the single drop of difference in our life. Know that everyone is saying something about our looks, so decide to say something different. Comment on the language we are speaking, describe her as brilliant or silly or curious. Anything but "she's so pretty."
It’s easier to do with strangers than with family, but I’ll do it with family, too. I will, because my feminist work is in my home and with my family, and certainly, for and with my daughters.
And whenever I can, I’ll kill misogyny in its most potent form: that insipid, complementary, micro-comment form that makes up a life. I am a feminist mama, and I might f*ck it up sometimes, but when I can gather my strength I will respond.
Always. All ways.
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.