A while ago, I read an article that talked about how paying, seemingly harmless, compliments to little girls on their looks and cuteness is pushing them into becoming excessively obsessed with their looks. My immediate instinct was to disagree. Sure, I complimented little girls for being cute but I have complimented, true to god, as many boys as girls for their cuteness. We don’t see boys fussing over their looks, do we? But a few minutes of thought and a couple of childhood flashbacks later, I realized the article was nothing but veracious and the writer had really nailed it. The article further talked about how, instead of telling a little girl how pretty she looks, one could initiate a conversation that compliments her brain instead like talking about what she likes to read or what she wants to become when she grows up.
So, what is wrong with calling a little girl ‘pretty’ or ‘cute’ every time you see her? Here’s what: the more we talk about beauty and looks, the more we’re conveying the idea that these things are important. The more we compliment them for being cute or pretty, the more they will crave hearing it. Growing up, they’ll inevitably learn all about plastic surgeries, crash diets, push-up bras, models, wrinkle creams, Spanx and Botox, sometimes even by experience. They’ll watch Dove real beauty ads and they’ll feel fat eating nothing but a piece of brown bread all day. That day we’ll wonder what went wrong and suddenly the harmless, well-intentioned compliments won’t seem so harmless after all.
As a society and as parents, there are numerous things that we do differently with girls and boys from the moment they are born. Studies show that parents overestimate the crawling ability of their sons and underestimate those of their daughters. They also spend more time comforting and hugging infant girls and more time watching infant boys play by themselves reflecting the belief that girls need to be helped more. The societal messages are more brazen. There are t-shirts in the market for girls saying, “I am too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.” Toy stores are lined with ‘pretty’ pink stuff and dolls (with unreal figures) for girls reinforcing the idea of how beautiful they ought to be. Even worse, these messages can go beyond encouraging superficial traits. Our society instructs our girls to not speak out, lest they be considered ‘loud’ or ‘ill-mannered’. There is no reason why our girls would not internalize these societal clues. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the popular girl at school is the pretty one with color streaks in her hair and not the one who has straight A’s in all her subjects.
The result: when asked to describe themselves, girls described themselves as "nice," while boys described themselves as "talented", "smart", "good at math", "funny". Less girls than boys today want to be the President or Prime Minister of their country. The gap shows up more in science and engineering professions favored by 14.8% of men worldwide and only 2.1% of women as childhood dream jobs. Being a computer science student myself, I was appalled at the gap these figures presented, but one quick look around the room and I was convinced that the numbers weren’t exaggerated. The age-old stereotype of girls wanting to be either teachers or writers is broken only by the fact that more and more girls today want to be a model or an actress when they grow up than a decade ago. And while there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a teacher or a writer or an actress, the truth is that there is a possibility that these might not have been their natural choices at all and could very well have been shoved upon them by our society.
This might be getting clichéd fast, but our society is not fair for our girls. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in her brilliant book ‘Lean In’ says, “Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure.” Add to that the fear of not being pretty. That’s your average girl in the jungle that is the 21st century. The idea that all the prejudices against our girls can be eliminated by not paying them a compliment too often might seem preposterous; might even be preposterous. But, to me, it does seem to be a step in the right direction.
About the author: Pankhuri Srivastava dances to rhythms, loves yoga, grooves music and mostly knows how to get shit done. She can rip readers apart with her bleeding lines of any topic you choose. Give her comfortable shoes and a coffee with a book, you'll be her BFF. We won't' be responsible if you fall in love with her.