(Sharon Holbrook)

My daughters are, frankly, adorable. The 4-year-old is all dimpled cheeks and big blue eyes and easy laughter, and the 7-year-old’s long strawberry blond hair and sweet, winning smile are already (a little frighteningly, to me) turning the boys’ heads. I cherish everything about these girls, and they know it.

But I try not to tell them they’re beautiful. That’s right. My young daughters are totally innocent about the pressures of being a woman in our society. They know nothing about plastic surgery, diets, push-up bras, “feeling fat,” self-esteem, models, wrinkle creams, Spanx, eating disorders, Botox, Dove real beauty ads, or any of the rest of it. We adults know all too much about it, and our prevailing mantra in the face of this distorted reality seems to be to start telling our girls, as soon and often as possible, how beautiful they are.

I know this is wonderfully well-intentioned, and that we want to give our girls a boost of confidence from the very start. Here’s the thing, though. We might think we’re building our daughters up by reassuring them that they are beautiful to us no matter what, but what we’re also doing is bringing the beauty pressure home to our littlest girls.

The more I talk about beauty and looks, even in a positive way, the more I’m conveying the importance of those things. The more I compliment them for being pretty, the more they will crave hearing it. And I don’t want to send a girl who needs to hear she’s beautiful out into our culture – a culture that has such a narrow definition of that word “beautiful,” and such a wide array of things to sell her so she can attempt to meet that definition.

So, how does this all shake out on an everyday basis with my daughters, in my house? It doesn’t mean I don’t compliment my girls. But instead of the vague “you look beautiful!” I might say the more specific “Don’t you look fancy today!” or “How nice you look; those colors go so well together.” It means I don’t fret too much over hairdos and bows, as long as hair is reasonably brushed. It means that I treat my daughters not as my little dolls, but as real individuals who are developing their own sense of self and style. It means that they, not I, are primarily in charge of how they look. It means, most importantly, that I generally just let them be without focusing on or fussing over their physical selves.

Naturally, I buy most of my girls’ clothes. And, especially as we approach Justice and Abercrombie sizes, there are some clothes I won’t bring home. But aside from modesty or practicality concerns, there are very few clothing rules in my house. The clothes in the drawer are like art supplies for the girls. I don’t monitor what colors and lines they put in their paintings and drawings, and neither do I usually micromanage their outfit choices. My daughters can go girly with bracelets and necklaces and head-to-toe pink, or they can choose to forgo dresses altogether.

Of course we’ve seen some doozies of mismatching, but you know what? They own those styles, they never ask if they look pretty, and they walk with an easy confidence that has nothing to do with what I or anyone else will say about how they look. And that’s the self-assured spirit I want them to take into their teens and adulthood.

I don’t, of course, know what the future holds for my girls. Maybe they will be fashion-savvy with pitch-perfect feminine style, like my husband’s sister. That would be fine by me. Or maybe they will be no makeup, low-maintenance, t-shirt and jeans women like my sisters. That would be lovely too. There is more than one way to be a woman, and “beautiful,” if that’s what they want to be, is up to them to define. I’ll always love them no matter what they look like, and I hope they’ll know that not because of what I’ve said to reassure them, but because I gave them space and warm acceptance in all that I haven’t said.

Sharon Holbrook is a writer living in Cleveland, Ohio. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @216Sharon.

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