An article showed up on my Facebook feed a few times a long time ago. I had a reaction to it at the time, but I figured it would fade away, which it mostly did. Now I’ve seen the article posted again a few more times and I thought it would be worth spelling out my reponse.
The article in question is here. In it, author Lisa Bloom explains the value of praising young girls for things other than their appearance. She says that finding other things to compliment will help them to combat the societal expectation that their appearance is the most important thing. The article also serves essentially as a promotion for the book she has written on this topic.
As a father to two young girls, I celebrate that these values are being upheld. I want my girls to grow up knowing that their worth is not exclusively determined by how attractive society deems them to be. Already I see the creativity and enthusiasm my four year-old is demonstrating and I am glad that I am not the only one who compliments her for that.
To make her point though, Bloom gives an example of a dinner party that she attended where she met her friend’s 5 year-old daughter. She explains that she is so committed to these ideals that she held back her compliments on the girls appearance. I applaud her for the way she spoke to the girl at her level (which isn’t always easy or appreciated) and for being able to find common interests. I refuse, however, to congratulate her for not complimenting the young girl’s appearance.
First, especially in this particular incident, it was a completely natural thing to do. She admitted to noticing and appreciating how cute the young girl looked. The girl almost certainly would have appreciated the compliment (I say ‘almost certainly’ because my oldest daughter seems bothered by people telling her she’s ‘cute’ or ‘pretty’). Any time we give someone a compliment and they are happy to hear, that also makes us feel better too. Those are all real results. The long term benefits of not complimenting are entirely theoretical and may very well be cancelled out by other forces down the road, which leads me to my next point.
At various times in my daughters’ lives, they will be convinced that they are not pretty. That will happen despite what I teach as a pastor, what Bloom and others write in books about how to raise girls and what we as her parents tell her. I see it then as my responsibility to make sure that no matter what she assumes about what the boys at school think or anyone else she will know that her father sees her as beautiful. If either of my daughters grows up not knowing that their father think they are beautiful, then I will have failed in that parental responsibility.
Finally, holding back from complimenting a girl about her appearance doesn’t mean you have arrived as a feminist or that you have reached the pinnacle of female understanding, it means you have experienced what men live with every day. If we are supposed to congratulate Ms. Bloom for holding back a compliment about a girl’s looks, we should go around thanking every man we meet. My mind conjures up all kinds of compliments about the women I see, and I usually do a pretty good job of filtering out the inappropriate ones. That doesn’t make me a hero, that’s just what men do.
I agree that we should compliment little girls and little boys on their character, on their achievements, on the skills they’ve developed and all sorts of other things, but I also believe that it would have been quite appropriate for a woman in Ms. Bloom’s position to speak the kind words on her mind and make a little girl, if only superficially and only for a moment, happy.