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We need to stop talking about inner beauty and start teaching our girls to take action

A conversation about beauty - inner or outer - is a conversation about how to make yourself pleasing to others. And that’s not where we need to focus our attention.
My daughter Maddie is fearless around frogs and turtles. I want her to also be fearless in the work world.

My daughter Maddie is fearless around frogs and turtles. I want her to also be fearless in the work world. /RuthAnn Steele

The battle to bring women into the boardroom is a long one, and although we’ve made significant progress in recent years, it’s far from over. It’s not an obvious battle with clear sides, like the racism that’s raging in city streets across the country. It’s not endlessly documented in YouTube videos and Anonymous leaks. It happens subtly, in the form of well meant advice, encouragement withheld and even in misguided attempts to empower girls.

Misogyny may have fallen out of style, but power structures don’t disappear overnight. It lives on in our beliefs and words and actions at a core, even subconscious level.

Here’s an example.

Today, I read an article here on The Rapidian that was published by the Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids about a new program called POWER UP (Providing Opportunities for Women to Empower young women to Realize their Unique Potential). 

Local club members aged 14 and up were asked to write an essay answering three questions: 1) Describe someone who is beautiful. 2) What characteristics do they have, and 3) What makes you feel beautiful? The nine girls selected “took part in an amazing day of beauty, etiquette and shopping/budgeting education,” followed by a lunch with keynote speeches by two local businesswomen. 

While it’s great to want to show young women “it’s about self-confidence and the beauty that comes from within when you believe in yourself,” as the program’s founder said, there are some concerningly regressive elements here. A day at the spa, an etiquette lesson and a shopping spree not only reinforce gender stereotypes with gusto, but they condescendingly ignore the opportunity to teach these girls any of the tools they’ll need in a competitive workforce.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Boys and Girls Club does important work, and their intentions are good, but this is the kind of accidental misogyny which is exacerbating gender inequality in the workplace. And it’s the worst, because it comes from other women trying to do a good thing.

What concerns me the most is the underlying message: it’s not outer beauty that’s important to achieving your dreams, it’s inner beauty. Yes, it’s important for girls to understand their looks aren’t the most important thing about them, but what exactly is “inner beauty”? What does it imply? And is it where we should be focusing our attention as we raise the next generation of potential leaders?

Let’s get real. Whether we’re talking about outer beauty or inner beauty, we’re still talking about beauty. And what is beauty? It’s something that’s found universally pleasing. So if outer beauty is how pleasing others find your physical appearance, then inner beauty is how pleasing people find your personality, values and attitude. While it’s certainly worth raising our girls - and boys, for that matter - to be honest, kind and to have integrity, emphasizing inner beauty to young girls simply directs them to be self conscious about their behavior, rather than their appearance. 

A conversation about beauty - inner or outer - is a conversation about how to make yourself pleasing to others. And that’s not where we need to focus our attention.

If we want to teach our girls to achieve their dreams and become leaders, we need to give them bigger tools than watching their weight and tone. We need to offer them the opportunity for agency, action and real world application. We should be helping them organize fund drives, identify and solve problems in their communities, develop their dream business model, or get their hands dirty on the job. We should teach them to negotiate, that it’s ok for people to dislike them and how to interrupt someone who’s interrupted them. 

Society doesn’t teach girls these things the way they teach them to boys. We’re taught the exact opposite: to be pleasing and deferential. And the training runs deep.

When I was 17, my dad reunited with his stepbrother - my Uncle Jimmy - and he became an important part of my life. A true blue collar contractor by day and a bluegrass entertainer by night, he was charismatic, and honest and ecstatic to have a fresh start with family. On the day he was leaving to fly back home, he slipped me a note before he hugged me and said goodbye. The note read:

“Don’t be in such a hurry to become a woman that you forget to be a lady.”

I was completely befuddled. This was advice from someone whom I trusted and idolized. It must mean something important. But I didn’t understand what these words woman and lady meant. 

Over the next 10 years, I puzzled over exactly what pearl Uncle Jimmy’s advice held for me. It was weighty, and significant and I couldn’t discard it, even through my liberal arts eduction, a new business and a baby. 

Then one day, after five years of working for myself and a number of local startups, I had a long conversation with Uncle Jimmy again, and I suddenly understood. 

The meaning of Jimmy’s note is that he’s a little bit sexist.

That’s it. It took me 10 years, but I finally learned that even the best meant advice can be a tool to keep me from reaching my full potential.

If, 14 years from now, my brother passes a weighty note of advice to my daughter, I hope it will say:

“Don’t be in such a hurry to be a woman that you forget to love yourself, follow your heart and kick some ass.”

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I same struggle with my daughter Lulu. She can be strong and assertive, and sometimes loud and rude. I was to encourage the fearlessness while limiting the distracting behavior that is a symptom of fear and anxiety.


By the way, I recently read that while a man is agrression, a gentleman is controlleg agrression. I think that is the nuance your uncle was looking for. Or he was sexist