Tag Archives: Girls

“Pretty” is the Wrong Question

imagesCASDTSYLWhen I was in fourth grade, the boys made a list of the ten prettiest girls in the class. My best friend was number one. Though I was not on the list at all, I don’t remember being terribly upset. Being one of three non-white girls in the class, I hadn’t expected to make the list. My parents told me that I was beautiful every day, but even at the age of nine, I understood that there were different standards of beauty in different environments. At home I might be beautiful, but at school pretty and me didn’t even fit in the same sentence. In some ways not being pretty freed me. I was able to be the funny one, the fast runner, the flexible gymnast, the one who wrote stories.

In other ways, though, it made me feel less than the girls who had made the list. The fact that there even was such a list made me start thinking about “pretty”—the thing I was not. In fact, this list may have been one little brick out of many that built my road to an eating disorder.

Today these boys would be considered bullies, now that the definition has expanded to include all those who put down and victimize in ways to which they themselves are not susceptible. At the time, however, they were only making “personal observations.” I like to think that they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, that they were simply oblivious to their power.

In any case, the list popped into my mind while I was reading an article in last Sunday’s New York Times. It involved a girl with poor body image and a fragile sense of self, a YouTube video and some brutal comments from angry, mean-spirited people. The result wasn’t, but could well have been, tragic.

In the New York Times article, Tell Me What You See, Even if it Hurts Me,  by Douglas Quenqua, a thirteen-year-old girl turned to YouTube to answer a burning question: Am I Ugly or Pretty? The responses she got ranged from positive to brutally honest, to downright cruel. Another girl posting a similar video received a comment recommending suicide.

Thankfully, the girl didn’t take that dire advice, but another child might have. We all know that cyber bullying has led more than a few targets to take their own lives. The internet allows anyone—of any description, any position, any age—to be a co-conspirator.

In my day (we’re talking the 1970’s and 1980’s), you knew who the mean kids were. They name-called, stuck signs on people’s backs, sent notes with nasty messages, played tricks, and made crank phone calls. They tripped people the cafeteria or stole their clothes during gym. They made exclusive lists. These were awful things at the time, but they seem quaint and cliché—the stuff of John Hughes’s films—compared with what today’s bullies can dish out with the click of a mouse.

Pre-internet, anything a mean kid (or adult) did could be traced back to the perpetrator with minimal effort. Victims might keep quiet for fear of retaliation, but they knew the faces and names of those who picked on them. Today’s bullies have the luxury of total anonymity. A clever username, a cute cartoon character or slick silhouette image masks anyone’s identity. The comments section serves as an arena to tear down the self concept of anyone who dares venture in. The “haters” are a group anyone can join with no ID card, and more importantly, no consequences.

What hasn’t changed—despite our efforts, as parents, educators, therapists and bloggers, despite Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Dr. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia—is the abundance of young girls with poor self images, who seek approval from the most questionable sources.

I looked and found, as Quenqua reports, that there is a proliferation of “Am I pretty?” videos on YouTube. Some of the girls look as young as nine, imploring viewers: “Be honest, I can take it.” While some comments are supportive—for example, “U R beautiful. It doesn’t matter what other people think”—other comments are pretty ruthless. One compares the subject to human excrement, another says, “Yes U R ugly, plz die.”

This directed at eight- to fifteen-year-old girls. You might ask, what did these kids expect? This kind of query, posed on the internet, is an open invitation to the most vile among us. Why would anyone post something like this? Because these girls are young, because they are afraid to ask people close to them—afraid to hear lies or truth from those whose faces they know—and because they think an objective opinion from strangers will reassure them, rather than feeding their fears of inadequacy.

I remember the self-doubt of being thirteen. By that time I’d moved beyond the list from fourth grade. For better or for worse, pretty no longer felt unattainable. But suddenly looks mattered more—for more reasons. I remember asking those questions. Do I look bad? Do I look fat? When you are a dancer, as I was, you stare in the mirror for hours each day, constantly checking for—and attempting to correct—flaws. What you see starts to play tricks on you. Whether you approve or disapprove of your image depends on your mood. How many times did I say to a friend—or have that friend say to me,

“I can’t tell what I look like any more. Am I hideous?”

Of course we knew we weren’t hideous but we needed constant reassurance. We were young and driven; our bodies were changing and so were our perceptions of ourselves and the world. We were also ashamed—not just of our bodies—but of this very need to hear that we were okay. That’s why “Am I pretty?” was the kind of question a self-worth-doubting young girl would pose only to a close, trusted friend. Maybe to her mother or sister.

Now, girls turn to the internet—the anonymous, opinionated majority—with their most intimate questions and confessions. The sharks are ready and waiting.

As a therapist and writer, I always seek to understand the motivation behind bad behavior. I do not believe that anyone is innately evil. Nevertheless, there are some people out there who are always in the market for a victim on whom to work out their own personal rage against the world. The internet empowers the inventive cruelty of these cowards. Again and again their victims are young, vulnerable girls.

It’s up to all of us—parents, teachers, therapists, all responsible adults—to stop the cycle of damage. That means teaching our children to love who they are—which sounds hokey, but it’s essential—not what they look like.  I’d love to take each of these self-flagellating video-makers aside and ask her, “Who are you really? What matters to you besides how you look? What do you love to do? Do you play sports? Music? Write poems? Make your friends laugh?”

Those are the questions we need to encourage these girls to ponder. Not “Am I pretty?”

I’m not saying appearance doesn’t matter. I know there have been numerous studies suggesting that good-looking people have better lives—get treated better, make more money—than so-called unattractive people. But are those studies—which measure inborn physical gifts as opposed to aspects of ourselves that we can control—helpful to anyone? Instead of encouraging our daughters to present themselves nicely, let’s teach them to embrace who they are as individuals. Let’s take time to learn who they are for ourselves while we’re at it.

Here are some ideas to get your daughter’s mind off “pretty”:

  • Don’t fuss over your daughter’s clothes or hair more than she does. (It took me years to learn this. I think I got there in time. I could fill a whole post with that lesson, but I am honoring my daughter’s request that I stop blogging about her.)
  • Encourage activities that capitalize on something other than the physical: coding, robotics, music, writing.
  • Encourage sports, which emphasize what the body can do more than how it looks doing it.
  • If she dances, or acts, or does anything stage-related, compliment her on the achievement; don’t focus on her appearance. (With dance, you can say, “you danced beautifully,” which celebrates the images she creates with her body, but not her body itself. It’s a fine but important line).
  • If your daughter asks you if she is pretty, tell her she is beautiful inside and out.
  • Then ask why she is asking. It could open the door to an important conversation. Is someone bullying her—cyber or otherwise? Did someone make a hurtful list? Did someone criticize her in a deeply painful way? Open the floodgates. Have the discussion. It just might save her years of self doubt. It might save her life.
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Kim Kardashian’s Armpits, and other things My Daughter Doesn’t need to Read About

This is a short one—more of a vent than anything else.  Let me say for the record that I do not care about Kim Kardashian’s weight gain (See the In Touch article entitled something like: I’ll Never be Sexy again; Even my Armpits are Fat!), I don’t care which celeb’s beach butt cellulite it is under the cutesy “Guess Who?” label.

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I am not interested in learning who the tabloids deem “scary skinny” or who’s had a recent plastic surgery debacle.  And since I don’t care—not even when these magazines are under my nose at the A&P check out—I don’t read them.  I scroll on my Blackberry if I have a long time to wait or else, check out the five hundred dollar nail clippers Oprah says I must have.   Easy for me.  But guess who is reading the tabloids?  Who is turning to page thirty to match the dimpled derrieres on the cover page to the celebs sporting them?  Who’s reading Kim K.’s lament about her pits? Getting the scoop on the new diet Kendra is swearing by?

My daughter, that’s who.  My daughter and everyone else’s daughter who happens to be shopping with us.  Despite our best efforts at raising them to think highly of themselves and their bodies—the way we avoid putting ourselves down, the way we choose accepting language if we must speak of different body types—our girls are bombarded with counterproductive, body-loathing messages all day long.  Here are the questions I get, standing in line at the supermarket:

Mom, what’s cellulite?

Mom, is it bad to gain weight when you’re pregnant?

Mom what’s a boob job? 

I answer everything simply and honestly:

Cellulite: the normal texture of your leg flesh when you get a little older.

Weight gain while pregnant = good thing.  It’s how your baby gets big and healthy enough to grow and live outside of you one day.

A Boob job is when people want their breasts to be bigger or smaller and they get an operation.  It hurts way, way more than a flu shot.  ’Nuff said.

But my daughter is twelve, and these days, unlike the happy days of elementary school where my answers were the only ones she sought, I know she’s getting information elsewhere, from friends, from friends’ big sisters and cousins, from the internet, and even from teachers who may share too much personal information in order to be cool and liked by students.   What I say—especially when I tell her that she is beautiful—is taken under advisement and often cast aside.   I can still give her guidance, but my daughter is at an age where she’ll weigh it all and come to her own conclusions.

I hope, I pray, that her body image and self-concept come out on top.

Body in Motion, The Spirit Soars

My past two posts have dealt with eating disorders in women over forty.   Well, here comes a refreshing change of pace …

The joy of a body is in what it can do.  That is why humans began dancing in the first place.  Their spirits were moved; their bodies followed suit.  A little musical accompaniment and there was no turning back.

People have asked me about the header image of this blog; some mistakenly think it’s a photograph of me when I was small.  It’s actually an image of my daughter in dance class at the age of about four and a half–on parents’ observation day.  I love all the photographs from that series, because they capture the true spirit of girls–happy with what their bodies are able to do, how great it feels to move and not how they look.  (Sure, one might check the mirror now and then to see how her chiffon skirt floats around when she spins, but she’s not scrutinizing herself.)  How I wish we could all capture that joy and preserve it all our lives.

My favorite part of that dance class, which I actually have on video (and am sharing below) is when the teacher had the girls skip in random circles.  They were told to make their own paths, just not to get so wild that they would prevent others from skipping freely.  Zoe is the little one in lavender featured.  (My husband did the filming.)

Who’s Afraid of The Little Mermaid?

Aged three. Make mine the Princess cup, please.

Visiting middle schools with my daughter last week has me musing about change: the upcoming changes in my daughter, in our relationship—as she relies on me less and less, on herself and her friends more and more.  I’m thinking about practical changes too: the changes in our schedule, as I’ll have two kids in two different schools in two different parts of town come September.  But as well as looking to the future, I can’t help glancing back with bittersweet nostalgia at the days of baby teeth and mispronunciations, of Dora and Blues Clues, Bob Books and Hop on Pop.   I also remember my parenting then, the things I thought were big deals: how meticulously I mixed water in every glass of juice, how white flour products hardly ever found their way into my kitchen—never, ever made it into my kids’ lunchboxes.

When it came to playthings, I was a little easier going.  Though I never bought my son a toy gun, I found it amusing that—from the time he was eighteen months old—Theo turned every object he got his hands on into one.  He’d take the letter “L” from an alphabet puzzle, grip it like a pistol and chase his sister around going: “Rahr!  Rahr!”  (Never having seen or heard actual artillery, the most aggressive sound he could come up with was the noise the lion made on Nature.)

I didn’t even object when my daughter, at three, became passionate about Ariel and the other Disney Princesses.  The way I figured: a plastic Disney Princess cup at Target cost about seventy-five cents.  If it would make her drink milk happily, why not?  I didn’t see it as anything that might one day harm her character.  (If one day she began to lament her lack of a fish-tail, we’d cross that bridge then.)

What follows is an article I wrote about two years ago, as a belated response to the Princess backlash I’d heard around the playground during my daughter’s Ariel days.   At the time, Zoe was nine, way finished with the Princesses and had entered a tomboy stage, banishing all dresses, all pink from her wardrobe.

 Don’t Throw the Mermaid out with The Bath Water

Fear not the Disney Princesses, nor their impact on your daughter!  They will pass, my young mother friend, as will the lure of Bratz dolls and even Hannah Montana.

When my daughter Zoe was three, turning four, Cinderella was released on DVD.  Everywhere you turned there were little girls in long, blue gauze dresses marked at the breast with the blond heroine’s picture.   Zoe’s fourth birthday party was a costume pageant, where she and no fewer than four guests showed up as Cindy—not to be confused with the three pink Auroras and two yellow Belles.  (Someone’s sleeping, stroller-bound baby arrived in Ariel’s seashell bikini top and tail).  It was a craze I succumbed to halfheartedly (yet another franchise, preying on children), but without too much guilt.  An Ariel cup?  No biggie.  Belle underwear?  Sure.  A Cinderella beach towel?  Well—Zoe would need cups, underwear and towels anyway; why not make her happy?

“Aren’t you concerned about the message it’s sending?”  said my friend Anne, who was writing a book on feminist parenting.  She was referring to the beauty myth laid out so eloquently by Naomi Wolf back in ’92.  The Princesses all perpetuated unrealistic standards of feminine beauty—dainty hands, feet, and noses; huge eyes with fabulous lashes; succulent lips, microscopic waists and flowing blankets of hair.  Anne, whose daughter Emma was younger—just breaking into Elmo—emailed me articles every week on how mass marketed toys undermined girls’ self esteem.

As a biracial woman whose daughter has inherited both my tightly curling hair and my brown skin, I admit, I was a little concerned.  The new African American Princess, Tiana, was years away and stores rarely stocked products featuring the darker Princesses—Jasmine, Esmeralda, Yulan and Pocahontas.  More than once I watched Zoe prance around in her blue Cinderella outfit with a real blanket on her head, simulating “Princess hair,” swinging it this way and that.   Oh, how I remember doing the blanket-head thing myself as a child;  Look, Mommy; I’m Marcia Brady!  (My generation’s reigning Princess.) Were we rejecting our real hair and identity, or just pretending for an afternoon to be something we weren’t?   Frankly, at four, Zoe was more inclined to pretend to be a pig.  I don’t think she was rejecting her species; just imagining a different sort of existence.  And isn’t imagination the place to be if you’re four anyway?

Emails from Anne kept coming: the Disney girls were just the tip of the iceberg; Bratz Dolls were next!  Worse than the Princesses, worse than Barbie back in her 39-21-33 measurement days—Bratz dolls were—and I suppose still are—eight-inch plastic renditions of big-haired teenage hookers with oversized heads, eyes and lips.  They all wore perpetual sneers, demonstrating cool—or, rather, a Brattiness that might appeal to the fashionably precocious five year old.  They were a horror, I admit, and thanks to successful marketing, Zoe wanted one.  (My emphatic NO made them all the more appealing.)  She never got one, however, and her interest quickly faded.  By the time Zoe was in first grade, Disney Princesses themselves were passé among Zoe’s crowd.  Hannah Montana held their interest for about a summer; High School Musical, about fifteen minutes.

Beginning in second grade, an aversion to all things girly—dresses, ballet, the color pink, the word pretty when offered as a compliment—had set in and persists to this day.  (Zoe, nine, is wrapping up third grade.)  Part of this is about asserting her identity as a being separate from me; I’m a former ballerina myself.   Zoe has heard me comment that she has natural dancing gifts that I myself wasn’t born with.  “If only she wanted to …” I’ve lamented, failing to make sure she’s out of earshot.  Which, of course is pressure just begging for rebellion.  Not to mention the treatment she gets from everyone who knows I used to dance.  The first thing they say to my daughter is, “Are we a little ballerina too?”

“No,” says Zoe.  “We are not.”

I haven’t the heart to stress politeness at times like these.  She is not a little ballerina, certainly not a little me.  Still, I see her dancing around the house when she forgets herself, leaping, pirouetting—riffing on all the steps she learned in ballet class when she was too young to decide she hated it.   Similarly, when we go clothes shopping, it’s the pink top she goes for first, then checks herself and asks for green.

I am proud of my daughter for designing her own code for dress and behavior.  I am proud of the individual that she is.   She loves pigs, snakes and insects; she can name the super powers of every member of the Justice League along with their back stories; she’s good at gymnastics, tennis and drawing; she runs like the wind; she’ beautiful (okay so I’m biased) and while adults tell her this all the time, she could not care less.

I confess, though, while the “girliness allergy” doesn’t worry me, at times it makes me a little sad.  I fear Zoe is holding herself to her own unrealistic standard, where skirts, pink, and dancing are off-limits, even if she secretly longs for them.  Whenever I fear that she’s cutting off the part of her that enjoys girly things, I reassure myself by remembering how quickly phases come and go.  The pendulum swings one way and then it swings back.  This applies to both my kids in terms of sleeping patterns, eating, quirky likes and dislikes and yes, style.

On a recent visit to the Gap outlet, Zoe grabbed a t-shirt and thrust it at me.  “I need this top,” she said with a grin.  Under a picture of the seven main members of the Justice League was the slogan: “I love Super Heroes.”  Typical Zoe, right?  Yeah.  Only the top was pink.