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My name is Layli Miller-Muro. I’m a Baha’i; an attorney; the founder of a non-profit organization called the Tahirih Justice Center, whose mission involves protecting abused immigrant women; and the mother of three children, two of them young girls.
Every day in my work, I see the impact of the sexualization of girls and society’s hyper-attention to their appearance. Women are objectified throughout the world – their bodies are noticed first and seen to have more value than their minds. The results are devastating. In my work, I see women and girls sold into sexual slavery against their will, raped by men (including family members), forced into young marriage, and violently abused.
I’ve learned that the women who successfully overcome life’s worst tests and tribulations usually have a deep internal sense of their own spiritual worth — and I’ve come to the conclusion that I want, more than anything, to teach that deeply ingrained nobility and self-worth to all of my own children.
So when you see my daughters, please try, if at all possible, to not let the first and only thing you say be a comment on their physical appearance. My husband and I work hard to instill in them the value that their character and their mind and their soul all have more importance than how they look — but the reality of what people seem to value in our very materialistic culture often seems to undo our best efforts.
When obsessing about what to wear, our six-year-old said recently, “If I’m not pretty people won’t be nice to me.” Unfortunately, she is learning too quickly the truth of many adult interactions with little girls. If you see my girls in public, please don’t let the first thing you say be, “You look so pretty!” So many people have done that, and in some ways my girls have already learned that you think their appearance is most important.
Instead, please ask them about the service projects they are doing, about their Lego collections, about the books they are reading, and the sports they love. Instead, please focus on a virtue or a spiritual attribute you’d like to encourage.
Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing bad about being or feeling pretty. And, it is nice to hear that from others every once in a while. It just shouldn’t be the first and most frequent remark girls hear. That sends a message that it is most important. Praise and attention reinforces the behavior we want to see in others. Obsession over appearance is not the behavior we strive for.
Thank you for your help in combatting the pressures on girls to, first and foremost, be pretty. And thank you for helping my girls, and girls everywhere, value their internal attributes more than their external ones:
Then it is clear that the honor and exaltation of man must be something more than material riches. Material comforts are only a branch, but the root of the exaltation of man is the good attributes and virtues which are the adornments of his reality. These are the divine appearances, the heavenly bounties, the sublime emotions, the love and knowledge of God; universal wisdom, intellectual perception, scientific discoveries, justice, equity, truthfulness, benevolence, natural courage and innate fortitude; the respect for rights and the keeping of agreements and covenants; rectitude in all circumstances; serving the truth under all conditions; the sacrifice of one’s life for the good of all people; kindness and esteem for all nations; obedience to the teachings of God; service in the Divine Kingdom; the guidance of the people, and the education of the nations and races. This is the prosperity of the human world! This is the exaltation of man in the world! This is eternal life and heavenly honor! – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 79.