Why I Don’t Say “Yes” When My Daughter Asks If She Is Pretty

Mollie Ottenhoff Girls

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“Do I look pretty? Does this dress make me look pretty?”

She stands in front of me, purple princess dress pulled over her T-shirt and jeans, bunched at the stomach and creased at the armpit because, in her 4-year-old mind, “on” means “on,” regardless of comfort of squeeze or forward or backward or which extremities are sticking out of which holes or anything, really, besides the fact that what was once on a hook in her room is now on her. If she can walk, use her hands, and even twirl, who cares about a little extra squeeze here and there.

As I pull it down, I survey the rest of her. She has clip-clopped into the room wearing dress-up heels—something she has already mastered more than I ever managed. Ever since she could walk she was drawn to these mini pumps. It’s as if her toddler brain thought, What is the the point of walking if you can’t do it in style? I guess God didn’t hear me when I said if he was going to give me a girl, it had better not be a girly one.

She is buried in accessories. Her ears are adorned with sparkling pink clip ons, her neck weighed down with pearls and siphons and rubies, her wrists with jingling charms. I take her in—the whole sparkling lot of her. I look past the shimmering things, past the frills and froof, past the mini pumps. I see her hair, a natural hombre that strangers tell me constantly they would pay big bucks to have, how it parts so perfectly in a way I can’t achieve with my own. Despite friend and hairdresser tips, I am forever stuck with a straight-line butt cut. I see her spirals, which remain from her baby hair, which I’m sure will disappear the first time we head in for a cut. I see her face, like a doll—a face that catches me off guard, on occasion, that makes me gasp—my mother’s instinct telling me it is the most incredible face ever made. I see her eyes so blue and hopeful with the question she is asking, “Do I look pretty?”

Her question from her small munchkin voice echoes in my ears, every reverberation cracking and breaking my heart to pieces.

“No!” I want to scream. “The answer is absolutely not.” I want to grab her by the shoulders and shake with each word, the instinct so strong that I can hear her charm bracelets jangling with the thought.

I imagine the world we live in, where celebrities take naked photos of themselves to break the Internet, where they do this and then get the attention and then do it again and again, on and on. It’s as if they are feeding a beast and do not realize the truest thing about the beast—the beast will never be full. There will never be enough likes, enough comments, enough Internet breaking. And it’s not even that they are feeding the beast the wrong food—they are feeding the wrong beast. This world, where I waste time thinking about and trying to fix my butt-cut part. This world that unleashes these beasts on these children, that has made my four-year-old daughter clip-clop and jangle her way over to me and ask me this question.

I take her frilly shoulders in my hands. I look straight into her eyes, straight to the meat of her little puppy heart. I tell her the truth—a truth that will not feed the beast. A truth that will ward it off. A truth that she is is ready for. “Vivvi, that dress does not make you look pretty. You are pretty. You are pretty because you are kind. You would be pretty even if you were covered in dirt and a garbage bag.”

But there is a bigger truth. A truth that will slay the beast. And that is this: there is no pretty. There is kind and there is confident and there is a life well lived. Pretty is a judgement—one person’s perception of another. One person looking at another and saying “yes” or “no.” And either way—whether they say yes, whether they like, whether they perceive something they label as pretty or not—your world does not change. There will never be enough “like.” That beast will never be fed.

“Pretty” is influenced by media, culture, humanity. It is not something to be grasped—it is not even as solid as grains of sand slipping through a hand. It is transient. It is the wind. And that’s exactly why nothing of substance ever comes from this beast—the human construct of pretty. It’s a breeze being fed by a breeze. It will not be contained. It is nothing. There is no pretty.

Beauty, though, is different. Beauty is reserved for creation, which we are a part of. But it isn’t found in the perfect combination of features, in weight, in the color of hair or eyes or skin. It’s the light within that shines when we dig deep and find something that is true and kind and good. When we give to people who have nothing, when we fight for someone who needs it, when we share hope or joy or love in a dark place. Because doing any of these things says the most powerful, most filling, most substantial thing—it says that we are all the same.

We are not “prettily, wonderfully made.” We are fearfully, wonderfully made. We were meant to do more than just be pretty. We have a power—a power that made our creator tremble: to go the wrong direction, feed the wrong beast. Or to shine a light in the darkness.

When I say to my daughter, “You are pretty when you are kind,” I’m saying, Do not rely on the world to make you pretty, to tell you what is pretty. In the eyes of the world, you will never be pretty enough. I’m saying, Who cares about pretty? You can be pretty even if you are “ugly.” It is better to be other things.

My daughter is four. I can see that it will take a lifetime to help her see past what the world reveals to her, so she can see what is real and true. I am still figuring it out. But I will not give in. The first step in battling this beast is to shine the light and reveal that it is there. That’s why when she says, “Do I look pretty?” I will never answer with an easy “yes.” I will not feed the beast today. I will starve it. I will make it weak so that, as she gets older, as she starts figuring these things out for herself, as she starts wondering if she is pretty, if it matters—the beast will be weak—and she can slay it.


About the Author

Mollie Ottenhoff

Mollie Ottenhoff is a mom of two, freelance writer (featured on Scary Mommy and Listen to Your Mother), Chicago suburbanite, and lover of books, food, and joy. She laughs at parenting and life at and you can find her on .

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