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Wendy Bradford Headshot

Pretty Is Not a Four-Letter Word

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I don't follow the rules.

I tell my daughters they are beautiful. I tell them their dresses are adorable on them, that their hair looks pretty. They watch me, sitting on my bed, as I blow dry my hair each day. I never complain in front of them that my hair or I don't look a certain way, but they see that I put work into getting ready for going out. They ask for the perfume I wear, and dab their inner arms so that we all smell like sweet pears.

I love telling my friends how beautiful they look when we see each other -- and I say it in front of my daughters. Because we all want to hear these things. We buy clothes that we like, sit in salon chairs for hours, wear makeup if we like, exercise, check ourselves in mirrors -- and there is nothing abnormal or horrible about these actions. Many of us have degrees, have careers, take care of children, our households and our friends; we read books and do meaningful work according to our religion, politics and philosophy. Femininity is balance.

My daughters and son have a mirror in their room. I do not worry it will give them issues that are not otherwise typical of children and teens. They will be insecure at times, obsessed with their appearance during high school, and ask for outrageous clothing that no adult would agree to buy. And they will read me their favorite books in grade school, do research reports, work on speeches, decide what subjects most fascinate them and dream about the possibilities in their lives -- in the same room with the full-length mirror.

I have written about this before, but I am coming back to it, as my daughters and I have been attending events that often revolve around fashion, beauty products, princesses and dolls. My 5-and 4-year-olds get manicures, hair styling and shop for the clothes they like. As a blogger, I am invited to these events (or invited to cover them for other bloggers) and they frequently include my children. We all look forward to very fun "girls" outings.

Raising girls is complex. Being a girl can be heartbreaking and scary. We all wish to keep our daughters from sadness, self-loathing and doubt. There is no end to the mixed messages they will get from the world about their worth, their attractiveness, their abilities. They will imagine at times that their value is less than it is. And they will look to unreliable sources for security.

Yet, as girls and women, we have to develop an understanding of the intersection of beauty and strength. I do not want my girls to feel anything but joy when their grandmother gives them a lip gloss that glitters on their perfect, tiny mouths. I don't want them to think they must never compliment another girl on her pretty dress or her new patent leather shoes.

I am certain that most of us do not hear that we are beautiful nearly enough; I try not to miss an opportunity.

My daughters and son will know that truth: pretty is not stupid. And beautiful is not weak; nice is not submissive. Princess shoes and sparkly dresses that twirl are celebrations of childhood, of girlhood. Wanting to experiment with makeup and nail color and wearing clothes they pick out because of the rhinestones doesn't make them less smart or less powerful -- and that applies to my son as well as my two daughters.

I don't avoid the contradictions, their disruptive sense of comparison. My 4-year-old girl has been telling me that she wishes she had straight hair like her sister, instead of her amazing mass of curls. I tell her that everyone has different kinds of hair -- her curls are special. She is perfect the way she is; my job is to remind her of that.

The 5-year-old says she is a writer. She wants to be a teacher, a dancer, a mother and a rock star. Her sister wants to be a mother, a doctor and a cupcake girl. They may change the world by discovering a cure for disease, or saving endangered animals, or designing a hospital, or building schools in impoverished nations. And they may change one world with a compliment and a single beautiful smile.

This post was written for and originally appeared on Appleseeds blog.