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March 1, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 70

Do I Tell My Daughter She’s Beautiful?

Episode 70

A dad writes in asking if it’s okay to celebrate his daughter’s appearance and how this might help, or hurt, her self-confidence. How do we help kids feel good about themselves and their bodies, especially when they are bombarded by images on social media that have them worried about their looks? Dr. Lisa and Reena talk about when it’s okay to talk about appearance, when it’s best to say nothing, and how to handle it when teens present themselves in ways that are not appropriate. Reena asks for tips on how to talk to our kids about physical appearance in a world that is already so focused on good looks.

March 1, 2022 | 26 min

Transcript | Do I Tell My Daughter She’s Beautiful?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 70: Do I Tell My Daughter She’s Beautiful?

 

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.

 

REENA: You know, you really have the best skin. I’m noticing this as we’re taping, like it doesn’t matter what time of day, whether you have makeup or not, you have such great skin, and I just feel like I’m moisturizing and moisturizing and moisturizing in this cold winter weather and can never get it right.

 

LISA: Well, Reena, I mean number one, I’m vain, number two, better through chemistry. Okay, so I started using topical retinase about 17 years ago, and, you know, I started on the, you know, the low grades like lower does stuff that you can get at the pharmacy, and then I’ve sort of bumped it up over time, and, you know, I can rationalize this as having grown up in Colorado where there’s a lot of, you know, we’ve got a lot of sun damage because we didn’t wear sunscreen back then, and retinaise worked to reverse sun damage, but honestly, really, Reena, it’s vanity, and they work, you know, they’re kind of boring, kind of old, they’ve been around forever, they’re hard to get started with, they can be pretty tough on your skin, but they work.

 

REENA: Well that just reminds me that the divide between men and women who, you know, things that we obsess over that I know men take care of their skin, there’s some men out there, but speaking on the topic of beauty, we got this incredible letter from my dad that just made us say, wow. I’m going to read this to you: ‘Dear,  Lisa and Reena. I’m a father of four with three boys and a 14-year-old daughter. I’m doing my best to parent a girl in the social media, selfie-based, ridiculous world. I just finished Lisa’s book, “Under Pressure,” and towards the end of the book. You talk about girls obsessing about their flaws and comparing themselves to what they see on Instagram. The sentence that stood out to me was, quote, “We don’t want our girls to feel bad about their looks. We should aim to balance the enthusiasm we express about their appearance with her enthusiasm about the rest of what they have to offer the world.” If I tell my daughter she looks beautiful, I feel like I’m feeding into the focus of the parents. If I don’t tell my daughter she’s beautiful, I feel like I’m not building up her self confidence. Please help.’ Isn’t this such a great letter?

 

LISA: It’s such a great letter, and honestly, it’s so accurate to the tension of having a girl, and I really struggle with this, and I was struggling with this while I was writing “Under Pressure” because part of me feels like I don’t want for one more drop of ink to be spilled or one more word to be said about girls’ appearance. Like I am so over it talking about girls’ appearance. The world is obsessed with girls’ appearance. Like I’m so over it, and then one of my daughters will walk in the kitchen, and I’m like, oh my gosh you look adorable! Do you do this too? You can’t even help it.

 

REENA: Yes. That is a laughter that I totally identify with exactly what you’re saying. But you know, what I love about this dad’s letter is what do you do as a parent? Not saying they look beautiful or good also has an impact on their self esteem, right?

 

LISA: It does, and it’s so complicated, Reena. I mean this is one of those things that I kind of turn and twist and turn and twist within it because on the one hand you kind of can’t help yourself, or I can’t help myself from, you know, being like, oh you look so cute, you’re so darling, and it and it feels unstoppable in a way, or I don’t want to stop it, on the other hand, especially those of us raising daughters, like the last thing we want it reinforce is the idea that their outward appearance is where their value lies.

 

REENA: But I’m so torn by this. Should you not ever comment on their appearance? How do you deal with that?

 

LISA: I just have to say like, of course, you have to comment sometimes on how adorable they are and how beautiful you think they are, right? I have no problem with that. Where I think this can go off the rails, I think there’s a few ways. One is if that becomes a heavy emphasis, right? If there’s a lot of time and energy spent talking and thinking about a daughter’s appearance and that’s, you know the line he quoted in the letter from “Under Pressure” is like, yeah, we’re going to end up talking about our kids appearance, especially, probably our daughters’ appearance, but we’ve got to balance it with talking about everything else. So, I think, you know, finding a balance where maybe for every one comment you’re making on how cute you think your kid is, you’re making nine on her science project.

 

REENA: Got it

 

LISA: I think one way to do it. The thing I think about a lot is ways that people have tried to earnestly address helping girls feel good about themselves and good about their bodies and one place where I have kind of come to this place like, you know, a place is around saying to girls, everybody’s beautiful. All bodies are beautiful, and that may be something that is true, that maybe something adults believe, like I’m kind of, you know, agnostic on that. What I’m interested in is how that lands for girls, and I think it’s tricky because I think some girls are like, um, no they’re not, and I operate in a world where it’s apparent to me that we have beauty standards and that I do or don’t fit those like, you know, teenagers don’t really go for stuff that doesn’t line up with their own observations, right, and so when adults are saying like, everybody’s beautiful, you know, any teenage girl worth their salt will be like, yeah except for those five girls in my class who get all the attention and then there’s the rest of us. So that, if it doesn’t work for the teenagers, for me I’m like, well then it probably doesn’t work. The other problem I have with this, Reena, tell me what you think about this, when we’re saying everybody’s beautiful, everybody’s beautiful, they’re all beautiful in their own way, we’re back to talking about appearance and we’re back to talking about it like it’s important, right? Like I’m going to go out of my way to tell you that everyone’s beautiful, which for me, like now we’re just talking about girls outsides again and like I don’t want to talk about girls outside again. So, for me this is where it gets really complex. What do you think?

 

REENA: So, I’ll tell you something that I did with my son. He  hates wearing pants and it was 18 degrees, like all week long, and finally, for the first time in years, he decides to put on sweats, you know, and he came home, actually he wore jeans, which she hates wearing jeans, absolutely hates wearing jeans, and he came home and it just came out my mouth, I said, oh, you look so handsome with those jeans on, just so handsome and I could see, like he didn’t want to show it, but his face perked up as any kid does when you give them a compliment about their appearance, right?

 

LISA: Yeah.

 

REENA: But I think that’s sort of the reality and I realized I said that to him because I want him to feel good wearing those pants in that he, you know, looks good and have confidence as he’s wearing them, and I feel the same is true with looks for girls, like you want them in those critical, as you’ve always said, puberty for girls is where their self confidence plummets.

 

LISA: Yep. Yep, and it’s interesting because you can take pleasure in your appearance, right? And it’s fun to take pleasure in your appearance and that doesn’t mean that you’re being some superficial person who only thinks about their appearance, right? And I think that that’s the kind of sticky spot this can get into and, you know, I think about, you know, teenage girls who work out a really funky and unique style and have a lot of fun with it, where they are wearing the stuff that is very much their own look and they’re doing their hair and make up in really cool ways that are very much their own, I’m like, rock on, kid, I mean you’re having a lot of fun with your appearance in a way that feels healthy and individual. So I love this letter because he gets right to the heart of this thing of like, on the one hand, we just don’t want to focus on girls’ appearance, on the other hand there’s some action there that’s not all bad. We don’t want to miss out on it. I also think when parents say, you look so adorable, I think most kids are like, thank you, and you’re my mom mom.

 

REENA: True. True.

 

LISA: You know, and so then for better or for worse, our words don’t actually go that far in their own assessment of their appearance because they know we are going to be biased on their behalf, so I think our words, for better for worse, don’t have nearly as much weight in this department as we might imagine they od.

 

REENA: Interesting. Lisa. I want to ask you what we, as parents, do to put less emphasis on appearance in a world that, as his dad said in this letter, it’s all about selfies and beauty and social media is just all about appearance.

 

LISA: Well, that’s exactly right, so, I think let’s start with social media. Let’s start with the kind of time the kids are spending on it and the ways they spend time on, and that’s a problem because like you say, you know, social media, especially these highly visual platforms, you know, like Instagram, they’re entirely about one’s outward looks, one’s container, as I’ve sometimes called it called it as opposed to ones contents, and so kids spend a lot of time looking on those and I think there are ways to get in on this. I think, if you can, try to limit it and limit it by keeping your kids busy with a whole bunch of much more, you know, kind of nutritious activities, you know, developmentally nutritious activities, but then go ahead and make comments, right? If you see a very posed, very curated, crafted image of a classmate, I think the parent should say, is that what she really looks like? How much time do you think she’s been making that happen?

 

REENA: Really?

 

LISA: Oh yeah, absolutely.

 

REENA: So you just call them out? So if you see your child talking or looking or saying something about someone’s appearance, you just call them out and say, do you really think they really look that way in school?

 

LISA: I would actually because, you know, there’s so much energy that goes into making these images and the, like, the right angle and the right, you know, kind of hip thrust, you know to sort of bring about a sort of slim appearance. I mean it’s a lot of energy that goes into it. So, I think for the parent to push a little bit and say, okay but like really? LIke how much time do you think it took to get to that image that, yes in this 2-D square looks so, you know, kind of quintessentially magazine gorgeous, like that’s a lot of work, like what do you think was involved? Your kid will look at you and be like, ugh, oh my gosh, like what you’re doing, you’re so annoying. Do it anyway. Like do it anyway. One hundred percent.

 

REENA: That’s what I’m doing wrong with Instagram, the hip thrusts.

 

LISA: Where is your hip trust, Reena? You’ve got to work on that. The other way to do it around social media is to say, you know, one of the metaphors I bring up an “Under Pressure” is, you know, social media, especially these highly visual worlds, they’re like the showroom floor of a furniture store. Whereas, we actually are living in lived-in homes, you know, how we look, how we operate, like that’s a lived-in home.

 

REENA: That’s good

 

LISA: Right? And a lived-in home’s never going to look anywhere near as nice as the showroom floor because people actually live there.

 

REENA: Wow. That’s good, yeah.

 

LISA: And so I would consider introducing that metaphor to your kid, and then when your kid is flipping through Instagram, TikTok, whatever, being like, yep, that is their showroom floor, you know, that is their furniture store, that cannot be the lived-in version of that child, you know, that cannot be with that person really looks like in real life. So, always pushing on this idea that this is appearance-oriented and the appearance is very, in many ways, deceiving, right? It’s very crafted, it’s very much designed to be unusually attractive, and pushing back. The third thing you can do, if you’re going about your kid, like go all the way, the third thing you can do is to say, tell me more about her. You know what is she like? Is she fun? Is she funny? Is she, you know, serious about school, like, really, be like, yeah, I can see she’s cute, like I can see she’s worked very hard to put a very cute photo, but like, I don’t care about that. Like  tell me more about that kid, and use that as a displaced way to push on this idea of like appearance shappearance. We’ve all known people, like, Reena, you’ve known people who were objectively gorgeous but you get to know them and you’re like, ugh, god they’re the worst, you know, and I think kind of pushing that out into the conversation with your kid.

 

REENA: So, you’re saying have a conversation like, she’s pretty, she’s beautiful, but what’s she really like? Like what does she bring to the table? And that really works in getting the kids to see like that’s not all. How does that help?

 

LISA: I think it does just because you’re just reminding them, like yeah, she might be, you know, super cute, but do people like her? Do they want to hang out with her? Does she make people’s lives better? I think that that can be a great question to ask, again, even if your kid’s like, oh my gosh, go away, you’re so annoying. I think it’s still a way to make the point, and I think what’s really hard is, especially in the younger ages, there can be an extraordinary amount of power that comes with being an unusually attractive child, and that, I will say, among teenagers does I think tend to diminish as they age. You know so seventh, eighth grade, ninth grade, maybe early tenth, very good looking kids can have a lot of power out of that. As kids get to be 14, 15, 16 they become more sophisticated in their assessment of one another and will start to really find the attraction in kids who may not have sort of, you know, won the good looking lottery at birth, and it’s actually one of my favorite things to watch happen in adolescence, as kids who really weren’t dating because maybe they weren’t, you know, fitting that very narrow band of, you know, what our culture says is attractive, start dating later in high school as their peers discover how attractive they are. So, it goes away with time and it’s fun to see, but I do think it’s a bit of an uphill to convince a seventh grader sometimes that looks, you know, they’re not all that. Because in seventh grade they can be.

 

REENA: So, what can parents do to build confidence in girls?

 

LISA: The key, I think, is to focus on what they control, and they control things like how they treat other people, the activities they do, how much practice they put into things, school, especially it school’s something, you know, that’s a source of pleasure or fits well with that girl’s skill set, and to repeatedly frame it in terms of, you know, people’s appearance, they kind of handed, and they don’t really have much to say about it and also you can’t change it that much. I think part of what’s really hard is our kids live in a digital world that suggests that the body is kind of infinitely mutable. Like you can lose weight, you can trim your thighs, you can, you know, have make up that makes you look like a totally different person, and I think that that can play to this idea that their outward appearance is something they have a lot of control over, and could change if they wanted to. So, one of the ways to help kids build confidence is just to say, yeah, you know, I mean the way we look it’s kind of the hand we’re dealt, but it’s a very small part of that hand. Like who we are is really where the action is, and they may not feel true right now but I promise you it’ll feel true before long.

 

REENA: The hand we’re dealt. That’s just so good that I never thought about having this conversation and getting them to look beyond. I think we get so stuck because it’s such a superficial world about appearances that you’re saying just by having these conversations with them and subtly you know talking about other kids and what else they bring to the table can really make a difference in how they evaluate their own selves.

 

LISA: It can. Now, there’s something that’s not coming up that I think is really interesting and I hear this a lot from parents, which is, when your kid doesn’t look as good as you think they could.

 

REENA: Yeah. Yeah.

 

LISA: Right? Like this happens, you know, and I want to, especially with adolescent girls as they’re trying to figure out their clothing and what clothes suit their bodies. You know how, as we’ve aged, Reena, you know what’s going to look good on you.

 

REENA: Yes.

 

LISA: And there’s something really interesting that happens where it just seems like so completely perennial there is a fashion and it is what everybody wears, especially adolescents, and it works on some people and it does not actually work all that well and everyone, and I think that one of the challenges as a parent is if you’re watching your daughter who, you know, is as beautiful as can be because she’s your kid and she’s putting herself together in a way that you’re like, oh that doesn’t actually flatter you all that much, you know, that may be the fashion but that’s not really the look. So, then the question is should the parent say something at that point? And my general view is no. This is a great tongue biting moment for parents because I don’t think you’re going to get your teenager to take your fashion advice. We know teenagers are not usually all that interested in the fashion input of their 50-year-old mothers. I do think you’ll hurt feelings, and I think it’s a short lived thing, kids figure it out eventually, but that, for me, I think is the the flip of this when you’re looking at your kid and you’re like, oh you know would be so much better on her would be X, and having to just wait and say nothing. The trickiest version of this, and I think there is something to be said, is when she’s wearing something it’s actually not appropriate, right at all.

 

REENA: Like those crop tops. I mean at what point will we get the rest of the shirt back? You know?

 

LISA: I know.

 

REENA: Like I only get half a shirt with these crop tops. I’m done with them.

 

LISA: Well of course the parent joke that you always make if your kid shows up like that is like, oh did you pay half price for that?

 

REENA: Right. Exactly. Exactly.

 

LISA: Okay, so that is a place where you think you can comment on not entirely approving of what your kid is wearing, but again this has to be done very, very carefully, and the first thing I want to say about this, and since we’re focusing on girls I think this is really true, one thing I’ve seen repeatedly is the shirt and a skirt that fit her last summer look really different on her this summer.

 

REENA: Oh.

 

LISA: Reena, that’s going to happen. That’s going to happen in your family.

 

REENA: So, what do you say?

 

LISA: Well it’s interesting.

 

REENA: Right?

 

LISA: Because the kid doesn’t usually perceive it. You know they grab the favorite t-shirt, grab the favorite little skirt out from last summer, throw it on, you walk in the kitchen and you’re like, whoa, that is a really different look than last summer when you were 12, and that is tricky. So, again, right? You have to make a judgment about how it’s going to feel for her and you have to make this judgment when you are having a very strong personal reaction yourself, and so you might take a beat. You might say, oh, looks like you’ve outgrown that.

 

REENA: And does that work? By saying, and they’re like, no, mom that’s the style.

 

LISA: It’s fine. It looks good. Some of these you’re going to lose. Some of these you’re going to lose.

 

REENA: Right.

 

LISA: Okay, but there may be a moment where you walk in the kitchen and your daughter’s wearing what I’ve heard refer to as on ovarian length skirts.

 

REENA: That’s what she calls it? Ovarian length?

LISA: I’ve heard somebody call it that. Ovarian length skirt. And you’re like, no, no, no man you are not leaving the house like that. Okay, so to do that without offending your daughter to no end. I think it is worth saying something like, look, you are rocking that look. I get it. I get it. And here’s the deal. I am not ready for you to wear that out of the house. You may be ready. I am not ready. You are still my little girl. I know that it is weird for me to say this, but people are going to look at you, grown men are going to look at you in ways that I am not ready for. So, I need you to do me a favor and go change. I will get there eventually. I am not there today.

 

REENA: Wow, okay.

 

LISA: So, that’s a way to weigh in on the ovarian length skirt is not saying, oh my god, you look like a tramp. What the heck are you doing, which is very easy to do, but not the right thing because the kid’s like, what? They just don’t see it that way.

 

REENA: Totally right. So, Lisa, I know we’ve run through a whole bunch of things here, but when you back for a moment, and god, I love this letter so much from this dad, what are the three things we sort of need to keep in mind as we’re talking about beauty and appearance in kids?

 

LISA: I do think it’s okay every once in a while to say like, oh my gosh, you look adorable or you look so handsome. I have no problem with that, and I do think we are insulated by the reality that our kids basically take it with a grain of salt anyway. That’s one. Two,I really would have parents be very aware of the ratio of comments on appearance to comments on everything else, and then three, right, Reena, I will always come back to this rule. Don’t talk about it, be about it. So, a lot of how kids will come to understand how much appearance matters is by watching their parents and how much emphasis their parents place on their own appearance. So, I would want our kids to see us enjoying taking care of ourselves, enjoying putting ourselves together in ways that feel fun, right? I mean it’s fun to put an outfit together. It’s fun to like your hair cut. To have them witness the pleasure we taken it for ourselves, as opposed to watching us do it with a very, very, very close eye on how this is being received by others and whether or not other people like how I look. So, those are the things that we focus on.

 

REENA: That’s great. So, Lisa, what do you have for us for parenting to go?

 

LISA: For parenting to go, you know if you do walk in the kitchen and you do see your daughter in an ovarian length skirt and you do say, oh my gosh, like what are you wearing, which could totally happen. You can fix it. You can fix it, and so I would encourage a parent who’s done this, and believe me this is something that happens a lot, to say, I’m really sorry. That was unfair. It caught me off guard. That must’ve felt rotten for you. I apologize. Here’s what I meant to say if I could have a do over, and then, you know, come up with something that’s a little bit kinder and more neutral as a second pass.

 

REENA: The do over. That’s something Lisa Damour has taught me that I didn’t know was part of parenting vocabulary

 

LISA: Absolutely.

 

REENA: And next week we’re going to talk about what do you do when your kid is dumped by their friends?

 

LISA: Oh man, this is a tough one, and I’m hearing it a lot.

 

REENA: That’s interesting. I’ll see you next week, Lisa?

 

LISA: I’ll see you next week.

 

 

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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