A few months ago, my daughter and I were in Trader Joe’s, looking unkempt and bedraggled after some serious park time on a blustery spring day. Along with everyone else, we elbowed our way through the bottle neck at fruits and vegetables, continued bumper to bumper past meat, and finally arrived in frozen foods—a wide boulevard of an aisle where shoppers can exhale and leisurely peruse all things chocolate-covered.

On that particular day, we were after TJ’s mint chocolate chip ice cream, which is an object of worship in our house.

I was just catching my breath, grateful to escape the sea of humanity two aisles over, when a fellow shopper bellowed “Oh, I see a young Dakota Fanning,” as he peered at my daughter.

A young Dakota Fanning? Funny —I see the scabs on her knee, the ketchup on her chin, and the greasy sunscreen in her hair. And did I mention she’s two? Not eleven, or even eight, but two.

I assume he was giving her a compliment, his intention benign. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I, like most parents, feel a certain amount of pride when my little ones are praised. But his remark represents our culture’s relentless attention to female appearance, a process that starts before our daughters are even out of diapers.

Before having kids, I remember hearing that people comment much more often on the clothing of girls than that of boys. Now that I spend lots of time with munchkins, given that I have two of my own, I find myself saying things like this to random and familiar girls: “Look at your pretty shoes!” “Oh, I love your pigtails!” But I don’t usually do this to boys—in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever told a little boy that I think his shorts are nice, that his new sweater is fetching.

It seems natural to compliment girls and women on appearance. We assume that such comments are appreciated. And in the short term, they usually are; we feel pride at knowing that our recent haircut, weight loss, or new outfit has been noticed. Likewise, we want our children—our little girls in particular—to feel good about how they look, so we lavish them with praise about every aspect of their physical presentation.

Yet compliments have their drawbacks. Sometimes they feel like pressure to the recipient because they convey a certain expectation.  A child who hears constant commentary about how she looks may begin to feel that the world expects her to be beautiful. She may work hard to be recognized for her appearance, particularly if she is not getting recognized for other things, like her ability to share her toys, ask for what she wants, or sculpt a fish out of play dough.

Excessive compliments about appearance send the message that girls are valuable for their looks, rather than for who they are or for what they are capable of doing. Over time, this message can get internalized, so that girls come to believe that their worth derives from external things like weight, hair texture, skin tone, clothing, and general ability to capture the attention of others. Such early experiences plant the seeds for a lifetime of self-objectification, something that adult women with food and body image issues struggle with every day.

Today’s girls have certainly gotten the message that their appearance is important.  The desire to be thinner has been documented in girls as young as six (Dohnt & Tiggemann, 2004), and 46% of 9 to 11 year old-girls are on a diet “sometimes” or “often” (Gustafson-Larson & Terry, 1992). Plastic surgery is increasingly performed on teenagers and eating disorders are on the rise.

Though many of us would say we want to stem the tide of obsession with appearance, our actions may tell a different story.  The urge to tame an unruly ponytail is strong, and we may feel compelled to keep our daughters perpetually clean, neat, and otherwise presentable.

Which begs the question, “why?”

It might be that we worry about their appearance for the same reason that we worry about our own; anxiety about harsh judgment or undue evaluation creates high—and perhaps unrealistic—standards. Also, we may be highly-identified with our kids, so that we see their appearance as a proxy for our own. Or perhaps we think that messy children signify poor parenting; if our kids don’t look presentable, then we aren’t doing our job.

Maybe, instead of heeding the urge to tidy up our daughters, we could begin to relish these messy monsters. Little girls have a limited number of days during which they can get away with looking like wild animals. (Except for Courtney Love, of course, who has gotten away with it her whole life.)

Compliments about appearance are not the root of all evil; they don’t cause eating disorders or make plastic surgeons rich. But they reflect our culture’s intense obsession with looks, particularly in girls and women. We can’t control whether other people compliment our children on their appearance, and, in truth, we wouldn’t want positive attention to disappear. Confidence in how we look, after all, is related to our overall self-esteem.  What’s most important is how we, as parents, respond to such comments.  As the consistent presence in their lives, it will be our ongoing messages that most influence our children’s self-esteem.

Back to frozen foods… Although I found myself tongue-tied after the Dakota Fanning comment, I managed to utter a mere “thank you.” But that’s not what I wanted to say; I wanted to let him know—or really to let my daughter know—that she is so much more than just a pretty face, that her baby blues don’t hold a candle to her quick wit or her kindness.

Later, in the comfort of my living room and far from the mania of Trader Joe’s, I thought about how I’d handle future situations like the one I’d just experienced.  I wondered how I might downplay the emphasis on beauty and empower my daughter, while maintaining some semblance of grace (a quality that may be overrated—I know—but I’m not one to bark back at unknown men in the grocery store, so let’s be realistic here).

Ultimately, it came to me that the best response to almost any compliment my child receives would be, “Thanks, she’s a great kid.”

And in this instance I might have added, “Now step away from the ice cream and no one gets hurt.”

Photo via BSC Kids.