This morning, I found this Lisa Bloom article in Huffington Post. It’s titled “How to Talk to Little Girls.” She recounts an interaction she had with a little girl, who seemed surprised that Bloom started asking her questions about what books she liked to read, instead of squealing over how cute she was.
Since sometime in high school, I’ve had this idea that maybe we should change how we relate to daughters. I had a friend whose family only commented on her looks, from the time she was little. I, the oldest child in a farming family, became more “farm kid” than “little girl” (at least until my brother was born and was old enough to wander around the farm with little supervision). My parents bought me dolls, tractors, and a Tonka truck. They told me I was smart. I believed them. When they didn’t have time to read to me when I wanted to be read to, I decided I would do it myself. I remember struggling through the Little House on the Prairie series at an unnaturally young age. Every book I finished was an accomplishment, and my parents celebrated with me. Sometimes this meant ice cream.
I wanted to wear dresses to school, but my mom rarely let me because when she did, I still crawled under trees and bushes during recess, tearing countless numbers of little-girl pantyhose.
To my farm-kid, messy-haired brain, being pretty meant having long straight hair. I thought my little sister was way prettier than I was, and that I had no hope of ever being as pretty as she. Unruly hair meant short hair, for ease of management, and this was before my awareness of flat irons and straightening serum. It was inevitable that my sister would always be prettier than I. It bothered me sometimes, but mostly I figured there was nothing that could be done for me to also have long, straight hair, so I didn’t worry about it too much. I could climb trees and read books and jump fences and build forts in the barn. Also, I never had to worry about getting gum stuck in my hair, something that happened with uncommon frequency to my sister, for whom chewing gum eventually became prohibited.
The aforementioned childhood friend also had long hair. Not as straight as my sister’s, but straighter than mine. She told me once that her dad didn’t want her to have short hair. That concept seemed foreign to me. I wasn’t aware that my dad had any special preferences about my hair. I had even gotten my hair cut at the barbershop with him on occasion.
Adolescent insecurities were inescapable, even though my parents didn’t place as much emphasis on prettiness. I do think it was a little easier for me than most adolescent females, though, at least in this department. Because there was a sudden new set of expectations for me, I was aware of the juxtaposition, and that awareness made it easier for me to point out and think about the reasons why.
Once, in high school, aforementioned childhood friend and I showed up at school in similar enough outfits. As “You look cuter than me!” came out of her mouth, she seemed visibly annoyed that the precedent of my awkward tomboyishness juxtaposed with her femininity may have been coming to an end. I could hear the disappointment in her voice. It wasn’t a compliment. It was fear. It was competition. I was shocked, confused, and a little bit scared.
Unfortunately, even now, with friends my age, I find myself greeting them with comments about their appearance. Compliments on hair, clothes, shoes.
When did I start this? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t like that I do it. As the words are coming out of my mouth, I feel like I’m adding to the unbearable burden of socially acceptable femininity, and I hate it. It feels like betrayal.
Tell your daughters they’re smart. Tell them you admire them and their creativity. Ask them about their ideas, their plans. Ask them their opinions about their world.
But please, don’t stop there. Tell your sisters, your mom, your friends how smart they are. How much you admire them and the way they think. Ask them about their ideas, their plans. Ask them their opinions about their world.
Even for adult women, those kinds of questions may come as a surprise, as they do to the little girl in Lisa Bloom’s piece.
Let’s get rid of the surprise.
P.S. A bit of irony: The cover of Lisa Bloom’s book, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, features Bloom herself, well-dressed, -coiffed, and -manicured. Seems like a poor choice of cover art, given the premise of the HuffPo piece.