When I was a little girl, I liked to watch my mother do her makeup. I absolutely adored observing the process of when she would take one wand after the other, lengthening her eyelashes and making her cheeks rosy. I would hop onto one foot, then the other shouting, “When will it be my turn!?” I was (not so patiently) awaiting the time when I would be allowed to apply, blend, and transform my entire face with these beautiful pastes and paints. To me, wearing make-up was akin to being pretty. And being pretty was my absolute highest aspiration.
I have always had a strong interest in aesthetics. My mood can be highly dependent on how pleasing my environment is to the eye. I adore beauty in a multitude of forms, from the simplicity and calming effect of an organized room, to vibrant sunsets, to freshly painted nails, to the grandeur of Monet piece, to gorgeous outfits, and yes, to watching my mother (and years later myself) transform her face with makeup. Caring about the appearance of my surroundings and myself has always felt like a natural tendency, albeit one that I have sometimes taken too far.
I absolutely ached to change my appearance during those years when I watched my mother put on makeup. I felt plain and subpar on the looks front as a kid. As I hit puberty, I remember feeling as if I had too much hair, too much excess skin, too much oil- I was altogether too much and not enough at the same time. At the same point this was going on, I was developing a strong need for attention (coupled with a painfully introverted personality, and low self-esteem. You can already smell the problems that were about to arise can’t ya). I wanted attention. I NEEDED it. I felt as if there was no good way to get it, until high school hit. TA-DA! Just like that, I was allowed to wear make-up. I was allowed to shave. I was allowed to pluck. Suddenly a great deal of time and effort was being funneled into the appearance category for me. And because I NEEDED the aforementioned attention, this all quickly escalated. Skirts got shorter, make-up got more pronounced, bras became less functional and more, ehem, deceptive. And guess what? All of this effort paid off. Sort of. Most of the attention I got became focused on my looks. Whether it was my mom or my sister complimenting my outfit of the day, a friend at school asking if I had lost weight, or a boy I was interested in telling me my new V-neck made me look “sexy as hell,” appearance became the cheap and easy way to get my attention needs filled and self-esteem boosted (momentarily of course). I LIVED for the moment a friend would say, “You look so cute!” I got high off of a stranger asking, “How do you stay so thin?” And every time a boy told me I was beautiful, I silently gave myself permission to feel proud for a moment, a respite from the constant barrage of negative self-talk and self-hate that I was participating in on a daily basis.
The problem is, I am not unique. What is the first comment most people make when they meet a friend’s little girl? “Oh she’s beautiful!” Think about when you were a little girl. Did most of the compliments that you received have to do with your intellect, your ability to follow directions, your assertiveness or your leadership skills? More likely than not, this was not the case. Instead, most little girls receive a message from very early on that “pretty” and “beautiful” are very important roles, and a party that we are not all inherently invited to. Telling girls that they are beautiful from an early age, while complimenting boys on other, more static personality attributes, leads little girls to over-identify with their appearance quickly. They begin to think that their looks are what make them special. Here is where it gets really problematic- once you begin to put all of your eggs into the appearance basket, it is all-too easy to lose sight of the shore, to hold on to “pretty,” enhance, it, and ultimately begin to strive for perfection in this attention-grabbing arena. Another issue here? Pretty fades. Even if you do happen to hit the genetic lottery, appearance changes. Beauty fades. Aging continues on despite our best efforts. So the dilemma is, the basket that all of these little girls at putting their eggs into is a shaky one, and one that will ultimately dwindle away over time. Appearance is not a core part of our souls, so basing the majority of self-esteem on this variable leaves us vulnerable to long-term self-doubt and insecurity.
It is highly important that we begin praising girls for their other accomplishments and values. Mothers, fathers, teachers, family members, and friends should stay away from comments about physical appearance in general. If you do feel the need to compliment a physical attribute on another female, especially a little girl, make sure to couple it with another compliment on something that actually lasts (i.e. intelligence, motivation, dependability, humor. The list is really endless, so endless, in fact, that it highlights how ridiculous it is that the main compliment that little girls receive, by far, is about their looks).
So here is my main message to girls, young and old alike: Don’t allow others to assign your value to your appearance, weight or body type. Make sure you are cultivating and nurturing the “other baskets” that you have, and rally against the cultural stereotype that females are primarily meant to be prized for their aesthetic value. In fact, the next time someone tells you that you are pretty, make sure to respond with “And damn am I smart/clever/witty/etc. too!”