Wednesday, February 27, 2013

on words, and self-esteem

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, 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... ?"


Dee said...

Words can pierce the soul and it takes years for the wounds to heal. My little grand daughter did not have much hair till she was about four...she was very self conscious of it only because everyone she met mentioned it. She now has long beautiful blonde curly hair. She gets lots of compliments...But she carries the scars.

Audrey said...

Wow. I relate very much to this post and all you have to say. I'm not sure why people say such insensitive things. In my experience, it's always a woman. Soph always had very curly hair and we never left the house without strangers approaching us to comment or ask us about it. More often than not, a woman would remark, "You know she's going to hate it when she gets older". I would seethe. As Soph got older and could understand, I would get nasty and say, "Yes, she probably will because folks like you are teaching her that's what she should do" (never with her listening, of course!). Why would you say such a thing? Maybe my daughter will be the first curly haired girl in history to love her hair!!!! I've done everything in my power to shield Soph from these types of remarks and to teach her to love her hair. I tell her it's what makes her different from most people and that it's our differences that make us beautiful! We read the book "It's Okay To Be Different" often and I think she's taken that message to heart. Going through all of this has definitely made me very sensitive and I'm so careful about what comes out of my mouth. Especially where girls are concerned, I do my best to ask questions and make comments that would build them up. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic ~ it's got my brain churning this morning!!!

Sulky Kitten said...

Honestly Janice, you must have the patience of a saint. i don't think I'd be able to keep a civil tongue in my head if I ran into this kind of thoughtless person too often. I hope you continue to nurture your daughters' self-esteem and confidence and I'm sure they'll benefit greatly from it. You seem to have had a lot to put up with regarding outspoken relatives. I wish some people would even try to think before they spoke, especially if they're just going to be critical.

Fundy Blue said...

Powerful post B&R! I saw the Dove commercial two or three years ago, and I immediately sent it to all of my young nieces on both sides of our family. I'm still dealing with the critical messages I received growing up. I was so careful as a teacher with young girls to make sure I built them up in positive ways and to reinforce their confidence in their academic strengths and talents. Although the pressures on young girls are huge, at least our image of what is beautiful is expanding. I always had "people colors" of crayons in my diverse classroom, so that kids could find their skin tones. How ironic that you were criticized for being pale, when most people are trying to have lighter skin! Keep standing up for Becky and Ro. Have a good one!

The Dainty Dolls House said...

So great & very true!! We need to be encouraging. Lots of us just zone in on the negative, but uplifting each other is so much better!! xx

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

"...don't say anything at all."

This is a wonderful post with so much food for thought in it. In my experience, people who do not have tact never quite grow out of it. It seems as if it's just who they are. I'm not sure why this is. My brother made me laugh one time when he said that the explanation for this is probably due to the fact that they lack the 'tact gene'! Hahaha...

My younger daughter is shorter than average. She is small, petite. Just about every friend she has is taller than her; somewhere are very tall. And she gets comments about it. But rather than let her be bothered about it, I taught her to have fun, add humour to the comments she hears. She is not sensitive to her height; she jokes about it instead. I once had her sharing what she thought was a funny story about a tall boy at school using her to lean on.

Our daughters are under tremendous amounts of pressure these days about their outer appearance, which is very sad. And we must raise them to believe that they are smart and wonderful and strong in so many other ways. It's hard to do that when they are bombarded by society's obsession with beauty and youth. But we try our best. And since we can't put filters (or duct tape...haha...) on the mouths of tactless individuals, we have to also teach them to have a tough skin, a sense of humour and a dismissive approach. When they're young, this is almost impossible for them to do. But as they grow, they develop these skills that we help them develop. "Be the duck" I tell my girls "and let it slide right off your back."

Just remind them that "some people are missing the tact gene." At the very least, you'll get a good laugh out of this.

nancy @ adore to adorn said...

this is such an important post that rings true. I commend you so much for writing about this!

The Cranky said...

Thoughtful and well written; and I can't help but agree with each and every point you made. Growing up I often heard "you'd be pretty if...." or "you're pretty, but..." or my early development discussed by several people, in front of me and so on.

Thankfully, I had a loving and considerate father who constantly reinforced that he thought I was the smartest, prettiest and most caring person in the world. I don't know what I would have done without him. I'm so glad you are that person, that 'fan', for your daughters!

Miss Val's Creations said...

Beautiful post Janice. It sounds like you are doing an amazing job with your daughters being so in tune with building their self confidence. Although I do not have children of my own I am always cautious of what I say to a child. There are things I heard as a child that have stuck with me and I am almost 40 now! Adults are not always bright which is unfortunate!

trishie said...

Some people are so tactless, it's ridiculous. I'm very petite myself and to this day, still get people making observations about myself to my face. Some people say best when they say nothing at all.

Magic Love Crow said...

I think this is a great post my friend! My mom has always taught me to be proud of who I am! I have been teased, like many kids in their younger years, I just kept my head high. And, I have to admit, even now, sometimes I get people commenting to me! I lost a lot of hair when I was sick and I am not getting it back. I don't always want to wear a hat! So, I hold my head high ;o) I don't care what people say! This is me. I wouldn't want to change a thing! When, I look at my head, it reminds me of what I came through and how very lucky I am! Like a badge of honor! You are a good mom ;o)

Christine Altmiller said...

I thought I commented but Blogger must have had a hiccup. I will try again.
I could have written the majority of this post too. A lot of people seem to have bottomless ignorance and show it often, as these same people do not edit what comes through their brain and out their mouths. Our job as parents is hard enough without having to undo all the undermining others do to our children.

A Very Sweet Blog said...

BOTH comments were wayyyy out of line. You know it's sad, that we live in a world where people seem to get a joy out of making negative comments and hurting one another. The woman talked as if your child couldn't hear or understand. That's horrible! She has no tact indeed. And then that comment about "mother of the year" was horrible. how dare she say something like that. Keep your chin up! I've only known you for a little while now through blogging and you are an exemplary mother. Society has really gone to the pits. Everyone has this cookie cutter image of how life should be, and doesn't always go that way. I bet if you look at their lives, things are NOT what they seem. Thanks for sharing this.

Katarina Kljajic said...

First, I want to tell you that I am really impressed with your blog. I enjoyed watching all these lovely dolls and bags that you've made :)
Second, I have to say that this post is excellent. I absolutely agree with you. When I was a child, I always hated when adults talk about me like I'm not there. Some people do not realize that children can be very sensitive to such harsh comments.
In any case, I'm really glad that we met and that you are stopping by on my blog.
Kind regards,

Beth said...

Beautifully expressed, Janice...and so true. For the life of me, I cannot understand why people would make negative remarks like that to anyone, much less a child. The worst thing is that it is so often a woman making the hateful remarks--even women who are themselves mothers!

Good for you for working so hard to help your girls be confident and to have faith in themselves---you're a good mom! Your children are blessed.


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