Unlearning Modesty - Women, Girls & Compliments
Updated: Mar 3
I'm not sure how I feel as my 6-year-old enjoys a make-over party with her best friend. We're at a beauty parlour for children. They gift each girl with a tiara, paint their nails, give them glitter tattoos and do their hair. All the while the girls are wearing fluffy robes and given a heap of attention by two ladies dressed as fairies. It's all very sweet and the little girls gush that they're having 'the best day ever!' I can't help but smile. Inside the threads of my thoughts twist into knots. Should I be encouraging this? This aspiration for beauty at such a young and delicate age?
I'm here because I'm promised there'll be no make-up. Also, because I know my daughter will love it and I will too because I'd have given anything to have this experience at her age. The feminist bones in me twinge. Is this setting her up for a life where her sole source of self-love comes from her appearance? Or am I letting her be herself - a child who enjoys looking in the mirror because she genuinely sees herself as beautiful?
The fairies tease her hair back to expose her lovely heart-shaped face. My daughter selects a mermaid tattoo because she loves the sea. She chooses her favourite colours for the glitter so that every time she looks at it, the image will make her smile. On the surface, there's nothing wrong with it and she's so very happy.
Still, I can't help but wonder if one day she'll plaster herself in cover-up make-up and walk out of the house in a short skirt not so much looking forward to an evening of laughter, as much as anticipating the compliments she’ll need to validate herself. If she does, will it be my fault for allowing this obsession with appearance to begin now? At 6 years old.
Then something happens that makes me rethink everything.
The fairy who is brushing my daughter's hair in front of the mirror tells her that she is beautiful. My little girl simply says, 'thank you'.
She doesn't respond like women do, with modesty. She doesn't deny her beauty or tell the fairy that actually her thighs are too big or her hair is in recovery from years of dying, as I would have. She doesn't blush and pretend that she doesn't think that she's beautiful. She simply accepts the compliment and says - 'thank you'.
It may be the most female-empowering response I've ever heard. And I realise it's not our desire to be beautiful that is damaging to women. It's our need to deny our beauty.
Suddenly, I was no longer worried about any damage being done to my kid with this experience. I worried about when she will reach the age where she might feel the need to deny that she thinks she's beautiful. This often comes before real feelings of inadequacies. Perhaps it is this habit of denying that we are beautiful, ironically during the years we probably are mot beautiful, that lead us down the path of really believing that we are not.
Modesty - It's so British. So endearing. So female. And so very, very useless. Even damaging. Possibly the most disgusting truth is that we're taught it. This is not the first time my daughter has been complimented and replied with a simple thank you. It hasn’t always been a compliment on her beauty. She's been told she’s smart and when she'd replied with her 'yes. I'm doing really well at school' eyebrows have been raised to me and there have been sarcastic comments of 'girl needs to work on her confidence!' To which I feel the urge to respond with, 'no she's got confidence down'. Because she's not saying anything that's not true. Why should she be meek and mild in regards to her abilities?
When she sits in a job interview when she's grown I hope she'll respond in the same way. Because modesty is something that my generation has had to unlearn for certain circumstances. The women at least.
We are told the reason women do not rise up the corporate ladder is our compulsion to be too modest when it comes to our abilities. Which is bullshit because we've already spent years swatting away compliments and being told that seeing ourselves in any kind of good light will portray us as vain. Now, to compete with men who have not been trained to do this, modesty is something we need to unlearn. But, of course, only in certain situations because it is still unfeminine to genuinely love yourself, as a woman.
Remember that scene in Mean Girls, where the teenagers share their physical flaws whilst staring in the mirror? The homeschooled out-of-town girl who has not been trained to do this realises it is her turn to join in and she does so. This is not a far-fetched scene. This really happens.
When I became self-employed I joined many female business owner groups and networking groups for mums in business. Whilst a lot of the support in these circles comes from sharing our fears and insecurities, the celebration of achievements is also encouraged. On nearly every group I’m in the ‘shout-out’ day is a big thing. It’s an opportunity to express not always what has been achieved but what we’ve been proud of in the last week. These are not always the same thing. We can be proud of having worked hard even if it’s not yet produced results. Or been proud to walk away from negative situations even if that has lost us business. Here, we are unlearning modesty. It is vital if we are to succeed in the business world. Yet, it’s not important only in our working world but in our relationships with others and ourselves. I realise self-correcting is just another thing now we have to do but perhaps if we can learn to accept compliments then we’ll believe in ourselves more. Which will lead to taking pride in all of our ventures and forgiving ourselves for those times when we fall behind.
From now on, when I drop my daughter off at school I won’t ask her to ‘be good’. I’ll ask her to ‘be great’. And when she is I’ll tell her so and I hope she’ll always reply with a simple ‘thank you’.