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So much more than just a pretty face

CAMERON DIAZ has brought me to my senses.

She has, she's my nominated new, supercool auntie. In an interview recently she talked of being on the set of Annie, surrounding by little actresses, and how they approach her saying: "You are so pretty, your hair is so pretty, your clothes are so pretty." And Cameron, being a wise sage and Pank, explains her worries about reinforcing their tendencies to focus on appearance. "I try to let them know that being 'pretty' will not sustain them." Instead, she suggests asking girls what year they're in at school and what their favourite subjects are.

Ooft. My heart sank. I do this. I objectify little girls. A lot of friends have girl babies. You feel the need to compliment the mother by complimenting the baby on how cute she is, how well dressed, how co-ordinated her Bugaboo and her bootees are. With toddlers it's just so easy to gush about how cute they are. They are cute, they're smooshable. It's the best thing about them.

School-age girls have such bright shoes and brilliant hair bands, they beg for a compliment. When your friends, who are intelligent, thoughtful career women, birth baby girls and dress them in head-to-toe pink, it's hard to say: "Hey, are you sure about all those rose hues?"

There's a YouTube video doing the rounds on social media featuring a little Dutch girl on Holland's Got Talent. Amira Willighagen breezes on, four feet of confidence, and belts out an impressive O Mio Babbino Caro. These Dutch kids. When they don't have their fingers in dams, they're breaking hearts. The judges, a little taken aback, ask the nine-year-old what she'd like to do when she's grown. "I want to be a singer when I'm older and, if not, then take part in the Olympics as an athlete."

Now, I'm watching this and I'm thinking: "You're my new hero in the seven to 12 age category. Go boldly. Win the 100-metre sprint belting out Martern aller Arten."

Simultaneously, I'm thinking: "I want your hair. Those are some rocking chestnut curls."

The Australia writer Kasey Edwards wrote on this theme in December after taking her daughter to visit Santa. Her essay, How To Break The Ice With Little Girls, is an open letter to Santas everywhere - and doctors, teachers and shop assistants - pleading with them not to comment on her four-year-old's appearance in lazy conversation.

What surprised me about this was the amount of resistance it received from some readers who thought the issue a trivial concern. It's always a surprise that gender equality creates controversy, that wanting gender-neutral toys - such as in the recent efforts by Marks & Spencer to scrap its Boy's Stuff and Little Miss Arty - raises hackles.

Little minds soak everything in; the message we're implanting is that earning attention and approval from appearance is valuable, a message that's reinforced repeatedly through the teen years and the twenties and beyond. It seems obvious, once it's pointed out, that chatting to little girls about their hair and their shoes is not sensible scene setting for their little lives. It seems obvious that grown women should band together to help focus their smaller counterparts on books and hobbies and moral fortitude. But, y'know, in a fun way.

Early intervention is the buzzword touted as the key to successful everything - education, self-esteem, behaviour. Let's intervene early in this.

Were I queen for a day, or, perhaps, education minister, I would make a copy of Roald Dahl's Matilda and a hobby compulsory to all females school pupils starting primary one. Until that day comes, I'm following Cameron's lead. There's no value in pretty, but plenty in a stockpile of Dahl, some gender-neutral ice breakers and girls to share them with.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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