We were at the supermarket yesterday and ran into an acquaintance of the hubs. The man's wife was with him, and asked how old Becky and Ro are. Now Becky is of an average height for her age -- I've seen her with the rest of her class, and she is neither tall nor short. Ro, on the other hand, is tall for her age -- she is always the tallest in her classes, and most people never guess that she's just four.
Well, when people see Rebecca out alone, they don't think anything of it, but when they see her together with her little sister, their respective heights become comparable; and sometimes, like this bright woman, they would say -- loud and clear, right in front of her -- "She's not very big is she?".
And as I would say that no, her height's in fact pretty average, they would actually start disputing this, while Rebecca would be casting me these pained, stricken glances. Eventually I would politely smile and lead the kids away, and then be constrained to remind Rebecca that what these people say doesn't matter, that she's perfect just the way she is, and that ultimately, it's what's inside that counts.
But what is it with these dimwits and their lack of tact? Perhaps if someone said the same thing to that woman about her kid, she might well agree, while casting a critical, appraising eye over her child. It's not that being small is a bad thing, mind; it's the disparagement, the denigration, that goes with the observation. That is not something I will support or encourage -- young girls are under enough pressure from the world to look and behave a certain way as it is.
I guess adults usually have the upper hand when it comes to saying insensitive, belittling things to children, generally because children are simply too immature to formulate an adequate response. Instead, they absorb what they hear -- good or bad -- into their psyches, shaping their characters over time for better or worse.
Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about Marilyn Monroe and my hopes for my own daughters' self-esteem. In it, I quoted from the book The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe by J. Randy Taraborrelli: "... during [Marilyn's] pregnancy... she said, "'My little girl is always going to be told how pretty she is'… She was sure it would be a girl. 'When I was small, all of the dozens and dozens of people I lived with – none of them ever used the word 'pretty' to me. I want my little girl to smile all the time. All little girls should be told how pretty they are and I'm going to tell mine, over and over again'".
I went on to write: "How very, very sad. I do, in fact, know something of what she meant, which is why I always make sure to tell my daughters not only how beautiful they are, but how smart, and wonderful, and capable, and powerful they are too". If you have a quick look at that post, you'll see pictures of a book Becky had been writing in at the time; asked "How would you sum yourself up in one sentence?", she wrote: Fabulous.
I'd written that "I would love for my daughters to keep summing themselves up this way for the rest of their lives". I'm glad to say that Becky and Ro are still as spunky and confident as ever, despite their rubs with the real world, with all its false images and ideals, and tactless, insensitive adults. These latter individuals have unfortunately always been a bugbear in my own life, and it's annoying as heck to have to deal with them now that I have my own children.
As an example, I had wonderfully obtuse relatives who would feel compelled to say every time they saw me that I was pucat, a Malay term for "pale". While this does not seem especially bad writing in English, it made me feel horrible as a child, for they were saying it critically, mockingly even, implying that I looked ashen, almost corpse-like. As I went into my tweens and the pointless observation continued, I tried to tan myself into a more acceptable shade, but, as anyone with fair skin knows -- you don't tan, you burn. Thankfully, I gave up on that scheme soon enough, but it was a long while before I learnt to shrug off such remarks.
In my post on the perception of beauty, I'd written, "One is bombarded daily by images of physical perfection, never mind how unrealistic, Botoxed or Photoshopped. Our culture creates impossible standards of beauty, and then somehow connects those standards to personal worth. It isn't always easy to learn to accept one's body without judgement".
Well, those same obtuse people would of course be making their observations on every other area of my life -- these were either direct criticisms, or else of the indirect comparison variety; as in, "Why can't you be more like so-and-so", or "So-and-so is so feminine, so neat, etc etc". I don't know if it's a girl thing, but I do know that these words affected me a great deal growing up, as they did my other girlfriends who were subject to the same thing. And now my own kids have to face this same mindlessness.
I don't understand these people -- most of them are parents themselves, and I would have thought they'd know better. But perhaps sensitivity is an inborn trait, something an inherently tactless person can only acquire with great effort. I see that those same insensitive relatives have not changed much in the past 40-some years -- just the other day, my aunt, on seeing me pottering about at home in my batik bermudas, goes, "Well, you're certainly not going to win 'Mother-of-the-year' -- you look like someone on skid row".
I'm thinking, I'm at home, I'm pregnant, I'm just trying to be comfortable and I'm so glad to have found lounge-y clothes that fit -- and you make these unnecessary, uninspiring remarks (this same lady, by the way, has been continually telling me how radiant the duchess of Cambridge is looking in her pregnancy; never mind that she's at least a decade younger).
It's often these very same day-to-day interactions that shape a person's self-image and sense of worth; I know from my own experience that these seemingly mundane exchanges can often have very profound effects. Every day is full of opportunities for us to build up or tear someone down; as a parent, I would like to think that I'm doing all I can to boost my own girls' self esteem -- goodness knows, there are enough discouragers out there -- and that does mean keeping a thoughtful guard on my mouth. Praise for their actions and accomplishments; appreciation and encouragement of their unique skills and qualities; reassurance that they are beautiful as they are; being done with the whole comparison trap... these are just some of the things I try to incorporate into our exchanges every single day.
My girlfriend sent me an excellent article from SheKnows.com, entitled 5 Steps to boosting your daughter's self-esteem. "Mothers are the first line of defense against unrealistic images and suggestive advertising," the author writes. "Mothers, sisters, daughters and friends have immense influence over the younger girls around them and words are powerful. Think twice about commenting on somebody's appearance, whether in a positive or negative way. Negative comments invite young girls to create an unhealthy sense of beauty...
"From a very early age, girls want someone to love them, to recognize their beauty and to treat them like a princess. You have an opportunity to be a young lady's biggest fan by encouraging them, recognizing their beauty and helping them discover their gifts and talents. Make an effort every day to tell your daughters that they are beautiful and to look at them with loving, rather than critical, eyes. When the world tells her she is inadequate, a reliable and genuinely devoted woman needs to show her she is perfect, just the way she is...
"You can empower [young girls] by encouraging their individual interests and recognizing when they excel... The tendency to want to "fit in" can also make a young girl feel inadequate when she doesn't measure up. Clearly communicate that "fitting in" isn't as important as creating and pursuing her own definition of happiness" (extracted from the article here).
Remember that saying, "If you don't have anything nice to say... ?"