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A New Vocabulary: What We Say to Girls Matters

In honor of International Day of the Girl, Babble has dedicated a page to celebrating girls and giving them the tools to take control of their destinies and rise above stereotypes. Find out more here

“You look so pretty!” If you’re a woman, you’ve said this to a friend, a female relative or a co-worker, possibly countless times. And if you’re the mother of a girl, chances are you’ve said this to your daughter. I know I have, and recently, as I catch myself saying things to my daughter like, “You look really cute in that outfit,” something in me pauses. Do I want to be telling my daughter she’s cute – and even more specifically, that she’s cuter some days more than others depending on what she’s wearing? It’s not that complimenting her doesn’t feel right, it’s the implication that certain clothes can make her “better” than she is without them. Of course we’ve all seen enough makeover shows to know that the right outfit really can transform a person’s look, but we also want our girls to learn that they’re beautiful no matter what, right?

That’s the idea behind a new series of posters sponsored by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg featuring photos of tween girls from around the city that say, “I’m a girl and I’m beautiful the way I am.” I criticized the posters in a recent post, saying, “Though the campaign may succeed on the surface at challenging physical beauty ideals, it doesn’t question whether or not being “beautiful” should matter at all. We never see media that tells boys they should be “handsome” or “attractive,” but we have no problem telling girls from a very young age, like, 2 that they should be beautiful.”

I do think my daughter is beautiful (what mother doesn’t feel that way?), but I don’t want her to grow up preoccupied with her looks, wondering if she’s “good enough” based on how pretty she is or what she’s wearing. Fortunately for me, I don’t think I have to worry about that too much, because the other day when I asked my daughter to comb her hair, she said she didn’t need to because – and I quote – “My hair looks awesome because I look awesome, even if my hair is a mess!” The kid’s got moxie, that’s for sure.

So what should I say to my daughter about how she looks, or her behavior, or a myriad of other gender-sensitive issues? Does word choice matter? I think it does. Not that any of us should feel paranoid about irrevocably screwing our daughters up because we said something like “Good girl!” when they were being well-behaved. But maybe it’s not a bad idea to stop and think about the messaging we’ve received as girls who made it through childhood into adulthood and decide what we might like to change. Here are some messages I got growing up that I’ve re-examined while raising my daughter:

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