When the slightly plump, bearded 60-something approached our table on his way out of the restaurant, I wasn’t surprised that he was staring at my infant. Ten weeks into motherhood, I’m keenly aware that a newborn is catnip to strangers of all ages.
In response to his gaze, my baby smiled wide from her place in my lap, cooed a little, and made a few spit bubbles.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” the man asked of my bald, toothless child.
“It’s a girl!” I chimed.
He nodded as if he already knew, then added: “What a little flirt!”
Without a doubt, the man was well-intentioned. Still, the interaction didn’t sit well. My new mom instincts tell me it’s weird for a total stranger to say something like this of my two-month-old baby, who’s barely capable of making eye contact, let alone doing so coquettishly. Also weird: that he felt compelled to confirm my baby’s sex before issuing his “compliment.” If I’d answered “boy,” would he have followed up with a different remark? Perhaps commented on how strong or capable the baby looked? ‘What a little powerhouse entrepreneur in the making!’, I can hear the man saying.
Later that day, a little research confirms my hunch that what we say to kids—and, by extension, imply about their gender—matters. A lot.
A study published in the journal Sex Roles found that by age 2.5, children start to internalize gender-based prejudices. And it’s not just what strangers say in passing that counts. The same study noted that 31 percent of the toys marketed to girls focus on appearance, like princess dresses and plastic makeup kits. Meanwhile, 46 percent of toys “for boys,” like chemistry sets and sports equipment, emphasize activities.
“We’ve all been socialized to sexualize girls, and to think of their futures as all about dating and marriage,” says Lisa Bloom, author of Think: Straight Talk For Women To Stay Smart In A Dumbed Down World. Bloom has argued that by labeling young girls flirts and heartbreakers, society effectively teaches them that looks are more important than anything. “It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23,” she said in HuffPost.
This is a troubling cultural phenomenon, especially when you consider a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, in which researchers found that a child’s real-life performance can be vastly influenced by the beliefs they adopt about their gender.
Although my little girl is currently incapable of understanding what being a flirt means, continuous exposure to comments about her hypothetical romantic appeal and external appearance could condition her to measure her self-worth according to superficial factors. And that might actually influence her ability to navigate the world.
So what’s a mother to do when a stranger directs a seemingly harmless comment tied to troubling narratives towards her little girl? Smile politely and let it slide? Or, as Bloom suggests, conjure a clever retort? “I think she’s more of an astronaut than a flirt. Check back in 20 years and I’ll let you know!”
As much as I’d love to try the latter option, it doesn’t seem all that realistic—at least not without alienating myself from well-meaning strangers or becoming “that mom” who can’t help making an issue out of everything. It seems virtually impossible to control what my daughter absorbs from the outside world. But that’s when it occurs to me just how important it is to monitor her environment at home.
In evaluating just how easily a gender stereotype can infiltrate an otherwise uneventful family meal out, I can’t ignore how my own behavior might factor into the overall equation. Truthfully, I can’t think of a single compliment I’ve given my daughter other than “You’re so cute!!!” since the day she was born.
Of course, telling a baby girl that she’s cute isn’t quite the same as alleging that she’s a flirt, which denotes something sexual. But even if I’m not contributing to the sexualization of my daughter, which can lead to serious mental health issues including eating disorders and depression, it doesn’t seem entirely wise to fixate on her appearance.
Babies—girls and boys alike—are, of course, adorable. Mother Nature makes them that way so you feed them rather than eat them, essentially. From firsthand experience, I know that the parental drive to protect and nurture a child is rooted in that child’s cuteness, which makes them just appealing enough to prevent you from going nuts when they demand to be fed at 2am. That said, I can see how focusing too much on a child’s appearance might be detrimental longterm. And it’s the cultural norm to do so, especially in the case of little girls.
Popular blogger Crafty Mum confesses that she’s as guilty as anyone else for defaulting to comments about how gorgeous her young girls look. “These things in themselves are not bad, but it would be good to shift the focus from their external appearance,” she argues on her site, emphasizing that even small, subtle changes can be impactful.
Intent on raising a badass girl-boss in a world programmed to tell my baby girl that she’s better equipped to break hearts, I decide to conduct a little experiment. For 48 hours, I challenged myself to avoid making any remarks about my daughter’s appearance.
Merely an hour passes before I catch myself saying how cute she is after planting a belly fart on her tummy mid-diaper change. Over the next couple days, I bite my tongue countless times before making the same mistake. Often, it’s awkward to say anything other than “You’re so cute,” because, well, she doesn’t do much besides sit there and be cute. When my baby stuffs her fist in her mouth and squeals, I stumble in search of alternate praise. What am I supposed to say? “You’re so creative!”?!? But during “tummy time” (the practice of placing a newborn on its stomach for a short stretch so they’re forced to work towards holding their head up), I find my footing, declaring how strong and determined she is while encouraging her to try harder. This feels good. Natural, even.
It’s challenging to go cold turkey on appearance-based affirmations, but it also demonstrates that thinking before speaking helps a lot. It may be impossible to shelter our daughters from damaging, deeply ingrained cultural norms. But the more we all think twice about how we frame what we say to little girls day in and day out, the better.
This story originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.