Don’t tell your daughter she’s pretty

Image credit: iStock

Mummy Musings is a fortnightly column where Elisabeth Lee navigates the ups and downs of bringing up her daughter.

It’s now officially summer. The days are so long that when little A goes to bed the sunlight still streams in her window and she refuses to sleep. The nights are warm and full of noise – we have to sleep with the windows open to let the breeze in.

One morning, to escape the heat of the valley, we decide to head up into the mountains. There is an easy day hike we love that is aptly-named Paradise Meadows, which is mostly boardwalk and kind to toddler feet. We have a guest staying with us, and it seems like a nice thing to do.

The first half of the walk is magical. The morning mist burns off, revealing stunted mountain pines, rampant wildflowers and little streams full to bursting with trout. A skips ahead, powered mainly by the box of chocolate graham cookies we have brought with us. We stop to have some water; a curious whisky-jack alights on A momentarily, probably wondering if she would share a cookie crumb or two. A giggles and wants to try feeding the bird, so we cave in and let her stand there, palm open, hand held high while the crazy whisky-jacks squabble over treats.

We’re feeling good so we decide to take a little detour and head up to Battleship Lake. A flags a little and we decide to split up – the adults will head to the lake, while little A and I start heading back first. We plan on stopping for a snack to let the adults catch up with us eventually.

It’s quiet, just the two of us, hiking in the woods. The path runs gently downhill, so A moves lightly and quickly as we head back down. Spending time like this with her, so simply and harmoniously, warms my heart more than the summer sun can.

Then, like a thunderbolt, she says: “I’m prettier when I wear a dress, aren’t I, mummy?” And my heart breaks.

I say, almost too quickly: “You’re beautiful all the time!” I want to shake her and say she’s pretty no matter what, that it’s your beauty on the inside that counts, but I can see in her eyes that she doesn’t believe me. I wonder if I have already – at such a tender age – failed her.

I think of the poem by Nayyirah Waheed:

i will tell you, my daughter
of your worth
not your beauty
every day. (your beauty is a given. every being is
born beautiful).
knowing your worth
can save your life.
raising you on beauty alone
you will be starved.
you will be raw.
you will be weak.
an easy stomach.
always in need of someone telling you how
beautiful you are.

Credit: the work of dreams.

Have I been starving A? Have I somehow not told her what she needs to hear, as opposed to what I want to say? It’s a thought that bothers me for the rest of the day.

Later that night as I lie by A waiting for her to fall asleep, it occurs to me how it could have happened. We are all guilty of sending these mixed, confusing signals. I’m guilty of complimenting her when she dresses up but never appreciating how awesome she looks in her surfing shorts. I think back to recent interactions and cringe at our relatives’ well-meaning coos of “Oh, look how pretty her nails are!” and “Such a pretty dress!”.

So, as a mother who wants her daughter to grow up to be more than just eye candy, here’s my plea. As a parent, think hard about what you say to your child. About the media that your child consumes. About what her peers, teachers and relatives are saying to her. And help your daughter hear what she needs to hear – that she is strong, that she is powerful, and that she is worth it.


Elisabeth Lee is proof that it is never too late to consider a second, third or even fourth career, having come to both motherhood and writing late in life. She occasionally freelances and can be reached at

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