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.