I have three daughters and three granddaughters. There is something special about girls. While I find boys fun and adventurous and enjoy roughhousing, those girls can melt my heart faster than fast. Their ability to notice the little things in life, their inner strength but at the same time often so sensitive, I just love them!
But for us men, and women can get caught up in this as well, we are especially impressed by the sight of physical beauty. Our default is to notice and then subsequently comment on physical beauty that catches our eye. But as fathers and grandfathers (and mothers and grandmothers) we need to resist the natural tendency to make our daughters think that their real beauty comes from the physical.
Let me back up. As I said, I have three daughters. My youngest, Abby (who was just married and whose pictures are displayed through this post) was a very goofy looking little girl. And yes, we tease her and she knows I think that. Quite literally she ground her baby teeth all the way down to her gums. Around 6 years old she looked like an old man! My wife and I are not really into fancy clothes and dolled up hair, and our youngest daughter probably caught the brunt of our casual attitude toward outward appearance. I thought we had the “true beauty” understanding down. If there was ever a family that was getting it right, I thought it was our family. We praised character, devotion to others and doing what was right in the sight of God. Sure, we ooh-ed and aah-ed when they would get dressed up for special occasions and all, but basically did not go overboard when it came to physical appearance.
Then my daughter Abby hit puberty. Between the sixth and seventh grade she blossomed. I remember my son who was in college telling me, “Dad, you know Abby is a ‘looker,’ right?”
“Yeah sure!” I said sarcastically. All I could see was that goofy kid with no teeth!
“Seriously Dad, you need to watch out for her!” my son warned.
I just did not see it. That is until Abby and I had to go take care of some things before the first day of 7th grade. That is when I first noticed it. She had not even started 7th grade yet and the heads were literally jerking around to look at my daughter. At first I did not believe it. But then there was no mistaking it. And the compliments started. I am not talking about compliments from pimple faced middle school boys, I am talking about compliments from men and women my age! At her 8th grade banquet one dad told me “Wow, your daughter is the most stunning girl in the room.”
I know people meant to be kind. They really did, but the problem was that my daughter was getting the same compliments and was hearing the accolades from adults and teens alike. And there was no way she did not notice all the heads turning!
At first I think we all handled it well. But then she entered high school and that is when I noticed it starting to happen. My daughter would never miss a day doing her hair and makeup. It is one thing to want to look nice, but it is another thing to painstakingly worry about how you look.
Slowly, all those compliments brainwashed Abby into thinking she had to look spectacular. Despite campaigns by her mother, sister and myself, she kept the pressure on herself. Too much of her focus was on the wrong kind of beauty. And the more she worked on looking amazing, the more isolated she became at school with less and less classmates talking to her. (I thought this was an odd reaction, but have come to realize that this is typical.)
I can openly talk about this because Abby has “made a full recovery” and no longer worries about having to look amazing every day. Sure, she wants to look good, but by senior year she would allow herself days when she would not wear makeup or do her hair. And when people would say things like “boy, don’t even bother talking to Abby, she is way out of your league” Abby would rebuke them. (Seriously, she really did as she became known as “fierce Abby.”)
Slowly, she gained perspective and returned to her roots in knowing that true beauty was in her character and strength as a person not in her physical looks. But due to the onslaught of compliments it took awhile.
One last observation. Between my wife and three daughters, all of them have dietary issues, three of them rather serious. But because they are skinny, I am shocked at how callous people have been to their plight and pain, all because they wish they could be as skinny as my girls. The same is true when I have shared the difficulties Abby faced, being told, over and over about her great physical looks, but hearing little about her as a person. The attitude I often got was a sarcastic “your poor daughter, how many people wish they could go through her suffering!” I need to be honest. This was a difficult time. And I would like to inform the ignorant, people who are skinny or pretty according to worldly standards, they really do suffer, just like others! They really do need compassion just like everyone else. And they want to make friends and be just like everyone else. So please get past your eyes and open your heart. This is true for anyone who has a physical trait that is highly noticeable, pleasant or unpleasant. No one wants to be known for their physical trait. Not someone who is heavy or skinny, pretty or with a scar on their face, etc.
So what would I do if I had it to do all over again and what advice do I have for parents of little girls?
I would make sure that my compliments were nearly always on what really mattered. I would save the physical compliments for those special “dress up” times. Along with this I would avoid routinely using “pretty” and use other adjectives – bright, cheerful, radiant, special, etc.
- When the girls are little and play dress up and seek compliments I would say “of course you are beautiful. . . and smart, and strong and . . . .”
- I would be more aggressive about exploring with Abby how all those reactions and compliments made her feel and the pressure it placed on her to “keep up the image.” And we would talk about how the image is not who she really is, but a superficial representation.
- At the time, it never occurred to me that I should or could have recruited friends and teachers to help keep the focus on Abby’s real strengths. I recommend others get help from those who care.
I would help my daughter see that some men do not see women as capable or strong but instead think women are sex objects. If a man cannot do more than complement her physical attributes, then she should ignore them.
- When people would compliment her looks, I now wish I would have said something like, “that is nice that you notice her physical appearance, but do you know about Abigail’s other strengths?” I would try not to be obnoxious, but I would want to make sure they understood what it was they were doing.
- If the above did not work and someone continued to gush about her looks I wish I had actually confronted them about being demeaning and turning my child, who had wonderful gifts and strengths, into merely a sex object.
- Once I saw Abigail putting pressure on herself I wish I had asked her to see a counselor, not due to her fault, but just to help her keep perspective on how this sort of thing affects individuals.
Dads, we need to help our daughters:
- feel treasured, not just gorgeous
- know their real character qualities not just flatter them
- understand their strengths rather than thinking they will have to rely on a man
Watch out for those sneaky, pervasive attitudes that lurk around in our society that belittle the real value of our daughters. And especially keep from over emphasis of physical looks by yourself and by others. Then our daughters true beauty will really shine!
photographs from Laren Paige Photography – http://www.laurenpaige.me/