Coraline is many things — tenacious, energetic, free spirited, bright, articulate, bossy — I could go on and on, of course. She is also beautiful and very cute. And she knows it, since those are the two things consistently commented on whenever we’re out and about. This attention to her looks has always bothered me. I read once, many years before becoming a parent, that women who were constantly told they were beautiful as young girls have poorer self esteem than those who were praised for other attributes (or not praised at all). This is consistent with contemporary research that warns against the excessive use of frivolous praise. Kids who are constantly told they’re smart don’t try as hard; the praise meant to boost their confidence actually undermines their performance in school and their willingness to take risks. Conversely, a kid who is told they are a hard worker is more likely to try harder and perform better. How hard you work is within your control, being “smart” isn’t. It gives them the power, which fosters true confidence.
With that in mind it makes total sense that little girls who are always told they’re beautiful — something they really have little to no control over — would develop feelings of insecurity regarding their other attributes, or an unhealthy obsession over how they look, since that is what the world is telling them matters most. Lisa Bloom, author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World, wrote an article about this cultural tragedy for Huffington Post. In it she cites scary statistics, such as half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat, and that 15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 regularly wear makeup. On no planet is this a good thing. So what do we do? Her solution is to consciously change the way we speak to little girls, asking them about their interests and resisting the urge “to tell how darn cute/pretty/beautiful/well-dressed/well-manicured/well-coiffed” they are. If we want our little girls to grow up to be scientists or writers, we have to show them that the world cares what they think. Its a lesson far better learned at three than 30.