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Why we need to turn the word “Pretty” on its head

If you have a daughter, there’s a high chance you have told her at some point that she is pretty. It’s a word we say to young girls and we say it in a positive tone, using it as a complement, affirming they look good.

Adults’ use of the word ‘pretty’ is teaching them that the word is something ideal, something they should desire to be, yet often focuses only on a person’s outside appearance. We rarely stop and consider whether it could have an unintended impact.

Type the word ‘pretty’ into Google and the first definition that pops up says “(of a person, especially a woman or child) attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful.” Pretty is often a superficial construct and that definition, unfortunately, says it all. It’s the last part of that definition “without being truly beautiful” that hits hard the most. The single word only represents beauty on the surface and there’s so much more we can do and say to young girls.


It’s a surface level word

By using that word, we may unintentionally giving our girls the message that their value lies on the outside, on their appearance. We need to be teaching our girls that there’s much more to someone than how they look. With so many influences on body image for girls at a young age, they need to be exposed to behaviour and words that deviate from this. Calling someone ‘pretty’ should be done with caution so as not to exacerbate the emphasis on the way they do or don’t look.


Change our use of the word

Let’s go beyond using the word in an appearance based manner and instead use ‘pretty’ as a qualifier. Qualifiers precede an adjective or verb and show the extent of something, or enhance its meaning.
‘Pretty’ could therefore be used similar to the way we use the word ‘very’. We can say things like “she’s pretty smart” or “that’s pretty powerful” to shift our associations that pretty only measures things on the surface associated with the way one looks.


Don’t feel guilty for using it

If you have called someone pretty, or if you do use the word, you shouldn’t feel guilty at all, especially if your intentions are in the right place.

It is, however, important to go beyond the appearance based meaning as we are inadvertently, placing extra pressure on girls to become concerned with the way they look rather than focus on intangible and unaesthetic qualities or achievements.

There could be more depth to the word, which can be achieved by completely shifting the meaning as we know it so that girls can focus on things other than the way they look. Instead of using the word in the most common way, it can be an opportunity to inspire and empower the person who is on the receiving end.

So I throw the challenge to you, talk to your daughter about a characteristic or skill that is unique to her. Teach her that pretty is so much more than appearance focused; tell her she’s pretty brave! Or maybe she’s pretty good at baking, or she’s pretty inspiring.

– Merissa Forsyth is the founder and CEO of Pretty Foundation.