A few months before my daughter turned three, we were having one of THOSE mornings. The kind that starts with this conversation as she is opening her eyes:
Her: "Is it a home day or a school day?"
Me: "It is a school day."
Her: "NOOOO, I want it to be a HOME day!"
This is followed by a dramatic flop back onto her pillow and covers pulled up over her head. I have heard people refer to their three year old as a "threenager". We have one of those. I manage to drag her out of bed, and guide her into the bathroom. In my hand are the clothes I have selected for her to wear, a pair of purple shorts and a pink shirt. She has worn this outfit a dozen times. We struggle to get the PJ's off, I coax her to sit on the potty. I get the shirt over her head. She looks down and cries:
"Not THAT shirt! That shirt doesn't make me beautiful!"
Ugh, that statement went right through me. I ask why she would say such a thing. I climb on to my soapbox and launch into my speech. I tell her that clothes do not make you beautiful. What makes you beautiful is how you treat people. If you are kind, and friendly and generous and funny and helpful, you will be beautiful. I tell her that the most beautiful thing she can wear each day is her smile. I tell her she would be beautiful if she was covered in mud. I explain that the prince chose Cinderella because she was so friendly and nice and she helped her animal friends. She is half listening, sniffling, tears on her cheeks, sitting against the bathtub, thumb in her mouth and snuggling with her favorite soft dog. She is only almost three years old.
Like all parents, I have a very long wish list for my daughter. A big one for me is that she grows up feeling confident about her looks and has a healthy body image. I don't want her to feel like she must wear make up to be pretty. I know there is no way to avoid the horrific pre-teen and teenager years, when she will think everything about her is wrong. I want to build her up so much that when people do say things to make her doubt her beauty, those words will just make little dents in her armor. I am starting that project now. I don't say negative things about my body in front of the kids and I remind my husband to be cognizant of what he says about himself. I know, this may be a lofty wish, but I am determined to do what I can to make it happen.
Just before this shirt incident, I read a post by Lisa Bloom about how we speak to little girls. She talks about how often, to make conversation with girls, we immediately compliment them on their looks. We teach them that how they look is the first thing we notice. We don't ask about their interests, what they like to play, or what they like to read. We say "That is such a pretty dress." or "I like your hair." It really resonated with me. I have been guilty of that a million times. I am making a conscious effort not to say those things anymore. My girl is only three and is already an amazing and interesting little person. Ask her a question about the books she likes and I guarantee she will surprise you with her answer.
How do you explain beauty to a three year old that is wrapped up in world of pink and Disney princesses? I sit down and pull her into my lap. I wipe the tears and I tell her that she is beautiful just the way she is, no matter what. I pray that what I say-what I will continue to say-will have a lasting effect. I pick her up and carry her back into her room.
We pick out a different shirt.