It all started innocently enough…I was plucking my eyebrows in my bathroom mirror. My 3-year old wandered in, stared at me, then stared at her own reflection.

Mommy what are you doing?

But why would you do that?

Hala wants you to see her painting

It was then my heart sank and I chose my words very carefully. She was watching me too closely, looking at herself too closely, and I could see her 3-year old brain trying to decide if her eyebrows were subpar-in need of that thing Mommy was doing.

The very idea that my daughter would find any part of her body, any tiny portion of her little face anything but perfect, sent a wave of nausea over me.

It was only a few days earlier she came home from preschool crying because another girl didn’t like her new haircut. Of course it was quickly forgotten and the two girls are paling around as if nothing tearful had been exchanged.

It has begun and she is only 3.

I don’t know how to stop it.

Of course her father and I always talk about her wit and brains, and attempt to build up her esteem in every way possible. We try not to focus on how ‘pretty’ she looks in her princess dress, but do make a point of letting her know she’s beautiful. She’s beautiful playing dress up and she’s beautiful playing in the mud.

We try and focus on her being perfect just the way she is…

…then come nights like tonight, when my daughter wants me to paint her toe-nails pink. Not because of any other reason than she wants them painted. She would prefer blue, or purple but all I had was pink in the house. A pink I bought a long time ago then put away.

But tonight it was about fun. Harmless girl fun. We giggled as I painted her toes and she was giddy to have it happen. And I wonder if with that simple act, coupled with watching mom pluck her eyebrows, put on her makeup, primp…if I just added to her already doomed body image path.

I hate this. I hate that I’m worried about this. I hate that political headlines involve clothing and makeup (dude, next time Sarah…try Target) but it’s impossible to avoid.

I can’t avoid it at 33 and my daughter can’t avoid it at 3.

I don’t know how to stop it.


  1. Wow, that’s a tough one. I don’t have any girls – or any kids for that matter – so I appreciate these kinds of posts that make me wonder what I would say when it’s my turn to explain these types of things.

  2. I think men and women both face the weight of self-examination and wondering if we measure up, and it gets to us in pretty insidious ways. Boys wonder about their bodies and how they compare, too — it’s almost more obvious and discuss-able with girls.

    My mom said it was tougher to make sure my brother was okay with himself, because boys are more resistant to certain kinds of affirming and encouragement and discussions about self-worth. I was easy to talk to about things because she could tell me about her experiences and speak to girl conversations and girl moments she understood from going through them.

    YOU are your daughter’s best chance. Whatever insecurities and pressures and expectations you face, you are also a balls-out, opinionated, brilliant, funny, social and friendly person with a huge amount of friends, and a clear grasp on your priorities and the state of the world around you. Even when you despair, you know what the hell you think, and even if you don’t, you’ll figure it out.

    Keep her talking, let her have opinions, meet her friends, keep listening, and make sure she knows beautiful goes from heart outward. You have YEARS to repeat the message, and a lifetime to spend backing it up with your own life.

    Take a look in the mirror and believe you are beautiful first. Or she won’t buy it when you tell her the same thing.

  3. I don’t think that helping your daughter learn about cosmetics will foster a bad body image, so long as you stress the fact that you use cosmetics and body grooming techniques because it makes YOU feel good about the way that you look.

    As long as she knows that you’re not doing it to be just like that cover model, or because you think that’s the only way to get a man, she’ll come to think of them as a way to enhance her already lovely features and not to mask her natural beauty.

    Even before we had this whole body image issue in America, little girls were getting into Mommy’s lipstick and trying it on (and usually looking like the Joker in the end). It’s a natural curiosity, and make-up is just plain fun to play with. So as long as she understands your values and has the right idea about WHY to wear make-up, I think she’ll be okay.

  4. I understand the purpose of focusing on the “It makes *me* feel good” part, but doesn’t that beg the question, then, of WHY does it make you feel good? Men didn’t start worrying about hair gels, facial scrubs and moisturizers until someone else told them that it was important. You might think that by saying “It’s for me!” isn’t being beholden to hyper-critical, body-image crushing, external pressures, but I think that it would be kidding yourself…

    I’m just sayin’,


  5. My 3yr old daughter started crying when she had chickenpox recently. I couldn’t find anything physically wrong with and had to spend a full 20 minutes settling her down before she could tell me that she was crying because she had spots and that she wasn’t beautiful any more. It broke my heart.

    Unfortunately, I’m right in that boat along side you. I’ve no idea what to do about it, short of locking up the TV and trying to hide every newspaper and magazine from her sight. All I can do is tell her everyday how clever, funny and beautiful she really is and hope she believes my opinion over the media’s.

  6. I used to want to wear my mom’s false eyelashes when I was 5. I think it has more to do with mother and daughter connecting that body image issues. No projecting allowed!

  7. I think self decoration or maintenance in itself isn’t the slippery slope- it’s part of celebrating our inner selves. Some kids have an inner pull to perfection and measurement against others that undermines their self confidence and so we have to see that part of our kids and speak to it in a language that ameliorates that perhaps? It’s about self esteem and that precious area of vulnerability that can get eroded. Sigh… Let me know if you figure it out eh? See my post on when to tell my daughter about her Down Syndrome diagnosis.

  8. This is truly an issue for mothers and daughters. How do we maintain a positive self image in a world obsessed with perfection?
    It sounds like you’re doing the right things. Emphasizing all the parts of what makes her whole as beautiful. Confidence and positive self image are indispensable tools in a world of chaos like ours.

  9. My daughter (also 3) watches me do my makeup every morning. Part of me wants to teach her – in that fun, let’s be girls and share, way. And another part of me wants to shave my head and teach her she IS beautiful without all that.

    Izzymom and I were discussing that this weekend regarding our own desires for some type of “work” – but how we could ever do that and reconcile that with what we’re trying to teach our daughters.

  10. As a mom of a 19 year old, I would say there’s no stopping it. There is, however, an importance to teaching them to embrace their intelligence, love their uniqueness and building their confidence. Nothing breaks my heart more than watching an intelligent girl “dumb down” because she thinks it will make her more popular.

  11. I really don’t think there is much we can do as moms to stop this cycle. We obviously are a part of it, and I know for myself, I got here without my mom encouraging me one way or another.

    Just hold faith in the fact that you KNOW you are doing the best you can to show your little girl that she is beautiful NO MATTER WHAT! And she will always hold that somewhere in her heart, for the rest of her life!

  12. I think a lot about the effect my dad had on my self-image. I remember when I was a teenager he took a pic of me after a long morning (like 3am to 10am) of fishing, no makeup, no hairspray. He was telling me he had to take that pic right then because I was so pretty. He was sincere, & I think that’s why it was so effective. Funny that I valued fashion advice from someone who wore bib overalls almost everyday, but it was usually pretty good advice.

    Now, I have to say that my mom & aunt having me pull their hair through those awful frosting caps severely damaged me.

    I think you’re doing the right thing. Just making sure that she knows you & your husband’s priorities are what they are will help her a lot.

  13. You are already setting a great example by showing your daughter that everything about her is beautiful – not just her face. Hopefully she’ll be able to make it through her schooling years with the confidence that comes from knowing that she’s pretty inside and out and that no magazine or tv commercial can tell her differently. There’s no harm in her wanting to “fit in” a bit by having her toenails painted or some such thing so long as it doesn’t ever become a part of her identity. As long as she knows what it truly means to be beautiful – she’ll be just fine.

  14. My daughter is 7 and I’ve had a few years to cope with issues like this. The way I present it to my daughter is personal grooming, taking care of your body, wearing nice (aka CLEAN & MATCHING) clothing, and eating healthy is important. That is a whole lot different than turning her into a beauty queen or obsess over wearing more expensive clothes than her peers. Plus, I think it’s important for her to shave under her arms when the time comes 😉 No doubt it’s a fine line to walk! Plus, after years of me teaching little by little, my daughter is now much better equipped in peer situations to deal with the ‘cheerleaders & pageant queens’ (no offense to either).

  15. My muirne is 6 in 9 day and we struggle with this too, especially since she has been getting a lot of attention for her looks since she was born (redcurly hair and blue eyes). I hink balance is hat you have to do. As long as they are happy in their body that is the best we can do as parents. Hang in there.

  16. A touching story, and one hard to solve. It’s easy for us to say we’ll raise our opposite gender kids the same way, and teach them to love themselves for who they are, but they will be forever influenced by outsiders, just as we have. If my daughter, Sarah, isn’t dressed in pink, and Matthew in blue, we often get comments that people don’t know their gender. Or if they are in yellow or green (neutral colors), people say they were thrown, expecting the traditional gender-assignment tones.

    Of course, at 4 months, Sarah’s not too worried about her weight or her physical appearance, but as you point out, the time will not be too far away when she notices others, and what her mom does, etc. How will we then tell her she needs to change to meet others’ expectations or support the status quo? I’m not looking forward to that, and hope we can help her (and her brother) understand they’re unique and special and don’t need to modify the way they look to make others happy.

  17. I don’t have kids and don’t plan on having any, but I think about this a LOT because I do a lot of writing for teens/tweens and so I end up reflecting back on my childhood constantly, and observing closely the experiences of those around me.

    My mom pretty much raised me solo as dad didn’t know a thing about girls (it was the 70s, so that was “okay!”) However, in her attempt to make me realize I was smart and witty and etc etc etc, the only time looks were brought up was when I was told that I was “smart – you don’t need to be pretty.” So of course I grew up convinced I was hideous. (And the bad 80s perm that I sported in junior high and high school didn’t help.)

    From what I can see, you can’t avoid it. You can acknowledge it, and teach them to decide if and how they want to participate in it, and teach them how to stand up for themselves and deal with it if they don’t. (My newest project is dealing with this!) Anyway, from what I know about you online, you won’t have a problem with this one bit. 😉

  18. I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept of the “good enough” mother (or parent, really): What is important is that you care, that you are aware of the pressures girls face and that you are doing what is best for you in order to teach your daughter the values that are important to you.

    Before I say anything else, I’ll make a disclaimer – I have no children. I do have some experience – 3 years in Special Ed, studying Child Development. Although of course I can’t say exactly what I will do when I DO have children, even as a single adult I deal with these issues. I usually don’t pluck my eyebrows, and I probably wouldn’t shave at all if I could eradicate the cultural ideals from my psyche. So, I only shave my armpits and legs when it begins to bother me, and I have shaved my head completely in the past. In the past, I was more vigilant about being shaved and wearing makeup, but as I have changed these behaviors I have also found a LOT more confidence in the way I look. Although of course I have also matured in that time, I don’t think it is a coincidence.

    I guess what I’m probably heading towards is what you briefly considered – shaving my head to show my daughter I believe beauty and gender is NOT just skin-deep. I am personally offended by the message we get that our bodies are not “right,” just the way they are. I only wear bras when I run, I am working on armpit fluff to rival my boyfriend’s (but okay okay, it’s coming off soon), and I remind myself that the “models” I see in magazines probably couldn’t keep up with me when I’m having fun doing the things I love: backpacking, playing hockey, running, climbing, etc etc etc.

    So – I guess I would like to recommend women, and especially mothers and caregivers, take that brave leap. Maybe you’ll learn a little something about yourself in the process.

  19. As someone who doesn’t wear much make-up, I have spent more time thinking about this in terms of diet and body image than about the make-up. I grew up not knowing anyone with an eating disorder, and in a family that treated food as fun, social, sustenance, and an occasion — but no one agonized about it. We ate healthfully and my sisters and I were quite content within our own skins. I realize this was both luck and the very healthy attitude my mother had about food. BUT, I now have a husband who needs to lose another 20 pounds (has already lost nearly 40, on doctor’s orders), and so we are extremely food conscious. We have made a pact never to talk about dieting, or the need to lose weight, in front of our children (who are 4.5 and 2.5). Rather, we talk about why daddy is trying to eat all the healthy food he can so he has lots of energy to play with them, and why they have to eat healthy foods in order to grow big and strong. I don’t object to my (2.5) daughter’s desire for “sparkly nails,” which is the faintest pink polish I own. Primarily, we stress our children’s cleverness, creativity and strength, their beauty at moments that are not about primping, and we hope desperately that it is enough. I know there is no way to know for sure — except to hope that we give them a sense of their own force of self, so that they are confident.

  20. MichelleB says:

    As a single mom with two daughters, I’ve gone through the same type of thing only having to do with the divorce with my husband. Ever since we divorced and I sold the diamond engagement ring he gave me to my two kids ask me what happened to my ring and their dad. They connect the two together. I told them I sold it so I could be happy. Kids are wiser than I thought.

  21. I can sooo relate to this post.
    I grew up in a place where being pretty was very important – it was, in fact, all that girls were good for. I felt it early one, from the time I was placed on my first diet (I was 6), to my first beauty pageant, to the family gatherings where catty aunts and cousins remarked on other women. This feeling that my importance was inextricably linked to my appearance followed me for a long time.
    I have two daughters now, ages 4 and 6. It is a tough balancing act as a mom to make sure that my girls feel secure in their appearances (we, too, have had the “she doesn’t like my hair” trauma at school) without placing too much emphasis on it. I want them to understand that inside beauty matters but you can hardly turn on the TV or look at a book without getting the measure that pretty matters.
    I admire that you don’t believe it’s an easy fix – I don’t think it is either. But if you figure it out, let me know, okay? 😉

  22. I wouldn’t know what to say either… 🙁

  23. The questioning’s inevitable, the comparisons are unavoidable but the key is acceptance.. We’ll discover the differences & wonder about our worth yet, if we can appreciate what we do know about ourselves, we have the strength to cope w/the mind games along the way.

    I’m not a parent but had an amazing mum; most amazing in her honesty & utter belief in me. She raised me to revel in all that IS me which led me to either not care what isn’t or claim what can be. I’m supremely self-confident w/out being vain, completely self-assured despite the nagging questions, happily self-aware w/proud acceptance of the flaws that only enhance my unique beauty & it all started w/Momma striving to be her best self thus ensuring I was doing the same.

    In other words, Erin, you’re already doing what you should. Don’t cringe when it comes to such issues either for that then teaches there’s a hidden message; just revel in being a girl & balance it w/being human. 😮

    Case in point: Altho’ I hate how my gums show due to my overbite, w/out it, I wouldn’t have such a huge smile which is what people remember. 😀

  24. This article is absurd. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being feminine and grooming yourself………your daughter will learn how to do these things from watching you. As far as the haircut, life is tough sometimes……grow up and deal with it.

  25. Queen of Spain says:

    Elizabeth- are you telling my 3-year old to ‘grow up and deal with it?’

    I just want to make sure I’m clear before I stick my verbal foot up your ass

  26. I’m dealing with similar issues with my daughter. The makeup I can cope with, even though I don’t generally wear it, my daughter loves it.

    But the day she came home from kindergarten and told me that the boys only considered one of the girls in her class sexy!!! Just really throws me that 5 year olds are feeling that pressure already.

  27. QoS,
    What a gorgeous post. I remember watching, with mixed reactions, how people would fawn over my niece telling her how “gorgeous” she was. And she was, and is. However, when she was about 4 I taught her to say, “And I’m smart too.” The balanced message, I hope (cross fingers cross fingers) is the way. My aunt used to sit me down and do my makeup when I was younger. It was awesome. She rocks. We had fun. But I understood what really mattered. She was a major groomer. She came from a family of groomers. I happened to be more of the messier-food-in-my-hair-stuff-on-my-teeth gene pool. It didn’t matter. She loved me. My family loved me. Good hair day, bad hair day. That is what I remember. I guess I can be my own “female media” to my daughter. What messages am I putting out there? Here is my ticker: Not heroin chic. Not air brushed. Yes shopping is fun. Yes make up is fun. Ouch mommy poked herself in the eye doing makeup. Okay maybe makeup is not fun. Yes good brain. Yes good health. Yes good vibes. Yes love. Now let’s go to SEPHORA! Seriously, though, I am balancing my messages, crossing my fingers, and hoping it works.

    For those of you thinking “Hot Mommas?” No worries – code for “Dynamic Women” – we’re a women’s leadership project. You need neither be “Hot” or a “Momma” to join our posse. Maybe someone will write their case on our site and THIS will be one of the issues/learnings in the case. Would be great.

  28. jessica says:

    that is very good to write what happend

  29. You CAN avoid it, but it means having to put up with being the person who is different. You do have a choice though.

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