Why We Can Do Better Than Calling Young Girls 'Beautiful'

There is something remarkable about talking to 13-year-olds about eating disorders. They’re old enough to understand the complexities of a very uncomfortable subject, yet young enough that they probably aren’t yet fully engulfed by society’s obsession with weight loss and diet culture.

Shame is a pervasive side effect of weight loss and diet culture. Shame often manifests as defensiveness or silence. There isn’t a lot of defensiveness or silence when I talk to middle schoolers about eating disorders. They often blow me away with their insightful and thought-provoking questions.

I had the privilege of presenting an eating disorder awareness program at a middle school last week. As I walked through the halls of the middle school after my presentation, a few posters caught my eye. They proclaimed, “You’re beautiful!” “You’re amazing just as you are because you are beautiful, smart, talented and funny!” and “Don’t let anyone tell you aren’t beautiful! Because you are!”

The primary focus of the positivity campaign was reassuring students they were beautiful. Most signs were posted in and around the girls bathroom, so girls were the target market.

My heartbeat quickened and my face reddened with anger. I just had a wonderful dialogue with amazing kids about how our bodies are vehicles, not objects. We talked about how what we do, what we say and how we treat others are the foundation of our value and self worth.

But there it was: You’re beautiful! 

Despite all I said and all we talked about, when those kids roam the halls, check their phones, watch TV, read magazines or go to the movies, they will be told in subtle, and not so subtle ways, that being beautiful matters. Repeated exposure to this singular message convinces people their value and self-worth starts with how they look.

The hard truth is, those messages start long before middle school. We start indoctrinating girls in particular into our culture’s obsession with physical appearance at a very young age. As a child, the word “beautiful” doesn’t mean much. Playing and having fun take precedent over looking “beautiful.” But as she grows, she hears the word “beautiful” (or variations like “cute,” “pretty,” “adorable”) more often. And while beauty can describe different things, she most often hears it associated with her physical appearance. She has pretty hair, she looks beautiful in her new dress, she has a beautiful face, beautiful smile, beautiful eyes, beautiful skin.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

As she gets older, the first, and often only thing people remark on is her physical appearance. She may be smart, talented, driven, witty, kind, compassionate and/or courageous, but people don’t remark on those qualities as often as they remark on her beauty — how she’s growing into a beautiful young lady. It makes her feel good. So she starts focusing on her appearance.

She starts commenting on other girls’ physical appearances, too. She may notice that telling another girl she looks pretty makes the girl’s face light up more than telling her she is kind, smart or a good friend.

She may not be conscious of it yet, but she accepts that physical beauty brings not only social acceptance but an elevated social status. Beautiful people all seem to have one thing in common: thinness. Beautiful (thin) people are “healthier” and “happier” than everyone else. Beautiful (thin) people get to follow their dreams and live their best life. Popular (thin) girls are beautiful. Famous (thin) girls are beautiful. Successful (thin) women are beautiful.

She doesn’t just want to be beautiful anymore, she has to be.

As she enters adulthood, any success or accomplishment is often tempered by how she feels about her physical appearance. She wins a scholarship based on her academic achievements, but she’s mortified by how ugly her face looks in the in the official photo and she vows to lose a few pounds. Or she receives a well-deserved promotion, but feels self-conscious running her first meeting because the scale told her she gained a couple of pounds that morning. Again, she vows to lose weight. Or she successfully argues a motion in court but is deflated when opposing counsel says she’s unattractive. To her, “unattractive” translates to “overweight,” so again, she vows to lose weight.

She’s trapped. Unbeknownst to her, she’s always been trapped. Trapped by our culture’s misguided value system that tells her what she looks like matters more than what she does. She’s unhappy. She fights to maintain “beautiful.” She diets and works out, but she often feels like a failure. It’s her fault she can’t keep up.

It is not her fault. It’s not ours either, unless we fail to accept responsibility for this dangerous narrative. We have an obligation to ourselves and the next generation to flip the script.

Rooting the foundation of our self-esteem in our physical appearance is misguided and dangerous. Our societal obsession with being beautiful often leads to disordered eating and/or a full-blown eating disorder because at some point, long before we were born, society determined thinness was a prerequisite for beauty. Consequently, women often feel they have to make themselves beautiful before they can start living and enjoying life, as if being beautiful will protect them from something or make them more acceptable.

In a society that profits off our low self-esteem and preoccupation with beauty, let’s stir things up. Let’s teach young people the foundation of a self-esteem rests in the power and potency of their voices. Let’s empower her by showing her that her thoughts and actions matter — that she can lead, govern, invent, and innovate. Let’s talk about connection, compassion, empathy, shame-resilience and creativity. Let’s encourage them to follow their interests in math, science, art, theatre, politics, children, technology, party planning, athletics, music, business and so on.

As women, we have a tremendous amount of power. Let’s use it.

Let’s start posting signs like:

Your voice matters!

Kindness and compassion connect us!

You belong.

You matter.

We belong to each other.

You are worthy of connection and belonging.

Including others makes us stronger.

Be unique! Be different! Be you!

Follow this journey on Road to Recovered.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Follow this journey on Road to Recovered.

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Thinkstock photo via Creatas Images

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