Feminism 101: Talking To Kids About Appearance

Our weekly virtual panel on inside feminism
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 08/26/2016 at 10:38 AM EST

Welcome back to Feminism 101, where our awesome crew of feminist friends – including Mayim – answer your questions.

“How do you talk to children about appearances/physical attractiveness? Like if they ask about why women wear makeup, why they have to comb their hair, why do people wear deodorant? To me it always seems that the honest answer is so that we fit in with society, but doing things to fit in seems like not the best thing to teach our kids…” — T.D.

A great question, and our panel of feminists had some great answers.

Honesty is important, but also pepper it with a lesson you want your kid to take away. For instance to, “Why do people wear deodorant?” you could say, ‘People wear deodorant for lots of different reasons. Some people do it because they like how it makes them smell or feel and some people don’t wear it because they prefer that feeling or smell. There are a lot of things that tell us what deodorant to wear and why, and it’s best to do what you decide you want to do.'” —  Allison Smartt

My kid is three. My partner and I don’t use language that puts a lot of stock into appearances. We never really thought about it until recently, when our kid starting asking questions about what kinds of things were pretty. (Our answer: pretty is anything you like to look at or listen to. Not everyone thinks all the same things are pretty.)

Our kid was introduced to hair, makeup and clothing as ‘fun things anyone can enjoy,’ and that people indulge these things because they like it. We give him a lot of room to experiment with these things himself. We let him know what it is like to have the autonomy to choose the way he expresses himself through clothes or hair.

I always told him it is rude to tell anyone how to dress because you think they are a boy or a girl.

Recently, he met someone with a beard and lots of body hair. This fascinated him. I explained that everyone has different bodies that make hair in different ways. Sometimes that hair doesn’t grow in until a person is all grown up. Some people only grow tiny body hairs. Lots of people like to shave all their body hair off. Some people can get really rude if other people don’t cut off their body hair all the time. This disturbed him. He told me, ‘That sounds so frustrating. If my body made so much body hair, I would never cut it because it is so pretty.’

(And for reference, his top five prettiest things are: hot dogs, pink sunsets, his classmate’s mom, his own dad, and beards.)” — Patchie

For me, it’s important to know how the rules work before I decide to break them. So I learned about makeup and some hairstyles and deodorant and shaving my legs and all that, and then I decided which of those things fit into the way I wanted to present myself. Like it or not, the world does perceive us certain ways depending on how we present; I look at it more as “managing people’s expectations of me” than “fitting in” because there are ways I do and don’t meet societal norms of femme presentation. I do it cause I’m manipulative.” — Rowan Beckett Grigsby

FAQ in a House with a Mama and Two Boys

Mama, do I have to cut my hair?  No. You don’t. It’s your hair. It’s your body, it belongs to you, and no one ever gets to tell you what you do with your body.

But then mama, why do I have to take a bath?  Because we understand basic hygiene and how infections are transmitted in 2016. We understand that not all dirt is good, we understand how to keep lice and mites and bedbugs at bay. We understand that while we own our bodies we aren’t alone in the world, and cleaning our bodies, and not being smelly, is part of the deal we make with society.

Mama? Why do you wear makeup?  Because people have been adorning their bodies since humans dug red ochre out of the earth 100,000 years ago. Because, I get to do what I want to my body. Because, I enjoy the fun ritual of getting ready to go out at night.

Mama, can you do my nails? Yes I can.

But Mama, are people going to make fun of me?  Maybe. And maybe that’s not fair. But, maybe you tell them that Prince, one of the most famous recording artists of all time wore eyeliner, so if you want to wear nail polish, it’s because you’re a freakin’ rock star.” — Tara Bernier

When my son was three he saw a teenager with a giant green Mohawk and leather jacket and spiked collar and gasped to my husband, ‘Look Daddy, a dragon!’ with absolute awe and wonder. When I was a very little girl I would sit in the pew at church and stroke my grandmother’s nine perfectly painted and manicured nails. That was something she did for herself after losing a fingertip as a child and struggling as a young mother with an absent husband in many jobs including a meat-packing plant. As she aged and cared for her disabled second husband, she gave that up. I asked the funeral director to make sure her nails were painted for her viewing. My father was buried in a black t-shirt and jeans. Whether a person is a hard rocking/sometimes dragon, a little girl who dreams of a life without hard labor whose dreams come true but don’t last, or a Peter Pan truck driver who wants to meet the afterlife dressed down as he lived, the most important thing you can teach your small children is not to judge and let each person be the set director of their own lives.” — Amanda Rose Adams

We tackle each question as it comes up while also working on creating a solid foundation of understanding that everyone is different and there’s no right way to ‘be.’ It also helps that my son is exposed to a range of diverse individuals, from folks who love to femme-it-up with lots of makeup and fancy clothes to his own mother (me!) who is usually makeup-free, doesn’t shave her armpits, etc…” — Avital Norman Nathman

Honesty is always best, and I’m never afraid to state the facts. But I make sure not to add judgment. I don’t say, ‘Women wear makeup because they don’t believe in their natural beauty and they are subscribing to a male heterosexual Western concept of beauty while also being stripped of their intellectual decision-making abilities by the advertising industry which is shoving 1000 lipsticks down their throat every five minutes.’ That would be bad.

Instead, I say things like, ‘Every culture decides what’s considered beautiful and acceptable, and in our culture, a lot of time and money is spent on teaching women to look a certain way and to smell a certain way.’ I tell them the advertising industry and cosmetics industries make a lot of money by making us think we need a lot of products and modification to our smells and ourselves. We are animals and there is nothing wrong with us just being us and finding people who appreciate us without adornment if we choose to abstain from it.” — Mayim Bialik

Do you have a question for our rotating cabal of feminists? Email it to Avital Norman Nathman at

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