When my two younger sisters visited me in New York recently, we took a springtime walk through Central Park. The four-year-old ran circles around me, but the six-year-old stopped every few minutes to pose—hand on hip, one foot out, head cocked—and demand, “Take my picture!” While the different ways they walked and acted could just be due to their two very different personalities, I also wondered how much of that look at me behavior is the result of two extra years of being told “you’re cute” by almost every single adult she came across.
In the 2011 article “How to Talk to Little Girls,” Lisa Bloom points out, astutely, that commenting on physical appearance is “our culture’s standard talking-to-little-girls icebreaker,” and we need to change that. “Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything,” she says. And we do it primarily to young girls, not young boys (when’s the last time you complimented a little dude on his hair do?). Growing up, my grandmother would always initiate conversations with me by complimenting my lips: “Honey, movie stars get surgery for those kind of lips!” She meant well, but it came at the detriment of us talking about anything I actually did. My brother, on the other hand, was asked questions about school and sports.