Kids Motherhood

In Defense of the Word Pretty

In Defense of the Word Pretty
Written by Sarah Clayville

“You should reconsider how you greet your daughter.”

I was recently taken aback at my daughter’s daycare when another mother decided to instruct me on how I should, and should not, address my five-year-old.  Since Sophia was tiny I often nicknamed her beautiful or gorgeous.  Mind you I also tell her how smart and funny she is, that she’s ingenious in her art creations and a wizard with horticulture.  But until someone intervened and told me to stop using those terms, I had never considered for good or bad what their contexts or effects might be. And after doing so, I came to a rather immediate conclusion.

Pretty is perfectly fine.

A recent trend on Facebook and other social media and internet venues has put the word pretty and the like under heinous attack. Parents are warned that using the term is unacceptable, and that we are limiting and defining our children with it. Considering physical beauty as part and parcel of a person is being demonized and particularly in the area of parenting – where let’s be honest, we are constantly being flooded with advice on how we are messing up – this discussion is getting heated. Essayists and bloggers are telling us to throw those words out the window.   

I disagree.

Rather I would argue that society’s definition of what is considered pretty must expand, so that instead of adhering to a Barbie standard we should allow for many types of pretty to exist. Girls with a cascade of freckles on their cheeks, or someone with wild and wooly hair, are beautiful. Pretty could be a tomboy drenched in mud but gleeful.  Pretty might include a toddler in a tiara or a girl who has taken a roll of red tissue paper and draped herself in it to create a makeshift gown.

My daughter, I suppose, was doomed from the start.  She was an avid dress-up queen before she could speak or walk.  Her first fashion triumph involved dragging one of my dresses around her like a boa or serpent and blowing raspberries as if to announce that she had arrived on the junior red carpet.  Could I partially be at fault for this by bouncing her on my lap while I watched The Devil Wears Prada and fashioning my shoe addiction after Carrie Bradshaw? Absolutely. Do I regret sharing with her my love of fashion, of the independence and glamour that folks like Audrey Hepburn and Coco Chanel championed? Never.

Throughout history women have employed fashion to express themselves and fight the norms of society, furthering the perception of what the female gender is. My grandmother, decades before I was born or knew her as anything other than a matriarch in our family, attended fashion school and would stitch gorgeous outfits for myself and my dolls.  After her passing I found comfort in the garments and handiwork. And I was elated when the day came that I could pass a few dresses down to my daughter. In a weird way I visualized our DNA as intricately linked as the stitches of the dresses.

And I told her she looked beautiful, and it was OK.

The bottom line is that women (and men) are far more than their appearances. However shaming someone for enjoying her beauty is as toxic as defining someone by it alone. Instead of taking the easy way out and vilifying a word, it might be better to work towards the idea of letting people and their parents define their own values and points of pride rather than explaining what they should be.

Days later, I caught the same mother racing around picking up her daughter, and I pointed at a glossy pair of navy stilettos. “Pretty shoes,” I said without thinking, and she thanked me and smiled.

I resisted the urge to say Gotcha.

About the author

Sarah Clayville

Sarah Clayville is a high school teacher and freelance editor. Her poetry and fiction can be found in journals such as The Threepenny Review, StoryChord, Literary Orphans, Mixtape Methodology, and other places. She is also a poetry and nonfiction editor for the online journal Mothers Always Write and at work on a young adult novel and chapbook. You can find her thoughts on writing and other publications at or follow her on Twitter


  • “shaming someone for enjoying her beauty is as toxic as defining someone by it alone” YES!!! I love this. I also agree that we need to expand our definitions, Society’s definitions, of beauty is. I call my daughter beautiful all of the time and my intention is not to minimize all this is to her looks, when I say she’s beautiful I mean ALL of her.
    I’m trying to be more cognizant about the things I say to my daughter but I also wonder if, as women, when we do feel beautiful, we’re too ashamed to say to. As if admitting positive things about ourselves and/or our appearances is so wrong. I want my daughter to shout it from the rooftops when she feels beautiful or smart, or kind or whatever. Let’s raise proud and strong daughters who can say “yes, I’m pretty and like clothes but I’m all these other awesome things too”

    loves this post!

  • Love this!! This is something that I think about often, as I have recently become a mother to a daughter. I never batted an eye at calling either of my two boys adorable or beautiful, even, but as soon as I feel myself using those words with my daughter, I catch myself and feel slightly ashamed. I love that you describe it as “shaming someone for enjoying her beauty is as toxic as defining someone by it alone.” Thank you for giving me a new perspective to consider!