Something’s been on my mind lately – building up over the past few weeks, no doubt made more acute by seeing my one-year-old niece whilst visiting my family earlier this month. My brother and my sister in law are amazing parents, and I know that she’ll grow up confident, independent and very loved.
But not all little girls will grow up with that advantage. Most little girls, however loved and cherished, will grow up believing that their worthiness is dependent largely on their physical appearance, and how well they fit into the expected social norm for their gender, race and age. Obviously this is not news. There is a plethora of opinion out there on how society and the media alter children’s perception of themselves. But I genuinely think that the seed is planted as soon as language and understanding is starting to develop. I don’t think it begins with television and magazines. I think it starts with compliments.
As girls, our sense of self worth, from a very young age, is very centred around our appearance. As gregarious animals, we are physiologically hard-wired to seek approval and bonding within our social group. Praise, approval and affection trigger a dopamine response, reinforcing behaviours that result in these positive signals. Hugh Howey (author of the outstanding Wool trilogy) goes into this chemical reward system in some depth in his Wayfinding series (Part 1: Rats and Rafts), in which he explores the role that Dopamine plays in our biology, and how it plays a part in addictive behaviour. It is also well-documented that dopamine and self-esteem are inextricably linked.
Compliments are powerful. We perform better when we receive them. But in my experience (of my own childhood and observations of others), even positive comments can have long-standing negative effects. Joanna from Lazy Mom’s Blog puts it so well:
Here’s how it goes…
You are 6 years old, out with your family. A waitress/relative/friend tells you how beautiful you look in your pink dress. Dopamine. You look at your mom/dad and they approve, smiling at you. Dopamine. You equate ‘being pretty’ with approval/acceptance. Dopamine. You chase that approval for the rest of your life by obsessing (at least on some level) about your appearance. You equate acceptance with beauty, and eventually, with sexiness. Eventually, your self esteem is tied to how other people see you, both other girls, and eventually, men.
Think I’m exaggerating? Have you seen Disney’s Frozen? If you’re the parent of a little girl, you will almost certainly have seen it, but just in case you haven’t, here’s the rundown: It’s a story about two sisters. Elsa is beautiful, blonde, mysterious, moody, wears amazing dresses, and has magical powers – she is an ice princess. Anna, on the other hand is a funny, smart, caring, brave, self-effacing and genuine brunette). Anna is the main character in the story. By and large almost every girl I’ve ever met prefers Elsa. The princess.
I’m not complaining about Disney. Disney do a fine job of creating badass female characters (Mulan, Merida from ‘Brave’, etc). The fact remains that little girls love princesses – ten years of dopamine reinforcement is difficult to overcome, and Elsa is always going to be the Alpha Female.
I don’t know how I dodged that particular bullet, but I grew up first wanting to be a pirate, and then an explorer, then an astronaut, and then a marine biologist. I never wanted to be a princess. It wasn’t until we moved to the USA and I attended school there that I was ‘made aware’ by other girls in middleschool that something was just unacceptable about me… “Didn’t you wear that shirt, like YESTERDAY?”
It’s no wonder we have a shortage of women in science fields. Girls are told they are beautiful, pretty, magical, when we should be telling them that they are strong, intelligent, funny, capable and kind. We simply have to get over this if equality will ever be a reality, because as it stands, we can intellectually tell a girl she can be anything she wants, but unless we fundamentally change the way that we communicate, compliment and encourage, she’s just always going to want to be Elsa…