Why this mum has vowed to never tell her daughter she’s beautiful (but her friends warn she’s damaging her seven-year-old’s confidence)

  • Clare O’Reilly, 39, claims her daughter Annie is treated differently to her sons
  • She revealed concerns over Annie receiving compliments on her appearance
  • She believes a relentless focus on looks could affect her sense of self growing up
  • Clare has decided not to comment on Annie’s appearance or her own 
  • She revealed others have warned that Annie may feel not pretty by her actions 
  • Studies show newborn daughters are more likely to be called cute than sons
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Seven years ago, I thought I was an expert when it came to parenting. With two young sons, I’d handled all the tantrums, trouble at nursery and toddler illnesses life could throw at me.

But then I had a little girl and I realised that raising a young woman with her self-esteem and independent spirit intact brings a new set of challenges.

From the start, I found that people treated Annie differently to my two boys. The midwives who delivered my sons pronounced them strong, sturdy lads. But Annie — at a massive 9lb 10oz, far heavier than either of her brothers — was first called ‘beautiful’ by the midwife when she was less than a minute old.

Strangers and friends cooed over her appearance in a way that was new to me, although Eddie, now 14, and Sammy, nine, had been lovely babies, too. I remember one commenting, when she first held my eldest son, on how strong his little legs were. But when she met my equally robust little daughter, she gushed about her long eyelashes instead.

Clare O’Reilly, 39, (pictured with her daughter Annie, 7,) has vowed not to comment on her daughter’s appearance to ensure she grows up focusing on her abilities instead

As they got older, the boys were praised for being ‘adventurous’ when they climbed trees, or told they might grow up to be engineers because of their elaborate Lego creations.

But time and again, Annie was simply told she’s pretty — whether by the health visitor who called her ‘beautiful’ as though it was her first name, or the lollipop lady who asked ‘how’s my pretty girl today?’ every time we crossed the road.

It might sound ungrateful to be irritated by these well-meaning comments, but I started to worry about the focus on my daughter’s physical appearance, and what that might do to her sense of self as she grew up.

My sons have been told a handful of times in their lives that they’re handsome. Annie is reminded constantly of her looks by friends, family and strangers.

Young girls today are exposed to greater scrutiny of their looks than ever before. They are bombarded with images of beautiful women on social media, and many start sharing similar images of themselves very early in life.

Is it any wonder that our little girls are turning into young women who are more preoccupied than any previous generation with their appearance?

Sadly, research suggests that parents may be making things worse. A 2016 study of the parents of 30 newborns found they were significantly more likely to refer to a daughter as beautiful, pretty or cute than a son.

Watching my daughter, innocently unaware of her own appearance, I became determined to do whatever I could to balance things out. I decided early on that I would never call Annie beautiful, stunning, or even pretty — indeed, I’d never praise her for her looks at all.

Clare (pictured) revealed her friends have warned Annie may feel as though she isn’t pretty because she doesn’t compliment her

Privately, I admit, I treasure her beautiful smile and every flash of her huge brown eyes. I’m awed by the perfection of her freckly nose and smooth porcelain skin.

But while I shower her in compliments about her ability at sport, her kindness to animals or her dedication in practising the piano, I keep my thoughts about her appearance to myself.

Last month, she had her first school disco. Pirouetting around the kitchen before we left, she asked: ‘Well Mum, how do I look?’

‘You look like you’re ready for dancing,’ I told her proudly.

In the summer, she was a flower girl at her godmother’s wedding. As she came down the stairs in her little dress, she asked me the same question.

I answered: ‘I love your flowers — do they smell nice?’ Inhaling their scent, she grinned and let out a blissful sigh.

So far, she’s not noticed these subtle deflections. Perhaps that’s because these days I don’t talk about my own appearance either. I have to practise what I preach if I hope to raise my daughter without hang-ups over her looks.

Some friends say Annie will feel she’s not pretty, but I disagree. The more attention is paid to her looks, the more a little girl will believe that such things matter. And maybe she’ll start to think it’s the only thing about her that matters.

I read recently in this paper about young girls, in their early teens, who already wear more make-up than their mothers. They seemed happy, sensible children, but when one, named Amelia, said that wearing layers of cosmetics made her feel ‘confident’, my heart ached for her.

Renee Engeln is a psychology professor and the author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls And Women. She says a mother’s praise helps determine what her daughter considers important.

Clare (pictured with Annie) revealed she compared her looks to others up until she married her husband at age 23

‘Compliments are reinforcements. When you praise a child, make sure you’re reinforcing the right traits such as kindness, curiosity, bravery or tenacity. The more you tell your daughter she’s pretty or gorgeous, the more you reinforce the idea that it’s important to be that way.’

Yet research suggests that’s exactly how modern girls feel.

A recent study by Girl Guiding UK found more than a third of girls aged seven to ten believed a woman’s most important attribute was good looks.

Although I grew up before social media and the competition for ‘likes’ online, I know all too well how searingly painful it can be to feel looks are all that matter.

A lanky child with bushy eyebrows and acne, I never felt pretty enough. Although I was the fastest runner in my school, and represented my county at netball, sport didn’t count in my eyes.

Are women rated more on appearance than abilities?

More than a third of seven to ten-year-old girls in the UK agreed that women were rated more on appearance than their abilities

I just knew that I never turned heads, unlike my strawberry-blonde best friend.

The harmful comparisons I drew between us damaged my confidence for years. I finally came to feel happy in myself after meeting my husband at 23. The boys came along soon after, and life became far too busy to worry about hair and nails.

Now, at 39, I am proud of the woman I see in the mirror, not for what she looks like, but for what she’s achieved in life. That assurance is what I want for Annie.

So far, I believe she doesn’t compare herself to other girls. She loves the striking golden blonde of her best friend’s hair, but she doesn’t talk about how beautiful she is, instead admiring what a budding artist she is.

Annie is the first to see beauty in the world around her but doesn’t feel it’s important to be seen as beautiful herself.

She’s no tomboy, she loves floaty dresses and the current craze for unicorns, but I must say that I’ve started to see a difference in how she behaves compared with her friends.

Take that first school disco. In a class of 30 seven-year-olds, she was the only little girl who didn’t wear any make-up, lip gloss or nail polish.

I’ll never know if her indifference to these feminine vanities has anything to do with my approach or if it’s just part of her open, straightforward nature.

And I know the teen years will bring new and tougher challenges. But I hope I’ve given her the support she needs to weather the chaos of adolescence.

As long as she continues to value her talents, hard work and caring nature above her looks, I’ll be a happy mother.

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