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Jennifer Garner just summed up the problem with the word pretty

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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The actress says the word was always banned in her house, and it made a world of different to her self-esteem.

When Jennifer Garner was a teenager, her parents never called her ‘pretty’.

This isn’t a sob story – Garner is one of the most beautiful women in the world. But it’s an important lesson on how the vocabulary we use to talk about young women plays a major role in their self-esteem levels. Speaking to People, Garner says that because her parents never used the word ‘pretty’, she never placed any emphasis on looks as a teenager and was able to separate her value as a person from the way she appeared.

“I felt good about myself back then,” she told People. “That is the lucky trick. Looks weren’t a big deal in my family. I don’t think my parents ever said ‘You’re pretty’ and so we just didn’t think about it.” 

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Back then, Garner describes herself as “band geek-chic” and “not one of the pretty girls”. “I just bypassed insecurity and didn’t see myself as attractive at all. It was not part of my life,” she told People.

Garner’s parents made a wise choice. A 2017 study revealed that girls as young as seven believed that their appearances were of more importance and value than their achievements, intelligence or personality. 

Society conditions young women to believe that the way they look matters. At the age of 10, 81% of girls in the US are afraid of being fat. More than half of teenage girls in the US are dieting, or believe that they should be dieting already. Not framing compliments around appearances is one way to reinforce in young women that they are worth so much more than just the way they look.

Speaking to Stylist, psychologist Dr Phillippa Diedrechs said that “beauty can be a very loaded word for lots of women… Historically, appearance has been seen to be very central to a woman’s identity. We know men are affected by body image concerns and there can be narrow appearance ideals but, historically, they have been able to succeed, represent themselves and participate in society in lots of different ways.” 

Language matters. A 2012 study showed that girls who were told by their parents that they were bad at something believed that it was true. 

“The ‘girls are sugar and spice and everything nice’ adage [that society is] programmed with leads us to raise girls who are what I call ‘pleasers’,” Anea Bogue, self-esteem expert and life coach told Forbes. “We teach our girls in a variety of ways that being nice, avoiding conflict, not upsetting others and not challenging the status quo are all part of being a likeable, desirable, successful girl – and one day woman.”

Bogue continued: “We live in a very appearance conscious society… [Girls are] going to have a sense that her appearance counts. However, by making a concerted effort to reward, acknowledge and show a genuine appreciation for her non-appearance based achievements, we will start to send clear messages that her value does not begin and end with the way she looks.” 

This is exactly what Garner’s parents did for her when she was a young woman by banning the word pretty, and it’s the same thing she is reinforcing in her own home with her three children Violet, Seraphina and Samuel with ex-husband Ben Affleck.

Garner told People about coming home to her kids after a photoshoot for a magazine feeling “Like the best possible version of myself.”

“They’ll look at me and say ‘Can you wash your face? Can you put your hair in a ponytail and put your glasses and sweats on?’” Garner told People. “And I see the compliment in that. They just want me to look like Mom.” 

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.

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