This is to families everywhere:
I want to ask a favor of you. All of you.
Please stop deciding which girl in the family is the prettiest. Stop deciding when she’s two, or four. Stop talking about her appearance when the family gets together. Stop trying to predict what she’ll look like when she grows up. Stop comparing her to women who are famous for being sexy. Stop describing her features in detail. Stop complimenting the way she plays with her hair or walks or smiles. Stop asking her if she wants to be a model or a movie star when she grows up. There are a few more options. Even for very beautiful women.
Please stop pointing this girl out in photos where she’s standing with her sisters or her cousins. “But look at that one! Gorgeous! Look at that smile!” There are other girls in the picture. You don’t mean it that way, but you are suggesting that somehow, they are worth a little less. That somehow, their smiles are not as important.
I know women who grew up as “the pretty one.” Sometimes they struggled to be perceived as smart. Sometimes they are still struggling. That’s still a thing.
I know women who grew up as the sister or the cousin of the pretty one. They felt smaller. Like they didn’t matter in the same way. Sometimes they still feel that way.
Families take pride in the beauty of their little girls. There’s something instinctual and helpless about it. A basic, primal appreciation of the strength of our genes and the desirability of our line. I don’t think there’s something wrong with telling a little girl she’s pretty– with being proud of her for it. I don’t think we can help it. But we should remind ourselves that there is more to the story. That she is more than just pretty. That her sister is listening.
The other day, I listened to a woman praise her niece’s loveliness. The girl was seven. According to this woman, her niece would grow up to be a model or an actress, because she was going to be strikingly gorgeous. She was already halfway there. Look— and here was a photo– look at those long legs! Already! Look at those big eyes! That naturally pale blond hair. She could point to everything that defined this child’s potential. She flipped to another photo. Here was the girl, standing with three other girls, all in party dresses. They were cousins. The woman gestured at the family beauty. “Look at how she wears that dress! She’s flirting. Look at that smile!”
“They’re all very pretty,” I said.
She nodded, acknowledging my attempt at unnecessary political correctness, and went back to praising only one of them.
I didn’t know what to do. I’m wimpy. I’m a writer. Which is why I’m writing this, as a response. Not just to this one woman, but to all of the people I’ve heard do the same thing. I know they aren’t trying to be hurtful. The woman who showed me those pictures was proud of her niece. She was surprised by the sudden beauty that had emerged from her gene pool. She was impressed with her brother, for producing such a child. She was happy. And I am really not trying to knock happiness. And familial love.
But I am also getting angry.
Because it keeps happening. Because I keep listening to adults describe the family beauty. An unsuspecting little girl who often doesn’t even know that she’s been chosen. Who isn’t yet aware that her long legs are important for anything except walking and running and folding underneath her when she sits on the floor. I keep watching them pick one, and leave the other girls behind. I keep hearing the word “smart” tossed onto one of the other girls like an afterthought, so that she has something, too.
At first, I couldn’t believe my ears. Do people still do this?
I promise, they do.
They do when they are educated and loving. They do when they are thoughtful and involved. They do when they are caring relatives and good parents. They do it all the time.
They will definitely do it this Thanksgiving, when families throughout the country gather to eat together, compare notes, and brag about the kids.
And it’s time for this particular type of bragging to stop.
So families– seriously, for all the little girls who aren’t “the pretty one” and all the little girls who are, can you try to stop?
* * *
Unroast: Today I love how boyish I look.
P.S. This post is also up on HuffPo here.