How to Have a Realistic Conversation About Beauty With Your Kids

Study after study confirms that prettiness can be a privilege. But I want my daughters to resist the tyranny of vanity.

Close-up photos of a child's reflection in the mirror
Photo-illustration by Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic. Sources: Ellen Graham / Getty; Harrington Collection / Getty.

Talking to my three elementary-school-age daughters about beauty can be hard. No matter how much I insist that their looks don’t matter, that their character is what truly counts in life, they don’t believe me. About a year ago, I was tiptoeing down the hallway after tucking my 9- and 6-year-olds into their bunk bed when I overheard the younger one. “Momma says it doesn’t matter if you’re beautiful; it matters if you’re clever,” she said to her sister. The eldest replied, “She only says that because she’s already pretty.”

As I recount in my book, Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture From the K-Beauty Capital, that moment stopped me cold. But my children were right to be skeptical of my advice. Study after study confirms that prettiness can be a privilege. Attractive men make more money over the course of their career. Better-looking economics scholars are cited more often in academic papers. Good-looking people are perceived as healthier, smarter, and more sociable, as research has shown for decades. I cannot erase these advantages by ignoring them. In fact, Rebecca Herzig, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at Bates College, told me that trying to convince my children that appearance isn’t important is “a really complicated form of gaslighting.” I wanted my kids to resist the tyranny of vanity: the way it excludes people, makes them anxious, and encourages them to labor constantly. I also didn’t want to misrepresent how society operates. I wasn’t sure of the third way.

My daughters, in particular, are influenced by South Korea, where we lived for nearly four years during my time as NPR’s Seoul-bureau chief. I quickly learned that in Korean culture, people often make judgments about others’ looks out loud, to their face, because the link between appearance and worth is frequently accepted as the norm. In Korean, this attitude is called oemo jisang juui, which translates into “looks are supreme.” Passport-photo businesses retouch images by default. Parents reward high-school graduates with cosmetic surgery. I thought my children were way too young for beauty treatments, but in Seoul, moms asked me whether my then-3-year-old’s lashes were extensions. The Korean phrases most seared into my girls’ memories are the ones that were repeated to them the most—“hello,” “thank you,” and “so pretty.”

In the U.S., where my family and I now live, popular culture sometimes tries to ignore the benefits of physical beauty, perhaps refuting it in platitudes about body positivity. But lookism—discrimination based on appearance—is woven into American life too. Although it might differ in practice, beauty culture is enforced on both sides of the Pacific where I’ve lived. Meanwhile, the algorithmic optimization of faces that we commonly see on our screens—through Instagram filters or even Zoom’s subtle “touch up my appearance” function—transcends borders. Which leads me back to my dilemma in the hallway: How, as a parent, can I possibly raise my daughters to not overvalue attractiveness?

My reporting dug up various strategies. For example, compliment young people for their curiosity or imagination, not their looks. Help them understand the social-media photo filters and AI effects they encounter online. Show them art and other media with a diversity of bodies. But most experts came back to one overarching piece of parenting advice: Care less about your own appearance.

This hit home for me. From my earliest memories, men and women alike called my mother mei nü, Mandarin for “beautiful woman.” She never encouraged me to diet, but she kept a bathroom scale in the kitchen—ostensibly for convenience, but with the effect that I spotted her weighing herself daily. I absorbed, without her ever having to tell me, that she thought thinness was beautiful. Lindsay Kite, who is a co-director of the nonprofit Beauty Redefined, which promotes body-image resilience, remembers her mother being constantly on a diet yet insisting that Kite and her twin sister were beautiful at any size.

Confronting my own subconscious beliefs about beauty meant questioning how and why I might judge the looks of others and myself, what my biases are about what’s “hot,” and why I might want to change my appearance. The mere act of identifying my insecurities helped me curb them. These days, I rarely linger in front of mirrors, I reject the lure of injectables such as Botox, and I am trying my best to embrace my body’s evolution into middle age. I’m trying to teach with the choices I make.

To attempt to break the seemingly intractable link between appearance and worth, I also strive to model two things for my children. One is body neutrality, which emphasizes what the body can do rather than what it looks like. The other is sensualism, as conceived of by Céline Leboeuf, an associate professor of philosophy at Florida International University, which focuses on what the body feels. Now when my girls and I try on clothes, instead of immediately jumping to how they look, I have retrained myself to ask them whether they can move easily, if the fit is comfortable for their daily activities, how the fabrics brush against their skin. The baby of the family embodied these values on her own when I asked her why she’d stopped wearing a romper that looked so cute on her. “I don’t wanna take off all my clothes to go pee,” she said.

My eldest is now 10 and haranguing me about wanting to shave her legs. She sees her friends growing breasts and covets them. She is obsessed with using the skin-care and makeup line from the young actor Millie Bobby Brown. I have finally learned to respond to her anxieties by telling her that I also worried about my legs (and other body parts) and sharing how I mostly got over it—but, crucially, how I am still working on it. I’m continually trying to teach with the choices I make. Children should know that adults, like kids, are able to change and grow too.

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