How much power does this word have?

How much power does this word have? Photo: Getty Images

I think it’s fair to say that Jo Swinson isn’t your average aunt. So worried was the 33-year-old UK women’s minister that she was sending the wrong message to her niece that she decided to never call her beautiful again.

As she told The Telegraph before this week’s progress report on the UK government’s “body confidence” campaign, parents needed “to stop telling their children they look beautiful because it places too much emphasis on appearance and can lead to body confidence issues later in life”.

This included not praising children (boys as well as girls) on their outfits or haircuts. It’s more appropriate, she said, to commend “children for their skill in doing a jigsaw and all these other things that they are doing”. She also suggested that “mothers should be careful about speaking about their own bodies in front of children”.

Could it be possible? Had ‘beautiful’ really become such a dirty word? Certainly, the word and its ilk—gorgeous, pretty, attractive—is more than the sum of its parts, which on the surface, anyway, is as much an invocation as an observation. But there’s also no use denying that such language has given weight to the stereotypes that has led to nearly “a third of girls [being] unhappy with their appearance”, as official UK figures show.

Our very own Raising Children website paints no less gloomy picture. In a sample of almost 48,000 Australians aged 11-24, 31% reported body image as their top concern.

Surprisingly, boys don’t fair much better. In one study of adolescent boys about a third wanted to be thinner, while another third wanted to be larger.

Yes, Swinson, who has no children, is clearly an MP driven by the winds of change rather than the whims of the cabinet, and she has my whole-hearted support and admiration, but here’s the rub. She puts me to shame.

Here’s why. Every little person who passes through my orbit is likely to be welcomed by the greeting: “Hi there [insert “gorgeous girl” or “beautiful boy”]. So much so that I now say it without thinking.

Lame alliteration aside, here I was thinking I was boosting a child’s self-esteem. In truth, this habit springs from somewhere deep inside my childhood photo album. I have some vague memory of someone … a family friend, godmother or, yes, aunt, getting down at eye level, brushing a well-manicured finger against my cheek and telling me what I longed to hear: that I was “PRETTY”.

I can still remember the hairs on my then thin arms standing on end. I felt a glow and stood somehow taller. I was vindicated. Validated. Noticed.  

It’s this feeling that I wanted to carbon copy and stamp on all those little boys and girls who, may or may not, be edging towards the unfamiliar territory of Invisibility. I wanted them to know that their beauty is something that can’t be bottled, is fresh and wonderful and is so dazzling that it allows an urban-worrier mum like me to forget, if for a moment, about how close I am to losing my shit. Yet again.  

Considering most kids I meet are between the ages of three and six it’s unlikely they’ll pick up the subtext, let alone take it away with them. And the last thing I’d want to do is to plant in their glorious, expansive, fertile minds the same seed of doubt that was sown in me. It’s no exaggeration to say that between the ages of 11 and 14, I ruined hours of prime-time television for my Dad when on loop came the inane question: “Do you think she’s pretty/beautiful/attractive?”

As Swinson reminds us: “It’s not like saying that appearance doesn’t matter at all. If you’re going for an interview, you will dress smartly and look the part, that is absolutely fine, but it’s just the level to which this becomes the ultimate focus of everything, where you have people who won’t go to school unless they’ve put their make-up on, or won’t leave the house unless they’ve spent two hours getting ready.”

Far be it from me to further peddle, however inadvertently, this ‘image-is-everything’ mindset. From now on I hope to take a leaf out of Jo Swinson’s parenting manual; it’s time to step back and take a deep breath so as not to repeat the same old pattern. After all, if I’m really serious about having children feel valued, acknowledged and “body confident” then I best get my message straight.

What do you think? Should we tell children they're beautiful? Leave your comment below or join the discussion on the Essential Kids Forums.