Thursday, October 03, 2013

Beauty and Brains

I was recently part of an online discussion about raising daughters to have healthy body images. One surprising thing that came out was multiple women mentioning that they had been told consistently as children that they were beautiful, and yet they still grew up with a negative body image. On the other hand, my parents talked very little, if at all, about how I looked, and I grew up with a healthy body image.

It's been established in several recent studies that telling children they are "smart" is actually counter-productive--it causes them to be more fearful, less willing to struggle with problems, and therefore causes them to learn less. It communicates that smartness is an innate factor that they cannot change, and therefore the important thing becomes to look smart at all costs, mostly by avoiding anything difficult. Children praised for hard work, on the other hand, feel that learning is something within their control, and are more likely to tackle more challenging work and learn more.

I wonder if telling children they are beautiful (or handsome, but this seems to be a lesser issue for boys so we'll gloss over it for now) has a similar effect. After all, listen to the subtexts of that statement:
  • Your body is valuable because of how you look to other people.
  • That appearance is something innate, out of your control.
  • Oh, and incidentally, for now, to me, you meet up to that elusive standard.
No wonder praising girls for being beautiful doesn't help much in ensuring good body image. Like praising them for being "smart" it puts all the emphasis on things that they cannot control and on what other people think.

If I think instead about the message I *do* want to send, it would be more like this:
  • Your body is valuable because it is there for *you* to do things with. (Therefore drawing attention to and noting when they seem to be at peace with themselves--when they are learning to use their bodies well--when they have found activities they enjoy--when they work hard and grow in skills.)
  • Love is the most important part of beauty. You will always be beautiful to the people who love you. And while love cannot be guaranteed, it can be nurtured. (Therefore learning to give and receive love, without regard to appearance.)
  • You can and should take good care of yourself and your body. (Therefore encouraging and praising good hygiene, good health, good--individual--taste in clothing, etc. )


Diary of an Autodidact said...

Absolutely agree.

Wendy said...

I saw something interesting a while back (somewhere on the internet...) about girls absorbing body images from their mothers. In the author's case, she saw her mother all dressed up to go out and told her (the mother) that she was beautiful. The mother told the little girl that no, she (the mother) was never beautiful, she was too fat.

Well, guess how that turned out...especially since the girl had been told how much she looked like her mother.

I think I have a healthy body image because my mom did - although she didn't tell me I was beautiful. She just wasn't focused on it.

I like your rules, and I think you are right about the meta messages, although I do think it's fine to remark on when your kids look particularly nice.

Queen of Carrots said...

Yes, I think there's a difference between commenting on a particular effort or effect (which is a choice on their point) and drawing too much attention to intrinsics. I do comment when they have made a special effort and look nice. And I point out when I've made a special effort and like how it turned out, too. O:-)

Phyllis said...

Yes! I know one family that told their daughters all the time that they're beautiful, and both grew up to have serious problems with body image and food. One of them even articulated it very clearly in saying that the focus on outward appearance--even though that's far from what the parents were intending--was what drove them to their problem.

I'm with you, too. We just didn't talk about it, and I'm fine. :-)