Beautiful Girls

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Because Farajah IS beautiful

There’s been some interesting rumbling on the internets about an article on Huffington Post that brought up the idea of staying away from calling little girls pretty or beautiful, in favor of focusing on their internal qualities – their brains, their hearts. A lot of the dialogue has centered on the difference between women talking to their own daughters, where the consensus seems to be that mothers should tell their daughters they are beautiful AND smart, as opposed to how we speak to other peoples’ children, who we don’t have the chance to impact in the long term quite the same way.

For myself, I hope that someday my daughter will know that I think she’s brilliant, and also that she’s gorgeous, and also that it wouldn’t matter to me if she wasn’t. With that said, I personally make a real effort to make my first comments to little girls that I don’t know NOT be about their looks – although it’s definitely a work in progress. If little girls grow up having every new person that they meet comment on their looks right away, whereas they see little boys being asked about their activities, that makes very clear implications about the world thinks is valuable.

Most of the orphanage kids don’t have the patience
to have their hair done – except Loveness
The orphanage kids fall somewhere in-between, and, as volunteers, our role is a hard one to figure. On the one hand, the kids meet new volunteers on a regular basis, and they are effectively their connection to the outside world – so what we praise about them matters, in terms of their ideas about what is valuable in themselves. On the other hand, they don’t have families to instill confidence in them – confidence in their strengths as people, but also confidence that they are beautiful, desirable, worthy of every kind of love. Even more potently, family and not government provide the security net in Tanzania. Impoverished girls in Tanzania lack access to welfare, schooling and jobs available more easily to girls in the developed world, and many more end up turning to prostitution as a last resort. How do we balance teaching them to be confident in their beauty and desirability with simultaneously teaching them to rely on their brains and guts rather than their bodies to achieve their goals?

Andrea (a boy) with his “baby” on his back

In some ways, the kids grow up oblivious of gender norms, and I love that – and we try to give them balanced portraits of caretaking by encouraging male volunteers, both short and long term, and encouraging all of the kids to help with the younger ones. They won’t stay that oblivious forever, though. Tanzanian culture is very clearly delineated between male and female roles, and while cracks are beginning to appear, in most cases women are the caretakers and men hold positions of power. 
So what approach should we take? For myself, I’m trying to be conscious of how often I talk to the girls about how pretty they are, and make sure I’m (at least!) balancing it with praise about their other qualities – their language, their creativity, their kindness. And with the boys, I want to prolong as long as possible the time before they learn that pink and dresses and nail polish are “for girls,” and that anyone might think less of them – frankly, for any reason, but especially for what they wear or look like. 
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the same thing – letting them know they are loved, deeply and consistently and unconditionally. Part of that is supporting the mamas, easing their burden so that they can spend more time just being with the kids, nurturing them as people. Part of it is encouraging and guiding new volunteers. And part of it is showing up, as often as possible, in person or through donations – to teach them that although our lives might take us away for a while, our hearts and our minds stay with them. That we’re thinking about them, their safety, their futures, and their happiness – whatever they look like on the outside.
Kids dressing themselves DOES
 lead to interesting choices… Simoni
with a diaper hat…
… and Pray in tie-dye and pink…