Ep. 83c – Maggie Dent – Do We Tell Our Daughters They Look Beautiful?
Child experts agree that commenting on our daughter’s appearance may suggest we value her looks over other qualities and this inadvertently damages her self-esteem and sense of worth.
In this 3rd Q-note episode with Maggie Dent, Maggie delves into her own past problems with ‘prettiness’ and shares her well-seasoned perspectives on helping girls find their inner beauty.
Maggie DentMaggie Dent is a passionate voice for children of all ages and genders, specializing in resilience training during the early years.
She’s a bestselling author of multiple books on parenting, including two on raising boys, and her newest book called girlhood. Maggie’s a syndicated host of ABC’s ‘Parental As Anything’ podcast (which was recently awarded best parenting podcast in Australia), and she’s internationally known as the Queen of Common Sense.
Alongside her degrees and years of study and practice, her work’s been rooted in the realities of raising her own four boys. Now, she has a wonderful flock of ‘grandies’ including 4 granddaughters who helped to inspire her newest book.
Ep. 83c – Maggie Dent – Do We Tell Our Daughters They Look Beautiful?
RC – Maggie, thank you for joining us once again for another question. It’s another good one from your episode on Raising Mighty Girls And Women. The ‘and women’ part kind of evolved as we went. I entered our conversation ready to talk about girls and you quickly moved us to women who raise the girls.
MD – Yes. Well, one of the beautiful gifts of the book that was for parents and educators is how many women have said, “I’ve just suddenly seen myself through a different lens,” because she hadn’t come to peace with the little girl within her. Why she has some of the things that we do with grown ups.
So to me, yeah, it was a bit bigger and a bit more expensive than I thought. And I went down those rabbit holes as we discussed.
RC – Yeah. As you wrote the book, you were figuring things out for yourself, which is one of the things that I love about you.
MD – Best therapy ever.
RC – We’re always learning. Well, here is our third question for you, Maggie. I’ll read it. Starts out again with a compliment to you, and I’ll just read it.
I loved both your previous episodes with Maggie and now this one, too. I am going to get her girlhood book.
Whoo. Yes she should. So much wisdom.
Here’s a question for Maggie and if this makes it to her, I’d love to hear what she has to say.
So it did. Here’s your question.
My parents never commented on my attractiveness when I was growing up. I think they felt that would steer me in a direction they did not want me to head. When my now teenage daughters were born, there was a big push on parents, especially dads I recall, to tell their daughters they were beautiful. Now, from what Maggie said in this conversation, it sounds like we’re shifting back to NOT complimenting appearances. Can Maggie give some clarification on this?
RC – Maggie, I’m wondering even if you want to start with just talking about what was your experience with this growing up? What helped and hurt you as a girl?
MD – Yes, such a good question. She’s absolutely nailed it because where we were many, many years ago is, it wasn’t encouraged. My own experience was very unique, though, because my mom was a tiny size eight from Sydney and very beautiful and was always immaculately made up. My older two sisters, a little bit more influenced by that. And I was just the rebellion at the bottom, and I refused to play that game at all. Hated dresses. I didn’t even wear makeup till my twenties. We weren’t told we were beautiful, but I didn’t want to be called beautiful because to me, I was just plain and ugly. That whole lens of self-hatred that is underneath us.
But what’s happened in our modern world, especially since social media and technology, is that our girls are marinated in not only the importance of, you know, in all the makeup shows, you’ve got girls makeup programs on some of the YouTube channels showing little girls of five and six how to put full makeup on. So we’re saying, “You’re not acceptable as you are. You must have makeup. You must have funny looking eyebrows.”
Then they’ve created filters because who you are is not acceptable. So you’ve got to look a different way. So this whole hunt for perfection through appearance is quite unique to where we are now.
So I love that that comment again is, “Do we not say that our girls are beautiful?” Of course we do. And beauty isn’t always an outside job. Beauty is an inside job. And that’s a conversation I think we all have to have with our girls.
I think she’s absolutely right. I’d love to be able to pull it back again that says, ‘a little girl’s appearance is not the only way that we define beauty.’
RC – Okay. What about if your daughters, and I’m adding onto the question that was sent in here, but I think it fits. So what if a daughter says something to you like, “I’m ugly.” You think of those middle school years, you hear things like that. They say “I’m ugly” and they’re really feeling like they are. Or “I’m too fat,” or “I’m too skinny,” or “I’m too short,” or “I’m too tall.”
Should a parent rush to defend their outer appearance? Should they rush in and go, “No, you’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.”
What do you do?
MD – In actual fact, even though that’s a natural instinct, what the research shows is that’s actually not helpful. It’s the same as when a child is feeling anxious. We say, “No, everything’s going to be fine,” Because they’re actually experiencing a moment where they’re questioning themselves and we just need to listen. You know, those three ‘As’ around emotions. We just need to allow it, and acknowledge that she’s struggling in that moment and accept whatever those big feelings are.
And once that’s settled, what we’re saying is that every single human has been born with unique gifts and talents and everybody is different. Yeah. And what is it within you?
So, again, we’ve got to look at the strengths of our girls. Do they have a naturally smiley face. Do they have beautiful eyes? Are they fast at running? Are they clever? Are they thoughtful? So all of the gifts are not just appearance. And so when we focus them towards what are your natural gifts? I see you be able to climb trees amazingly. So I want you to focus on your natural gifts and know that when you get older, there are going to be things that we can do that make us sparkle for special occasions. But who you are. You just be you. And I’m going to help you be the best you because there’s no perfect, beautiful human on the planet.
RC – Just as you were saying about climbing trees. I remember not long ago, I was at a playground and this little girl was swinging on a branch and then jumping and letting herself land. And her dad, I assume it was her dad, was over there clapping, and he was going, “You’re beautiful.
And just as you’re saying that he wasn’t responding to her looks, he was responding to her…
MD – Her drive her actions. Yeah.
RC – So I think when your child is super funny, you can say, “You’re beautiful.”
I think when they do something really clever, you can say, “You’re beautiful.” Yeah.
MD – Yes. It’s not defining her appearance. So that adjective again, it’s one of the reasons our girls are struggling so much with mental health later, because this particular generation has been marinated with, the pressures of, the Kim Kardashian kind of world, that you’ve got to be completely made up and wearing amazing, currently fashionable clothes. Nothing old. And it’s helping to create problems for our planet because the disposable clothing industry is a really big problem.
I have a four-year-old granddaughter who oh, my goodness, she is extremely fussy about the clothes that Nanny buys her. And I’m just going to throw a suggestion out there that if you have a little girl who is this type of girl, who is into her external appearance via clothes, it means she’s got taste. And it’s not just going to be fashion, it’s going to be how her house looks. It’s going to be how she draws. She’s just got this thing called taste, right? So she wanted some new undies/knickers. I’m not sure what the translation is between us.
RC – She wanted what? I have no idea.
MD – Nickers or undies. Underpants.
RC -Underpants. Okay. Or knickers. Yeah.
MD – And I said, “So what sort would you like?” Because I once bought her a beanie, and her sister a beanie. And the second one who’s the fashionista didn’t like the fact that her pom pom was just cream and her sister’s was rainbow, threw it on the floor and refused to wear it. So this time I’ve said to her, “If I go to get some new underpants, what would you like?”
And she said, “I like unicorns.”
I said, “Great. I’m going to find some ones with unicorns,” because fortunately there’s a lot of them.
So when I went, I got the older sister ones with pandas on, so they wouldn’t get mucked up for poor mommy. Only two years between them. Came home with a pack of these little unicorn undies and she looked at it and said, “I don’t like them.”
And I asked her “why?”
And she said, “Because there’s orange in it.”
So I’ve looked at them. There is no orange. So what has happened is she’s now seeing her sister’s panda ones and likes them. So I thought, I’m just going to leave it. And then 10 minutes later she came down and I said to her, “It’s okay that you don’t like these undies. Nanny’s going to find a little girl who might like some new undies and I’m going to give them to her.”
Now, 5 minutes later, she’s come down and says, “Nanny, can you unwrap this so I can wear them?”
RC – Ok, this is an essential parenting tip we have not yet covered on family360. So important. Parents, do not waste your time, energy, effort, credibility on trying to convince your children who have ‘taste’ in clothing’ – (who knows if it’s ‘good’ taste. How does one even define such a thing? It doesn’t matter) of what you want them to wear. It will only be a futile and frustrating interaction for all concerned.
MD – I know. Right. And then one other mother gave that beautiful suggestion that if you buy a dress for your daughter, you hang it up in her cupboard, she doesn’t touch it in a week. You take it back because she’s never going to wear it. And we have to recognize they are so much more attuned to what they wear. So sometimes they’ll want to wear the same dress over and over and over and over again. They’ll want to wear it to bed and you’ll be going, “No, no, I need to wash it.”
And we need to respect that their appearance to them as a little girl needs to be respected.
Does that make sense? So that’s why I was so cross when I went to my youngest brother’s christening, and he’s the baby and I’m, you know, four. And my mom has made me wear a dress with a silly looking bonnet. My arms are folded and my face is as sour as anything because no way do I want to wear that dress.
We need to involve them a little more in the conversations around what kind of underpants they wear.
RC – A bonnet Maggie. I’d love to see that photo. If you can find it we’ll post it on our socials.
MD – Great idea.
RC – See what you can do.
RC – Now Maggie, the parent who wrote in didn’t ask this in the question, but I’m wondering if you can address it. Is there a line between personal hygiene and appearance? Because some of my daughters have not really been very interested in personal hygiene in those early pre-teen years. I would be saying, “You need to have a shower.”
And it can sound like it’s towards appearance, because it kind of is, in that you don’t want people being put off with their dirty hands, greasy hair, smell, but it’s also a matter of hygiene and healthy habits. Do you know what I mean? Like, is there a caution around making that sound like it’s to do with appearance?
MD – You’re right. I think we could make it around appearance. I think there are some things in our families that are about keeping our bodies healthy. And that’s the same as washing our hair, cleaning our teeth, washing our bodies. It’s a not-negotiable area.
Now, I’m going to say, “The dramas around hair. Oh, my goodness.”
Seriously, the disagreements and hassles around keeping hair long. Getting the knots out and what to do with it. It takes up so much time and causes so much conflict. I kind of can see now why my mom cut all our hair a little bit short. With six children, no way she could have been able to manage it. So I think sometimes hair may be a bigger conversation and a source of conflict. It’s oh, gosh, we’ve got to work out another way that makes it easier to get the knots out of little girl’s hair. Untangle stuff seriously.
Not sure it works.
RC – ‘Hair’ is an ongoing source of frustration for most women as well. Not the tangles, but the color, the texture, curly or straight. And our girls notice our hair habits too. Our attention to our own appearance.
MD – Yeah. Our girls are watching. They’re watching their mums and their aunties when they dress to go out. How they feel with what they put on in the morning. They’re watching. And so how often do “Does my bottom look big in this?” kind of conversations come up?
They are watching us? So the more that we’re able to accept our body, whatever it is, regardless of size; they’re watching you. Even the subtle messages that we do also around food. So when we’re not eating dessert, what are we telling our daughter? That no woman can eat dessert because you won’t look right? That is problematic.
I think we also have to talk about body types. That conversation can be really helpful for girls well before puberty, because, some of us, particularly girls like me, I have sized ten and a half feet. My hands are bigger than most men. I’m a larger boned girl. I could never be a tiny size six. By the time I worked that out by myself I’d been trying desperately to look like a little girl. It just wasn’t going to work. And I think we need to celebrate that. You know, show the girls, the women who play rugby, soccer and basketball, who are six foot four. Let her see, body types are really unique and very different.
And I think my last point around conversations with our girls about appearance is sexualization is something I think we’ve really got to start talking to our girls about much, much earlier. They are marinated in images that are much more sexualized than what we ever saw, ever. And it’s everywhere in the advertising online. It’s in shops. They are seeing women being objectified, just objects to be admired. And I think we have to keep deconstructing that. A woman’s body is their own. And it’s not here just to be eye candy or to please men. And I think that’s a really important message because being sexy and having boys like you for how you look, that’s a big mountain that we have to climb as girls and women. And for little girls, Being sexy is about looking older than I am. And we want our little girls to be girls for as long as possible. It’s one of the biggest messages, I think. Big job. But we know psychologically, the longer a girl stays as a girl, the healthier she is as a woman.
RC – So good Maggie. Ok, let’s just make sure I’ve given you a chance to fully address this parents email. She looked to the past when her parents didn’t comment on attractiveness because they were worried it would steer her towards being focused on her looks. And then we swung to telling our children that they’re beautiful.
So the landing in between is what?
MD – So for that Mama again, yes, absolutely it’s important for us to be able to feel comfortable commenting on our girls attractiveness and beauty, but that is not the only way we compliment her. And yes, we do need to be more careful today because the messages she’s getting from outside the family are influencing her profoundly more than probably the messages within the family.
So let’s celebrate all forms of beauty, knowing also that it comes from within.
RC – Maggie, thank you so much for your time in your first interview and then all these follow up questions.
MD – This is a great idea. Well done you.
RC – Thank you. We’ll let you know how it all goes as we try out this new format.
MD – Perfect!
RC – It was a pleasure and honor to launch this with you Maggie. Our first official guest.