Friday, November 11, 2011

See an adorable little girl? Bite your tongue!

I first got educated about this topic about 17 years ago, when some friends had their first daughter, Alex. They deliberately chose an androgynous name, because they wanted her to have the freedom to be a CEO someday and not be prejudged by her name. When I saw Alex (as a baby), who was heart-stoppingly adorable, I began to fawn all over her and say how cute she was. My friend immediately added "and brilliant!" In those two words, I learned an excellent lesson: focusing solely on a female's appearance sends her the wrong message. She was giving her daughter the best possible start by reminding friends and family not to focus solely on Alex's appearance. This is critical, because children start receiving these gender messages very early. For females, it's just the beginning of a lifetime of attracting more attention for their looks than their brains.

I thought of this early lesson when I read author Lisa Bloom's insightful article, "How to Talk to Little Girls." Bloom, who wrote Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, writes about attending a dinner party and seeing a precious little 5-year-old girl, Maya. Her immediate impulse was to fuss over Maya and exclaim about her cuteness. But she restrained herself and instead asked Maya about her favorite book. Maya proceeded to proudly share her book and read it aloud to Bloom. Ironically, the book's heroine was being tormented by her peers for her love of the color "pink," which allowed Bloom to talk to the young girl about peer pressure and mean girls.

This topic has been on my mind in the past week, as last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of spending an afternoon with a 13-year-old girl--who is equal parts outgoing, charming, bright, multi-talented, and gorgeous. Since I'm surrounded by testosterone, I loved hearing about adolescence from Sophie's perspective. We talked about the pressure to wear just the right clothing (or push-up bras! oy vey!) and the cliques that are still as omnipresent now as they were when I was in junior high. And then there's always the mean girls, too, who are usually judging other girls for not dressing or acting the "right" way. The pressures are never ending, not just at school but everywhere girls look...and they are far more intense than the pressures on boys.

Lisa Bloom notes a recent ABC News story reporting that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat. In her book she shares these facts:
  • 15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 now wear mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick regularly.
  • Eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down.
  • 25 percent of young American women would rather win America's Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Even bright, successful college women say they'd rather be hot than smart.

I am definitely a "fawner"--when I see an adorable child, I'm prone to exclaiming over their cuteness factor--whether they be a boy or a girl! But I must bite my tongue, especially if the child is a girl. This is not because she is not cute, but because we need girls to hear messages about their talents and their intelligence instead of the ever-present focus on their appearance.

Bloom challenges each of us to do this:
"Try this the next time you meet a little girl. She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it. Ask her what she's reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? There are no wrong answers. You're just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain. For older girls, ask her about current events issues: pollution, wars, school budgets slashed. What bothers her out there in the world? How would she fix it if she had a magic wand? You may get some intriguing answers. Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does."

Plenty of other people will tell her that she looks gorgeous, cute, or pretty. Take the road less traveled. Be the change in her world.

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