Monday, February 14, 2011

Pretty Girl

I am an intelligent person.  I feel somewhat narcissistic saying that, but I don't mean it to sound that way.  I had a high GPA in high school, a good enough GPA in college.  I have a Ph.D. in a biomedical science that I received when I was 27.  I am a college professor.  I am a speed reader.  I am a visual learner.  Those skills help me to retain details that I can feed back to people to make them think I'm smart.

I am not an attractive person.  I not unattractive.  But I'm not one of the beautiful people, either.  I am more overweight than I want to be.  I have horrible skin these days because I don't pick up the phone to call the doctor.  I'm comfortable being a slob, so that's just me.

In therapy circa 2003 I found a program that in 10 weeks promised to cure you from all ill effects of childhood sexual abuse (hello topic-never-before-mentioned-on-the-blog.)  It was supposed to be an intensive therapy program, and the clinical research made it sound wonderful.  In a session with a graduate student I mentioned my deeply held belief that people could not be both intelligent and beautiful.  "God gives you one or the other" I told the student.  And since I was clearly on the intelligent side (newly minted Ph.D to show for that), I obviously was not beautiful.

The student was clearly taken aback by my confession.  She waited until after the session, while we were walking down the stairs in the presence of other people to begin to challenge my belief.  Her chosen example?  Herself.  "Well, I am beautiful and intelligent, aren't I?"  No, my dear, you're a moron.

All of this is a long introduction to my concern.

Everyone at daycare calls my daughter Pretty Girl.

My daughter is beautiful.  Her father is the most handsome man I ever met.  He is athletic and strong and gorgeous and charming and if he wasn't a womanizing alcoholic he would be a god.  My hope for her is that she has my intellect and his physicality.

She is beautiful.  She was born with a head full of hair and garnered attention immediately.  If I wanted to slink through life as an introverted, overweight, slovenly, lazy single mother, my hopes are dashed.  People are drawn to us everywhere.  "Look at the hair on that baby."

Daycare is the worst.  Her primary caregiver for the first 10 months literally nicknamed her "Pretty Girl".  Every morning when we walk in, someone calls her Pretty Girl.  It may be the assistant director.  It may be her first caregiver.  It may be someone from the preschool room who just knows her in passing, but still calls her Pretty Girl.

I've mostly let go of my mental dichotomy.  I've met enough beautiful and intelligent women to let myself believe that it's not an either-or.  I've prayed that she has received the best of her genetic mix.

It still bothers me that she's not called Smart Girl.  Or just Girl.  Or, you know, by her name.  She is not yet two, and she can count to 10 completely by herself, unprompted.  She can sing the alphabet song with you, and if you sing it in sections, she can do the letters before you say them.

Let me repeat that.  My kid is not yet two and can say numbers and letters.

So she is, apparently, both intelligent and beautiful. 

But what message does it send her when she's called Pretty Girl?  Is she slowly absorbing, as she is numbers and letters, that Pretty is better than Smart?  That Pretty is Ideal?  That Pretty is what draws people to you, and therefore is The Thing To Be?

Yes, I'm probably overthinking as usual.  Maybe it doesn't matter.

But what if it does?  What if the message that is being sent to her is subliminal conditioning for Pretty.  What if the other girls that aren't being called Pretty Girl, who aren't being praised for being petite with so much hair, what if they are subtly absorbing that Pretty is better.  The caregivers like you if you are the Pretty Girl.  The other mommies like you if you are the Pretty Girl.

I love it that my kid is the one that might get the advantages from being the Pretty Girl.  But is that what I really want her to learn?

And what do you say to a daycare full of women who call your daughter Pretty Girl? 

As usual: no answers, only questions.


Jellybean Mama said...

I am very cautious with this, because I think that, as unfair as it is, pretty is an advantage. But the lesson I want JR to learn is that smart is equally as cool. So while she might hear 'pretty' from other people, what she hears from me is 'I'm so proud of you for figuring that out', or 'my bright gorgeous girl' and, you know, stuff like that. Equate pretty and smart hand in hand as much as you can.

Funky Mama Bird said...

My kid is also really good looking, to the point where all anyone ever talks about when they see him is how gorgeous he is. Since he was born, in fact. It's the red hair, the blue eyes, etc.

What I do, whenever someone comments on how beautiful he is, is to mention his other traits for him to hear. So when someone says, "That smile! And those EYES! He's so good looking!" I respond with, "Oh, he's very friendly; loves to smile at people. He's really good at listening, too; that's why he's watching you so closely". Or something to that regard - I do it for him, so he knows he's more than pretty, he's smart, a good listener, etc.

and he's a BOY! I can't imagine how having a girl would affect things!

Babs said...

I actually kind of agree with you on the one or the other theory. I don't think it's true for everyone, but certainly for some. Myself included. I think I get a solid B in looks and a solid C in smarts.

People also always talking about how beautiful my girl is. They stop us in stores and at restaurants to comment on it. I make sure to tell them "and she's smart too." And when she is playing and does something spectacular I tell her how funny or smart she is.

I think it's great that she is smart and want to nurture that, but I also think it's great that she is beautiful. I think it will give her great confidence and sel esteem.

So let people tell her how pretty she is. And you just make sure you keep telling her how smart she is.

MommieV said...

JM and FMB - I do try to counteract direct comments. But when it's a name - when it's THE NAME she is called at daycare, while coming in the door, while walking down the hallway, while I'm just trying to get the hell to work, what do you say? I'd be saying "oh and you're smart too, C" the entire morning.

Babs - I like your statement about keep telling her how smart she is, but doesn't that reinforce the dichotomy? Out there people think you are pretty and at home mommie thinks you are smart.

But I agree with JM, there are advantages to come with being pretty, just like there are disadvantages that come with being plain and fat. I want her to have those advantages.

I'm just wondering the best way to build her self esteem in the process.

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I really don't know anyone who doesn't have a "cute" or "pretty" child. People are drawn to babies and toddlers. It is something society is "expected" to say, whether your child is cute or not. Its hard to find an ugly baby or toddler. Some of the cutest toddlers I have found sometimes grow up into less-than-cute kids. I think my children are adorable and pretty as well. And I've been told that by everyone who has met them, seen their pictures, or who have been their day-care providers. But they aren't any cuter than other kids.
I agree - your toddler is cute. But no more or less cute than most that I see. If I saw you both on the street, I would say hi and tell you your daughter is pretty. As our society expects it.

Jenny said...

I am going to vote overthinking. I call my little guy "Gorgeous" and "Handsome" and "Beautiful" much of the time. We get the same comments from people we know and people we don't. I often call children "Pretty Girl" or "Handsome" simply because they are. It doesn't mean that they aren't smart or otherwise talented.

Now that he is almost 4, if I ask him if he is handsome he will reply "I am handsome and smart and funny and silly and cute". That tells me that they're not all mutually exclusive and that I am doing my job.