"Beautiful is sparkly. And a beautiful dress. And a lot of pink."
Unprovoked, 3 year-old H already believes that her clothes will make her beautiful, that appearance is king, and that beautiful is only possible when she conforms to those ideals.
I remember hearing it even in my 2 year-old classrooms, where barely verbal girls would gush over princess dresses and arrive at school announcing their wardrobe.
While seemingly innocent, these ideals of beauty lead to tremendous social and emotional hurdles both in childhood and later in life. In fact, children as young as 5 express dissatisfaction with their bodies (Common Sense Media)! Not to mention that only 11% of girls globally comfortably describe themselves as ‘beautiful’ (Dove Self-Esteem Project).
Addressing Beauty Ideals in Preschool
One of my favorite ways to provoke children's thinking and to challenge how they've been socialized (so as to promote social justice) is through reading books. Stacy McAnulty's book Beautiful is a wonderful tool for launching this conversation around beauty ideals.
Image courtesy of stacymcanulty.com/beautiful
In the book, the words and the illustrations, created by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, are at odds with one another. The book says, "Beautiful girls... have the perfect look." The pictures show girls covered in dirt, wearing pants, wearing tiaras, bare foot, and in heels. The books says, "Beautiful girls know all about makeup," and it shows a three girls dressed as pirates, with drawn on beards, at sea. These contradictions make for a perfect start to diving deep into thinking critically about this subject. And, yes, it's age-appropriate for your preschooler.
Here's how the conversation looked in my class, after an initial discussion of "What is beautiful?"
Me: So, some people said that you have to wear sparkly dresses to be beautiful. These people are wearing lots of different things. I wonder if that means they are not beautiful.
O: Some of them don't even have shoes! And they have dirt!
H: Look! I see a tiara.
Me: So, we see no shoes, dirt, and then we see tiaras. How do you feel about that?
J: I like them.
C: I think they are beautiful.
Me: Yeah, me too. Some people say if you are covered in dirt or if you have certain clothes, or even certain ways that you look, you are not beautiful. I wonder how it would make them feel if you told them they weren't beautiful.
Me: Mm, sad. I would feel sad, too.
-Turn to another page featuring children in the mud.-
C: They are covered in dirt. They aren't beautiful.
Me: You are covered in dirt right now. Does that mean you are not beautiful?
Me: Hmm.. raise your hand if you like to get dirty!
-Children raise their hands-
We had conversations at each page, examining the battle between words and images, between socialized ideals and social justice. The children grew more animated as the books went on, impassioned by their ideas and thoughts exchanged. My tone stayed neutral, highlighting their thoughts not mine.
Here's what's happening:
Children are gaining skills in literacy and observation as they take a close look at the images and text.
Children think and discuss critically about a topic.
Children examine the beliefs put forth by society and question their own beliefs.
Children participate as a community and work to set group norms that focus on compassion, equity, and justice.
Teachers ask open-ended questions, inviting children to come up with their own perspectives.
Challenging Ideas Around What it Means to be a Girl
What I also like about this book is that it challenging gender norms to a degree. The girl characters take over activities that, even in picture books, are traditionally reserved for boys.
Image courtesy of stacymcanulty.com/beautiful
The one thing I wish it had pushed the boundaries on a little bit is the spectrum of gender v. sex; one of the characters COULD have been a bit more gender ambiguous or, even better, outwardly trans. When we were talking about this book in class, I brought it up pretty bluntly, but not all of us are quite so ready to talk through trans rights with 3 year-olds. But, honestly, it's as simple as stating, "Some girls have penises."
I find myself browsing this Facebook Page from Let Toys be Toys- For Girls and Boys for resources, and maybe they can help you, too. They recently posted this fantastic collage:
Image courtesy of facebook.com/lettoysbetoys
It's so important to be as open with children as possible with the potential for diversity in our world. It's key to an equitable future in all spheres- race, sex, gender, economics, culture, sustainability- all of them. Helping children to define beauty in the context of difference is one step toward raising happier, healthier, kinder humans.
To quote Stacy McAnulty, "Beautiful is who you are." In celebration of International Women's Day, let's remember that at least.
Recommended Resources & Citations