As my daughter lay on the floor, protesting the cute outfit of jeggings and three-quarter length “Love” t-shirt that I had picked out for her, my heart broke as she clearly stated her opposition:
“I need to wear a princess dress. I need to be pretty, mama. I’m only pretty in princess dresses.”
At three and a half years old, my daughter was already making judgments about her own appearance and its relation to her self-worth. She was already struggling with the idea of being “not pretty.”
As I tried to resist the urge to burst into tears myself, I felt my mind running into overdrive.
How did this happen? This is not how I was raising my daughter.
I’m a feminist. I’m a strong, single mom. I discuss the importance of hard work and allow my daughter to see me working — whether that’s in caring for other children, or studying, or writing, or cleaning our home.
While Princess culture has taken a definite hold in our home, we’ve always engaged in conversations about the princesses, the villains, and what her thoughts are about what she’s observing. She’s never described the princesses as pretty and she’s always been more interested in other aspects of the storylines other than the prince (though she loves to give out “true kisses”).
I tell her that she is beautiful often, but I tell her much more often that she is kind, that she is smart, that she works hard, that she is good, that she is thoughtful, that she is creative, that she is loved.
But when I thought about where my daughter’s assumption that she was only pretty in princess dresses came from, I realized it was from good-natured praise when others would notice that she had dolled herself up and wanted to acknowledge that effort.
My daughter is a true “girly girl,” as problematic as that phrase is. She likes applying lip balm like lipstick and brushing her hair for 45 minutes at a time. She accessories nearly every outfit with headbands and hand-me-down jewelry, and asks for fresh cut flowers nearly every time she comes grocery shopping.
For the record, she gets none of this from watching me. While I used to work in fashion and enjoyed dressing up, my daughter’s seen me wear lipstick or jewelry less than a dozen times in her life, I don’t brush my hair because I have thick curly locks that would turn into frizz-central at the sight of a brush, and nearly every time I purchase fresh-cut flowers I cringe and think of all of the indulgent food I could be spending my money on instead. (At least we can use them to learn about botany for kids!)
While dressing up has become a form of self-exploration and self-expression for her as she begins to discover and create her own identity, I have made a major error in not ensuring that her experience when she’s glammed up is the same as when she’s dressed more casually.
That simple, “wow, you look so pretty” that my daughter has received from well-meaning friends when she shows off a new “outfit” stands in stark contrast to the lack of commentary she receives when dressed casually.
It only makes sense that she would come to assume that she’s only pretty in princess dresses, because it’s when she wears princess dresses that she hears it the most.
Now, I don’t want to take away my daughter’s enjoyment in dressing up, and I don’t want to suggest that being a more casual dresser is in any way “better” or morally superior — but I absolutely do not want my daughter to think that she’s only pretty when she’s dressed up.
I don’t want her to equate any form of value to the effort she puts into her appearance.
I don’t want my daughter to choose how she presents herself to the world based on outside praise.
And that goes beyond “pretty.”
I want her to develop and base her confidence on what others can’t easily see. I want her to know that her worth will never be something someone else can assign to her. I want her to know that I love her just as she is, exactly as she is, and that anyone worth her time and effort will feel the same way, too.
I want her to be confident in her beauty, but not to allow that to define her.
I hope that she defines herself based on her truth, her integrity, and her commitment to being her best self.
Already, at three and a half, I am working against the statements of others. I can’t ask every person she encounters to ensure that their praise of her is well-rounded, nor should I. She will always hear things that conflict against what I am trying to instill in her, and that test her sense of self. What I need to do is build her up and keep that line of communication open so that we can work through these concepts together.
I need to actively engage in our girl talk, and discuss these topics with her so that she doesn’t form dangerous ideas in the absence of my guidance. So that I can be aware of potential issues and try to help her navigate them.
No one in this world is better qualified to inform my daughter of her worth and of her beauty.
For now anyways. Until she one day is the strong, smart, hard-working, integral woman that I am raising her to be and she can confidently look in the mirror and know all of that.
Princess dress, or not.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, and please, share this post with anyone who you think may need to hear it.