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Now I might be mistaken but it seems from the very beginning people call baby girls pretty (superficial) and "little princess" (expectation of having minimal utility) and baby boys strong (innate) and "little man" (expectation of standing up for oneself).

I'm about to have a baby girl and I would like to spare her from being judged by her looks and from being encouraged to value pretty things (rather than skills, perseverance, hardwork and innate value) insofar as I'm able. I know I can only mitigate the tide of bling and superficiality modern society drowns us in, but I've got to try.

I don't want to be a hard-line nutter and make people feel awkward, nor go completely neutral and make people have to ask her sex (and then just have them gush accordingly anyway) -- but was thinking of making some cute patches saying something like "tell me about books not looks" or something like this to stick on her blanket/bonnet/crib.

Note I expect my parents to be particularly difficult to approach about this. They already call my distended belly "pretty".

Does anyone have any advice or experience with handling this dilemma?

  • Note I've read: parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/19808/… and hope that this questions is complementary. – Williams Jun 26 '15 at 3:02
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    Interested in a similar question but for boys. We often hear: cute, handsome, cool (pretty much a masculine superficial descriptive). Sometimes we also hear pretty. – user11394 Jun 26 '15 at 3:26
  • What compliment do you want, exactly? You want people to say your baby is clever, brave, good at maths? Has impeccable taste? Is really good at fixing cars? It's a baby, it's utterly wonderful but it doesn't DO anything, yet. Nor can you tell what potential it has by looking at it. If people are saying it's beautiful, take it as a compliment. – Ne Mo Jun 30 '15 at 13:50
  • @NeMo Not asking for compliments at all, term was "comment". There's tons of other things people can say that isn't perpetuating gender stereotypes, it's well proven that this starts in the stroller with tone of voice, number of words, types of words used, body language. Female lifelong indoctrination to obsess on superficiality is toxic and I care about my daughter's future confidence and mental health. This cultural problem worries me, all peace to you if it doesn't worry you. – Williams Jun 30 '15 at 14:53
  • @NeMo - Yup. Babies are totally useless. Bummer. – user3143 Jul 2 '15 at 2:29
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There isn't much you can do to stem the tide of random strangers praising her looks. (And to be fair, what else do they know your daughter for?) Pretty much the only thing I have found even slightly effective is to redirect the discussion to a skill or non-physical trait.

What a pretty princess!

Thank you. We're very proud, she can [roll over already], [feed herself cheerios], [read], [build a birdhouse], [do more pushups than boys twice her age]!

If they keep gushing about her pretty hair or her adorable nose or whatever, just smile and walk away.

This is really more of a lifelong struggle, though; an infant doesn't understand whether the nice old lady is telling her she's a pretty princess or discussing the price of bread, but a kindergartner can comprehend and may internalize that casual chat. I'm highly unlikely to be able to change what well-meaning strangers might say. So I focus instead on how my daughter can build a solid self-image, by providing a foundation of positive reinforcement based on characteristics other than appearance.

  • We try to model good behavior. Parents have some of the strongest influence on their children's self-image; if you're always worried about your own appearance or commenting on others (either to their face or behind their back), it gets noticed and copied. If you're interested in other traits, or if you treat boys and girls the same, that will get noticed and copied. (And if your family or friends see that you're rarely talking about Daughter's cute curly hair but instead about her cheerful disposition, they might take a cue from you as well.)

  • But even if I'm doing the right thing, the rest of the world may not, and that's really what you're asking about. To help counterbalance, we have lots of conversations about positive body image and developing a strong sense of self that is separate from physical appearance. This ends up coming in a lot of forms, and changes with age. It used to be about choosing clothes you like, it transitioned into healthy eating (good for more than just "don't be fat" etc.), and more recently how to deal with friends who are drooling over boys and always worried about their hair.

And a couple of slightly more specific things that seem to have worked well for my daughter:

  • We let her pick what clothes, hair, and accessories (within reason) she will wear. My daughter has a personal style that I would never, ever choose for myself or her, and I sometimes think she looks pretty silly. She doesn't care, she's happy with all the colors and patterns, and we tell her she looks nice whatever she chooses.

  • My tween is in ballet, an activity that sometimes focuses heavily on appearance: smoothed back hair, makeup, sparkly satiny dresses. But that's just seasonal performances. Most of the year, she's focused on foot and leg strength, choreography, balance and flexibility, rhythm, and other skills. Even after performances, me and other dance parents tend to talk about how her years of practice are really paying off, not how nicely the glittery eyeshadow matches the gorgeous dress.

  • When she does something that is very contrary to gender stereotyped expectations, I give her a little extra "good for you, girl power" high-five. (Like being able to do more pushups than some of the older teenagers in her karate class. HECK YEAH.)

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    And it really doesn't ever end. Five minutes ago I was talking to somebody about a project we were supposed to be presenting on later today, and she started yakking about my hair. Not the Python code that we needed to review, my hair. OMG. – Acire Jun 26 '15 at 15:23
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As a woman who studied science and is now in a male-dominated industry, I will try to give my perspective.

Complements are freely given, and just like you wouldn't ask for a different kind of gift, you probably shouldn't ask for a different type of complement.

Taking that into consideration, I would recommend the following:

1) With strangers or acquaintances, simply say "thank you" and move on. Give them the benefit of the doubt - people are trying to be polite and often not thinking much about what they are saying, or saying what they think you want to hear (the societal-norm)

2) With yourself - be sure to dish out the good vibes praise her often and focus more on her other characteristics and balance out the total in your favor

3) With close family / friends, explain to them that you are trying to do, and see if they want to join you (without laying on a guilt trip). Simply take them aside and say something like "I think that it's a shame that people are too focused on praising people's looks. I'm trying to do my little part to balance out the superficiality of our society by praising my daughter's abilities (skills, hard work, values etc... some of these things don't come into play yet since she's a baby). Want to help me by trying to mention when you see her doing a great job at xyz? If you make it a concrete example, and keep it as a fun experiment, I think it can work.

4) Be comforted by the knowledge that your attitude is the most important thing for your daughter. It will (likely) outweigh all the garbage that society throws at her, which you can't prevent.

My dad is an engineer, and he was always bringing me into his lab to tinker with things; we were the "fix-it friends" around the house, and thanks to him I know how to do a lot of "traditional male" home maintenance things. When I was in a (thankfully brief) princess phase, he and my mom didn't keep me away from princessy things, but instead told me that princesses were so great because they are good at math and science and know a lot about leadership. All these things were so much more critical to my upbringing as a strong woman than a few passing comments about my looks.

  • Thanks for the well written answer and great suggestions! I just have to comment that while compliments are given freely, so are things like, er, viruses. In a sense this gender stuff is like a meme/cultural virus. There's an epidemic of obsession with women's looks (eating disorders anyone?) and there is real discrimination and this worries me. I'm also a in a technical male-dominated industry and it drives me crazy that I lack sense of security/confidence compared to my male peers and can't help but wonder if it starts from the beginning. – Williams Jun 30 '15 at 15:02
  • "without laying on a guilt trip" - +1 for actually understanding human psychology. – user3143 Jul 2 '15 at 2:30

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