Looking after little girls is a great way to witness the insidious effects of gender that society douses kids with from an early age.
This morning my five-year-old went for an introductory thing at her new school, and the first thing the teacher said to her was “Wow, look at your hair!”
She has adorably curly hair. She knows this. Throughout preschool she was surrounded by a bunch of kids with long, straight ponytails and plaits like Elsa from Frozen. It took her ages to feel comfortable with having a different hair type from most girls she knew. What helped was facilitating her to take ownership of it by employing a kid-friendly version of the Curly Girl Method.
She’s been doing this method for ages now, but her hair is only part of who she is. Without wanting to violate her privacy too much, she is a very clever, sporty, artistic, creative kid.
Yet when they meet her, people just keep on bringing the focus back to her appearance.
Together we’ve workshopped possible responses to this constant commentary on her appearance, and now she automatically replies with “I do the Curly Girl Method”. (If you ask her what that means she’s happy to tell you all about it.) That way, she shifts the focus of the conversation from what she looks like to what she does. It’s not perfect, but it’s something.
But why make her appearance the focus of your early conversation in the first place?
Women are socially conditioned to greet each other with comments about one another’s appearance. I know it’s generally just an ice breaker and sometimes it can feel quite good to be complimented when you’ve worked hard on your outfit/makeup/starved yourself/exercised heaps/dyed your hair/just feel like you deserve pleasantly shallow compliments for some reason that day. But sometimes it can feel like as females we were born into a fashion parade that we never signed up for. And as we know, it can all get pretty tedious and stressful at times.
Can’t we just let little girls be little humans? Why do we want to reflect and reiterate the rampant objectification of the female sex when it comes to children? It can have seriously negative effects, promoting reactive anxiety and depression, or simply boxing them in:
According to Dr. Jill M. Emanuele, senior clinical psychologist and director of training at the Child Mind Institute‘s Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center, compliments [about physical appearance] are limiting to the child. “It could be interpreted by the child that you’re defining her as that, therefore that’s what her worth or value is,” she says.https://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/development/social/13-things-you-wish-people-would-say-to-your-daughter/
This is not a new topic, we’ve been telling kids that they can do anything and be anything for years, that appearance does not define them.
Yet every single day we talk to people who are unable to go that extra mental centimetre beyond greeting little girls by talking about their appearance.
Look it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if you do this. Or not progressive enough. You don’t deserve scorn. You think you’re being nice to my kid, I understand. Maybe you haven’t thought much about what it all really means when all a little girl hears from adults is “wow, look at your hair!” or “don’t you look pretty today!” or other vapid appearance-based compliments when she’s greeted. Maybe she smiles back at you politely and you think that means you’ve said the right thing. Maybe you need a little help with alternative things you could say.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of things you could say to a little girl that doesn’t involve talking about her appearance:
- Hello! How are you?
- Nice to meet you!
- Are you excited to start school/go on holidays/etc.?
- Have you had a good break?
- What toys do you like to play with?
- Have you had a fun day/time/morning/Bunnings visit/etc.?
- Do you play any sport?
- Isn’t the weather nice/bad/strange/toxic today?
- How old are you?
- What’s your favourite TV show?
- What’s your favourite song?
- What did you have for breakfast?
- Are mermaids real? (My kid will fight you on that one.)
- Did you come here in the car or walk?
- Have you been on a train recently?
- Have you been drawing much lately?
Basically, talk about anything age appropriate with them. Just try not to reduce little girls to their appearances. They are so much more than how they look that day. Thank you!