“You’re so beautiful in that dress!”
It’s a common ‘compliment’ directed to girls, including my daughter, and one that grates every time I hear it. When you greet a young girl with an assessment of her appearance, however well intentioned, you’re telling her that the way she looks is more important than all of her other qualities. Comments like these are my daughter’s first experience of the objectification that will plague her throughout her life, and instil questionable values. When we teach a young girl that being a princess is the pinnacle of female achievement, what attributes are we underlining as important? Beauty, passivity, even petulance in some cases. Beauty and passivity won’t get you very far in the real world. Neither fosters worthier attributes like independence or creativity.
Girls quickly learn that if they want to please us they need to be beautiful, or cute, or gorgeous.
Children love praise. Girls quickly learn that if they want to please us they need to be beautiful, or cute, or gorgeous. Prioritising appearance over less superficial traits and talents, like cleverness or persistence, grooms these girl to be appearance-obsessed as they grow, an alarming prospect in our already social media-saturated world (imagine for a moment the Instagram of the 2020s!). They internalise a system of values that requires them to look a certain way. If they don’t, they are failures. Just ask an ageing female celebrity what happens when you’re not considered beautiful anymore and your self worth is inseparable from your appearance. Tortuous and expensive rounds of cosmetic surgery are not the markers of a happy life. Amid the the Botox, you can see in these women’s eyes the fear that they are worth nothing now that they are old - a ridiculous inversion of the way they should be viewed. We should value our elders for the experience they can share, not deride them for their hard won wrinkles.
Sadly, if things remain as they are today, my daughter will be appraised, critiqued and judged for her appearance for the rest of her life, whether she’s a model, a politician, or a mum doing the school run. Boys, however, are treated differently. They are encouraged to
be active creatures: doing, making, moving, exploring, with little regard to the way they look.
In the adult world, this pervasive gender divide plays out in ways that are rarely beneficial to women, who are consistently underpaid and under promoted. Women make up just 17 per cent of CEOs of Australian companies, occupy less than a quarter of board positions, and are paid nearly 20 per cent less than men. The society that loves to call my daughter pretty is the same one that considers having six female ministers in a federal government cabinet of 21 a success for women.
In every country around the world women do more unpaid work than men. The disparity is extreme in India, where the average woman spends six hours a day engaged in unpaid work, while a man does one hour. In Australia, a telling statistic from a 2014 survey found that in couples who work roughly the same hours, men perform 28 hours a week of unpaid work compared to 57 by women. Unpaid work is important; someone needs to do it, but the price women pay for taking on the burden of unpaid work is opportunity. Every hour a woman spends doing housework or caring for a loved one is an hour she can’t invest in another area of her life, like education or employment.
Girls are more likely to suffer eating disorders and struggle with body image issues.
The prevailing binary view of gender has serious health consequences too. Girls are more likely to suffer eating disorders and struggle with body image issues. One survey found that 70 per cent of teenage girls report experiencing “body dissatisfaction”. More disturbing still is the fact that women are more often the victims of violence, a trend that culminated in 2015 in the deaths of 78 women due to domestic violence.
So I don’t want my daughter to think of her appearance first. As a toddler, I want her to be gloriously oblivious, as only toddlers can be, to the way she looks. I want her to grow up with no sense that boys are supposed to be better at maths and science. I want her to always ‘have a go’, no matter how silly she looks. I want her to expect to be treated the same as her male classmates, peers and ultimately colleagues. I want her to share the burden of housework equally with whoever she lives with, escape the tragedy of domestic violence, and if she has children, I want her to be able to share care for them fairly. It’s for these reasons I don’t want you to call my daughter beautiful.
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