Powerful Ad Shows What a Little Girl Hears When You Tell Her She’s Pretty” runs the headline on the Huffington Post, describing a new ad by Verizon.
Before we even watch the video or form an opinion, let’s remember one thing. The real, true, deep down message of this ad is that you, the viewer, should like Verizon. Whatever societal goals it may have, it’s an ad. It is trying to sell something, and so it’s a given that the message it’s sending is calculated to stroke the egos of the viewer. So there’s that.
Now for the actual message. The Huffiington Post sums it up like this:
The video depicts one girl’s development from toddler to teenager. She wanders curiously through nature, examines the plants and animals around her, creates an astronomy project, and builds a rocket with her older brother. But all along the way, she hears many all-too-common refrains from her parents: “Who’s my pretty girl?” “Don’t get your dress dirty,” “You don’t want to mess with that,” and “Be careful with that. Why don’t you hand that to your brother?” These statements are subtle, but the ad suggests that they can ultimately discourage girls from pursuing traditionally male-dominated STEM subjects in school.
Sure. If someone followed me around telling me “Knock it off!” every time I got interested in math or science, I would probably stop pursuing math and science. It’s a bad idea to thwart kids (boys and girls) and to discourage their curiosity and intelligence; and it’s especially absurd to tell girls, overtly or by omission, that their main job is to be pretty. I’m fairly sure Thomas More, Edith Stein, and Gianna Molla already knew that, without any help from Verizon.
But the ad ends this way: “Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant, too?”*
Is that what we’re doing when we do say, “You’re so pretty”? When girls hear, “You’re pretty,” does that automatically mean they can’t hear anything else we say? Not that I’ve noticed. Here is what I have noticed:
- When girls never hear their parents — especially their fathers — say that they are pretty, many of them will go find someone who will say it to them. And sometimes that turns out to be someone who wants to hurt or use them, and uses “pretty” as a hook.
- When girls get no attention for dressing prettily and looking nice, they find other ways of getting attention with the way they look. A lot of those girls whose entire style is super sexy sexy sex all the time? They’re just trying to be pretty, and no one has taught them to recognize any other form of appeal besides sexiness.
- If they want to be admired by men, but have been taught that that this desire is a sign of pettiness and lack of character, then many women will become so twisted inside that even marital sex is pure anxiety and guilt.
So no, don’t tell your daughters that they must be pretty because they can’t be anything else. But don’t make them think that beauty is petty, either. Beauty is one of the transcendentals, which means that beauty it is one of the paths to God. Even when that beauty resides in a little girl.
And one more thing: it is good for us, the beholders, to praise beauty when we see it. It is a good thing to see something beautiful and to let ourselves murmur, “Oh, how lovely you are!” We are made to receive it and to enjoy it. We are not made to quash and rein in everything that brings us delight. There is not much beautiful in the world. Why deny yourself what little there is? Parents, let yourself tell your girls they’re beautiful. She needs it, and so do you.
*Actually, recent studies show that kids do worse when you praise them for being smart. If you want them to do well in school, praise them for working hard, for starting over when they fail, for pushing themselves, for being diligent and responsible. Being smart is not especially useful if you're a lazy, vain, and addicted to praise (ask me how I know!).