An Open Letter From a Behavioral Psychologist (and Dad) on International Women’s Day

Pretty Sophia

Sophia is 3.

She has soft, Disney princess brown eyes, shimmering auburn hair, and her nose wrinkles up adorably whenever she smiles - which is almost constantly given her cheery temperament.

She has a swarm of loving people in her life: Two wonderful parents, a little baby brother, and a swarm of affectionate and caring grandparents, aunts and uncles, and family friends. She has a stimulating home environment, makes friends easily at her little preschool, and is she’s very bright, having already learned to read at a pretty advanced level. She seems to have everything going for her in life, everything you could hope for for a child.

But I’m worried about Sophia. And for a reason that probably seems silly at first blush.

See, every time Sophia arrives someplace new - her grandparents’ house to make goodies with Granny, Aunt Susan’s for a birthday party, the doctor’s office for a yearly checkup, and even the checkout line at the grocery store - the first thing everybody says to her as soon as they see her is: Oh my goodness, aren’t you adorable! Or one of many variations on this:

For Sophia’s entire life she’s been greeted and showered with love, attention, and affection. But a shockingly high percentage of the time that love has been preceded by positive verbal comments about her appearance.

While no one is consciously aware of it-either Sophia or the adults in her life-comments about her appearance are getting strongly paired and associated with her experience of love, attention, and affection.

When she goes to bake cookies with her grandmother, for example, they spend much of their time together talking about cookies and baking and laughing. But the first thing Sophia experiences is almost always always a rush of enthusiasm and affection simultaneously overlaid with verbal comments about how nice she looks.

Why I’m Worried About Sophia

The reason I’m worried about Sophia is that she is being taught unconsciously to associate positive social interactions and affection (and by extension, her sense of self worth) with verbal affirmations of her appearance. While no one in her life is teaching her this explicitly, Sophia is implicitly learning that feeling good and being loved are strongly tied to her appearance.

This implicit learning is the same process that governed what Pavlov’s dogs were learning a century ago: Every time someone entered the room to bring them food a little bell rang, teaching the dogs that the sound of a bell meant food. This is basic classical conditioning. Any animal, humans included, easily learn to associate two however unrelated things if they are repeatedly presented together - even if they’re not consciously aware of the connection. And this learning is especially strong when it happens consistently and at a young age.

So it scares me that Sophia - and just about every other little girl in our culture - is being taught a powerful lesson by their well-intentioned but psychologically-unwitting adult loved ones: Our little girls are learning that the single best predictor of feeling loved is having people comment positively on how they look.

I hope it’s apparent what a scary lesson that is. What a horrifying belief we’re unknowingly planting in our little girls’ minds. What an awful incentive structure we’re creating for their future behavior. How with every seemingly kind comment about how nice they look, we’re strengthening the connection between how they look to other people and how they feel about themselves.

This is a psychological disaster waiting to happen.

When we’ve know for decades that women consistently experience depression, anxiety, and a host of other emotional difficulties at a significantly higher rates than men (sometimes double or triple), I don’t think we need brain chemistry or hormones to explain why. The words we use with our daughters are teaching them a powerful and not easily unlearned lesson about what it means to be loved and feel loved.

My Challenge to All of Us for International Women’s Day

So, what can we do?

Maybe, like me, you’re a dad with your own young daughters. Maybe you’re a grandparent, a school teacher, a coach, or a doctor. Even if you don’t interact with young girls on a regular basis, you probably watch movies and TV. In any case, we can all start to notice and think carefully about how we as a society talk to girls and young women, especially how often comments on their appearance are immediately followed by displays of love and affection.

Once you learn to look for it, you can’t unsee it. You’ll start to notice it everywhere, and it will start to make you really uncomfortable. Which is a good thing. We need to feel uncomfortable in order to change.

Parting Thoughts

We all want to feel good about ourselves. And we want our daughters and granddaughters to grow up feeling good about themselves.

But the basic template for how we feel about ourselves begins very early in life, and in no small part based on the words we hear from the people closest to us. Which is why we all need to pay attention and think carefully about how and when we affirm the young women in our lives.

I love my daughter Elena’s golden brown hair. But I love her curiosity and her nose for adventure far, far more.

I hope my words to her reflect that.

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