I was hanging out with a girlfriend at my place, catching up over a cup of tea with the kids in my bedroom. I asked my six-year-old if she’d pop on the new dress I’d bought her and come out in her new gear.
My daughter was in a startlingly obliging mood (win!), and before I knew it she was skipping out of her room showing off her fresh duds. My friend and I immediately clapped and cooed appropriately.
And that’s when it happened.
My girlfriend gushed: “So gorgeous! Those legs! You look like a model!”
I stopped and looked at her. “OMG. I can’t believe I said that!”
She quickly apologised, part responding to my reaction, part recognising that it’s not quite the kinda thing that university-educated, women’s-rights-appreciating, sister-loving mums say. But why? The truth is she meant it in the nicest way.
“You look like a model” is five innocent words bundled up into a well-intentioned compliment that rolls off the tongue between friends. But to me, those five innocent words form one of the most utterly irresponsible, insidiously destructive, and downright poisonous phrases you can possibly say to a young girl.
Whoa. Taken aback by that pronouncement? Well, I don’t mean to scare you, but this is something that I feel strongly that all mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and friends need to be vigilant about. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with being a model; It’s a paid job and in a perfect world it’s an ordinary vocation just like a plumber, or teacher, or doctor. But where we come unstuck as mums, and as a society as a whole, is confusing a clothes model with a role model. And damned if it isn’t made harder by the fact they’re both the same word. Nice one, English language.
So let’s be clear: a clothes model is someone whose job is to pose for artists or photographers. A role model, on the other hand, is someone you admire, someone whose behaviour you emulate. A role model is found in flashing lights on the street, in pictures on bedroom walls, or with 1.4 million followers on Instagram. For blokes, you’ll see Tim Cahill (athlete), Bear Grylls (adventurer), and Hugh Jackman (actor). For women? Miranda Kerr (model), Lara Bingle (model), Gary Pepper Girl (model).
Wait. See what happened there? We’ve made clothes models our heroes, and it affects every decision we make every single day. Consider the undies you put on this morning (Elle Macpherson’s), the jeans you rolled up to the ankles (Kate Moss’s), the haircut you asked for (Gisele’s), the diet you’re on (Candice Swanpoel’s), the exercise routine you follow (Miranda Kerr’s), the tights you wear while following said exercise routine (Heidi Klum’s).
But here’s the thing: Models have no qualifications that give them the skills to prescribe what we wear, what we eat, or how we act.
In my world, models are small players in a sad and scary industry; a place where some of the most vulnerable members of society (undernourished tween girls) are poorly paid (if at all), then left to fend for themselves amongst male photographers, agents, and hangers-on who dwarf them in power, income, and experience. At best, it’s damaging. At worst, it’s downright abusive.
When someone says to my daughter, “you look like a model,” we’re equating the feeling she gets then and there—that happiness, pride, self-esteem, and success—with the size ten, white, and overtly sexy women she sees on screens, magazines, and, hell, staring out of her toy basket, every single day. It legitimises and encourages her into an industry that I feel is dangerous and exploitative. And we’re doing it with the very best intentions all along.
My solution? School up and switch on. Avoid the mindless cliches and use words that you mean. And to get you started, I’ve outlined a bunch of compliments to avoid and alternative compliments for girls below. And I’ll be damned if you don’t look like a role model already.
- Instead of “You’re so cute” try “You’re awesome!”
- Instead of “What pretty hair you have” try “Love that combo. You look so happy!”
- Instead of “I like that dress” try “Those colours make me smile!”
- Instead of “You have the most amazing eyelashes” try “You look fast. Are you the fastest runner at your school?”
- Instead of “I love the bows on your shoes” try “I would never have thought to try XX with XX. Where are you off to today?”
… And if all else fails: “You rock!”
Has anyone ever said “You look like a model” to you or your daughter? How did you react? How do you feel about the “compliment”?
image: Getty / Igor Balasanov
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