Today, my heart was broken by the words of a fifth grader.
Wearing a blue t-shirt and jeans, with hair separated into a waterfall of braids and pink beads, Kendall led a conversation unlike any that I expected to have with a 10-year-old.
We were drawing a picture together and talking about her day at school, when she interrupted my sentence to say “You’re really pretty!” I thanked her, and replied that she, too, is very pretty. She looked up from her paper in confusion and said adamantly, “No, I’m not.”
Stunned, I immediately tried to convince her that she is indeed beautiful, pointing out her characteristics that I found to be beautiful.
“But,” she insisted, “the boys at school say I’m not pretty.”
Friends, this is a huge red flag. This child has barely lived for a decade, and her worldview has already been tainted by the insecurity of her own image based on what others (especially boys) think.
I told her that it doesn’t matter what boys say, that it doesn’t even matter what girls say, that it only matters what she thinks of herself. I looked to the other college students at my table for support, and they, all females, agreed.
“But,” she started again, “if what girls think of me doesn’t matter either, then it doesn’t matter that you told me I am pretty, right?”
And she was right; it doesn’t matter if I think she is pretty, but I still felt like I had to save her from the idea that she isn’t.
I made a huge mistake. I tried quickly to save my argument by telling her that I expressed my own opinion, and that she should have an opinion of herself that she constructs and nurtures completely on her own. I tried to tell her that her brain makes her beautiful, as do her personality and thoughts and dreams, but I feared that my point was already lost.
It breaks my heart that Kendall believes the boys at school and that she thinks she isn’t pretty, but mostly it breaks my heart because she thinks it’s important. Because it isn’t.
Telling girls they are pretty is nice, and seemingly harmless, but it fails to account for all of the other characteristics that are so much more pivotal to their development and self-actualization. Yes, Kendall is pretty, but it doesn’t help her with spelling, or fractions, or asking for help on her homework. Being pretty doesn’t help Kendall learn from mistakes or grow or make good choices. Being pretty might (ironically) help her get a job one day, but it won’t get her to college, and it certainly won’t get her through elementary school.
I’m sharing this story not because I think it is extraordinary, but rather because it is so very ordinary, an implication that should be upsetting to you. It is imperative that the upcoming generation of girls (and boys!) are nurtured on the idea that their minds matter more than their faces, their words matter more than their clothes.
As college students, as role models, as human beings, I consider it my duty to learn from the mistake I made today by only telling Kendall that she is pretty. So please, friends, if you are going to tell a girl she is pretty, don’t stop there. Rather, tell her she is pretty brilliant. Otherwise, you are wasting your words and limiting her self-image.