Can We Get Rid of the Beauty Olympics?

“But if you’re not part of the ‘Beauty Olympics’, you can still become a very interesting person.”

Sex and The City pilot episode

Esperanza tweeted this article yesterday, which I read with a sinking feeling. Because although I had vowed not to use the word “pretty” with my daughter too much, or compliment her on her appearance, I still do. I compliment her on the way she looks more than I compliment her on cleaning up, or reading a book, or building towers or reciting her numbers properly. It’s like I am fighting an ingrained instinct and it is a knee-jerk reaction to say, “You look beautiful” when she’s dressed in a gorgeous feminine outfit. It’s like I just blurt it out. And it’s not just me: it’s my husband too. And most of our peers, friends and relations.

I know the way you look is important, but where I live it might be more important than almost anywhere else. I live in a very outdoorsy place where women are expected to be “fit” and hike and work out a lot. It is rare to see anyone in my town who is overweight. In my early 30s, I worked out more than any other time in my history: I hiked, I ran, I worked out at the gym. I ate normally though. I didn’t overeat and I didn’t particularly indulge in high-calorie foods. But I was not pin-thin. No one told me, “You look great!”

Then I had a really bad episode of acid-reflux disease a year and a half ago, and had to cut out most foods. Eating almost anything was extremely painful. I lost 10 pounds in about 2 months. I looked awful: my skin tone was poor, I had dark circles under my eyes, I was extremely tired.

And I got about 50 comments from people saying they thought I looked “awesome” and a number of questions about my “new” working out habits.

That’s when I realized that most of the women I would see looking “fit” in their yoga pants didn’t eat much.

All of this is a preamble to what is really bothering me. A friend of mine from high school, who had a terrible, life-threatening battle with anorexia back then, passed away at the age of 38 a month ago. We lost touch, partially because she was mad at me for raising flags about her eating with friends and a family member. I wasn’t the only one who was concerned, but for some reason I took the blame. I have been feeling awful about her passing. She was a sweet and good person. And I feel badly that I didn’t try to get back in touch with her. I don’t know what caused her death, maybe the anorexia was not involved.

But obsession with appearance is not good for our girls. The truth that beauty fades, that you need to have other attributes to make it in life is NOT taught in mainstream media. Women are praised mostly for being “hot”: like Jessica Alba, who lost all her baby weight in a few months and admitted to eating 1200 calories a day and working out 2+ hours seven days a week. Tween shows teach girls that being pretty and famous is the best path to follow (“Hannah Montana”). Even pre-school girls are shown parading around in bikinis and spray tans in “Toddlers and Tiaras”.

And let’s get down to it: it’s men. Men of all ages crane their necks at nubile teen girls. The “Barely Legal” category of adult entertainment is always most popular.

I don’t think it’s ALL men. I always hear about the guys who went to the “Take Back the Night” anti-rape rallies in college, who sympathized with women over being “objectified”. You know, the guys Ayelet Waldman is always talking about. I have never met a guy like that in my life, but I THINK they exist. Probably across the bridge in that very liberal famous college town? Slowmamma, can you confirm or deny? 😉

Anyway, I want my son to be a guy like that.

What can we do about society’s obsession with beauty? Is it possible to sidestep it?


Filed under Parenting After IF

12 responses to “Can We Get Rid of the Beauty Olympics?

  1. You gotta read the book “Cinderella at my daughter”–it talks all about this and is pretty interesting. I know it’s made me think twice about the words that get used when talking to little girls.

  2. Sorry “Cinderella *Ate* My Daughter” not at

  3. I totally get what you’re saying about getting compliments on unintentional weight loss. When I found out about my husband’s affair, I stopped eating for weeks. I lost 30 pounds in less than a month, and quite obviously was not doing well, but so many people told me how great I looked. Serious WTF moment. I’ll have to write a post about this as well.

    We tell our little girl how pretty she is when we dress her up or when she lets a barrette stay in her hair, but she hears how proud we are of her for vocabulary or coordination or, god forbid, climbing prowess (that’s husband only) way, way more often. And it wasn’t even something we discussed as parents, we both just automatically try to express how much we value everything about her. Maybe it’s because we have to try to fit a whole week’s worth of love into just four days, or maybe we’re just lucky.

    I never thought about this before, thanks for posting this. And thanks to Esperanza for that article.

  4. The guy I dated before I met my husband said something that stuck with me: “I like dating girls who didn’t know they were pretty. They had to develop a personality.”

    I took it as a compliment…?

    Whenever I pay my daughter a compliment on her appearance, I try to follow it up with “and you are beautiful on the inside, too, where it really matters.”

    I’m sorry about the loss of your friend. Sounds like you were a good friend to her, even if she didn’t acknowledge that.

  5. This is such an important topic and one that I’m thinking about a lot with a little girl on the way. My husband, who is a total science geek, wants to hang a periodic table in the nursery to get the kids (we’re having twins) used to the fact from day one that smarts are important. It’s a start, anyway…
    CA is probably the hardest place to deal with all this…I lived in SF for years and there is soooooo much I love and miss about it, but the obsession with looks is one thing I don’t miss!
    Oh, and also, I nominated you for a blog award today on my blog. Don’t feel obligated to pass it on…just know that you are appreciated! 🙂

  6. I am really on the fence about this. On the one hand, I agree that telling children that their looks are important (however indirectly) is problematic, but I also think that letting them know that their looks are acceptable is also important. My parents are both intellectuals who were definitely more interested in talking about books than looks, which is great but with all of those other messages out there, it sure would have been nice on some days to have someone tell me that I was beautiful when I was going through my awkward adolescent phase.

  7. As much as we tried not to “genderize” our daughter, I find myself saying that she is beautiful, too … because she is. But I think I also said my son was handsome when he was her age. I don’t get have the ability whether she’s particularly smart (I think she is, but “my smart girl” doesn’t really sound right when applied to a 10 month old?) or otherwise talented … and when I say “beautiful,” I don’t mean just looks … I mean something more: her smile, her personality, the way she makes other people smile just by looking at them. I hope that as she grows older I can remember to nurture all of the qualities in her that are wonderful … I suspect I will. But I don’t think it’s possible to live a life outside of the beauty obsession … after all, that’s how people choose a mate, at the base anthropological level. Media makes it worse, I think. All we can do is raise our children to love themselves for who they are, and to know that beautiful is a many-faceted word.

  8. Oh lord. It would be nice to get rid of them all together but, alas, the whole issue runs deep. I think it really does place on extra burden on those raising girls (not to mention on those of us who happen to, you know, BE girls). I have to say that we both tell our son that he’s beautiful all the time. I think that, as Justine said, we really mean it in a larger sense.

    I think the best we might hope for is to instill enough confidence in our kids that we can allow them to somehow move past the intense pressures on them to appear a certain way. To this end, I suggest that you never stop telling either of your kids that they are beautiful.

    And, as for the SNAGs (sensitive new age guys) in this town, I do think they are truly progressive when it comes to the question of objectification and I’m hoping that this will be a great influence on g. But they are still human and, I suspect, that when a beautiful woman happens to walk by (perhaps even a Birkenstock-clad one), they still turn their loosely groomed heads ;).

    • “Loosely groomed heads”! Awesome. I brought this up with Darcy, and he said he suspects that the “Take Back the Night” guys hung out with all those women at those rallies hoping to get L-A-I-D. He’s very cynical. I hope he’s wrong 😦

  9. Praise her for all her qualities, encourage her to be so many things that have nothing to do with how she looks, but do not underestimate the importance of telling your daughter she is pretty. I never heard those words from my parents and a result knew for sure that I was the ugliest girl in the world. It’s the kind of thing that leaves you vulnerable to people in a terrible way.

  10. (I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to this, I’ve had blogs sitting in my reader all week, and this one I wanted to specifically). I certainly don’t think it’s men…in fact, I almost want to blame it entirely on other women. I see my step-daughter (at 8) already being aware of how she looks, spending a very long time in front of the mirror before we leave the house. It kills me that she does that, but she’s learned through TV and magazines (that her mom lets her watch and read) how a woman should look. She’s learning from other women, not by what a man or a boy is telling her. She see’s what is the popular style and emanates it. Sure, once a girl gets older she notices that she gets attention by how she looks, so she continues to dress that way and it then becomes about men. So because at some point society decided women should dress provocatively instead of conservatively seductive (through mystery, of course), the vicious cycle morphed. And unfortunately, I feel like it changed in more recent times. Even when we were younger, showing a lot of skin still wasn’t the style (for me it was flannel shirts and baggy corduroys…SO HOT). I feel helpless when it comes to my step-daughter, because her mom allows her influences out of my control. I only hope that by seeing how I dress and the confidence I hold will show her an alternative. I think that’s the best we can do…show our daughters through our actions that intelligence and respect for ourselves wins out in the end.

    Great post, lady. And – obviously – something that hits close to home for me.

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