Dressing to not impress: life through the eyes of a three-year-old

sock dressing
sock dressing Photo: Getty Images

My three-year-old daughter has very strong opinions about what she wants to wear. Unlike many girls her age, she’s not obsessed with being a fairy, princess or ballerina. Nor does she sit in the opposite camp where skirts are deemed the devil’s attire and only pants and runners are permitted for practicality’s sake.

She has only one criterion: “I don’t want to look beautiful.”

This statement was made to me as the third rejected outfit lay on her bed. We were preparing to get dressed for a friend’s birthday party, and the fairy costume had been ruled out out, the low-key skirt and nice top with denim jacket had also been vetoed. We were down to a mourning suit of black leggings, black skirt and black and white polka dotted shirt. No frills.

As the only girl after three boys (despite having a mother who is pink-repellent), my daughter has no shortage of pink, frilly costumes and outfits. Through generous hand-me-downs she has lived in an array of lovely clothes and has enjoyed fantastic imaginary play with friends and cousins dressing up in all sorts of costumes. When it comes to leaving the house, however, she is very particular about her presentation.

At first, I thought this was a good thing. I’m big on respecting yourself, which starts with standards about how you want to present yourself to the world. Not in superficial terms of how good you look – rather, I’m referring to cleanliness and politeness. In an adult world of work, I’d use the term “professional”.

Naturally, I’ve lowered the benchmark significantly from the first baby days of matching outfits and bibs. If my children leave the house with clothing that has no chocolate ice cream from last night’s dessert splashed on it or tomato sauce smeared across it from lunch, it’s a win in my books.

My boys seem to have two piles of clothes: clean (straight out of the wash) and “I don’t know so it’ll have to do” (sitting on the floor or shoved in a ball up the back of wardrobe). Overall, their attention to detail when it comes to clean and dirty needs some work. They sigh if I say, “Let me look at you. Are you clean?”

I’ve now realised these frustrations I held in terms of the boys looking “nice and respectable” are a mere plink in the ocean compared to a daughter who refuses to look beautiful at age three.

It had all started before the party incident. She’d rejected a couple of funky but gorgeous dresses she’d worn before, which made me think she was just being fussy; my boys have all had clothing dislikes and moments of fussiness too. So when my daughter’s opinion of a dress she’d previously worn suddenly changed, I didn’t think much of it.

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When the clothes refusal continued and culminated in the party outfit debacle, I pressed her for a reason. What’s wrong with this outfit? Is it uncomfortable? Finally, she admitted: “I don't like it when people say I look beautiful because they talk to me.”

Aha.

She’d figured out that people comment when she wears certain clothes. Harmless, kind comments such as, “I love your dress! I wish they made that in my size.”

Comments I’ve made myself to her and to other children.

I overanalysed her declaration about not looking beautiful. Did we constantly refer to her as beautiful? Did we say her clothes are beautiful too often? Are we giving her the message that beauty holds the highest value?

No.

It is human nature to comment on aesthetics. I may have interchanged “beautiful” for words such as “lovely”, “pretty”, “swish”, “special”, “cute”, “sweet”, “gorgeous” or “cool”, but essentially the message was, “You look great”. I would say the same thing to a sister, a friend, my husband or a colleague. If someone has made an effort to dress up for an occasion, I would make a polite comment to show I’ve noticed. Not a bad thing to say to a child, in my eyes –unless your child is painfully shy.

It wasn’t the outfit itself; it was the exchange it invited from strangers. She wanted to fly under the radar, not attract any unwanted attention, and she had figured out pretty quickly that any three-year-old in a tutu or a superhero costume draws people in. That miniature cuteness, however it is served, makes great conversation.

So off we toddled to her friend’s birthday party dressed in three shades of black. We filed in amongst fairies, princesses, and partygoers in party dresses. She still had the host say she looked lovely because it’s what we say, as parents.

But I figure that if this is the biggest problem she faces at three – that she looks nice – well, she’s got a great life ahead of her. Instead of working on her attire, I’ll be spending some time working on her personal armour so she can build her confidence – and the next time someone says she looks beautiful, she’ll beam and say “thank you”! 

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