Jo Swinson: Don’t tell your kids they’re beautiful – they’ll get issues

jo swinson by paul walterJo Swinson, the Women’s Minister, has been interviewed by the Daily Telegraph anticipating the progress report due today on the Body Confidence campaign.

Her research has shown that 25% of all 11 to 15 year old boys and girls are unhappy about their appearance. 70% of girls think there is too much emphasis on how celebrities look.

She said:

Parents that praise their sons and daughters for looking “beautiful”, wearing a pretty outfit or having a nice hair do risk sending the wrong message to children that looks are the most important thing to succeed in life.

She added that that “praising them for their skill in doing a jigsaw and all these other things that they’re doing, their curiosity in asking questions and a whole range of things” would often be more appropriate than commenting on looks.

It’s not like saying that appearance doesn’t matter at all. If you’re going for an interview, you will dress smartly and look the part, that’s absolutely fine, but it’s just the level to which this becomes the ultimate focus of everything, where you have people who won’t go to school unless they’ve put their make-up on, or won’t leave the house unless they’ve spent two hours getting ready.

Young boys were also under pressure to look usually one of two ways; either buff and muscular or to get the “Pete-Doherty” thin look.

She concludes:

Change isn’t going to happen overnight. Ultimately we’re trying to change the culture in society here which is not easy when there’s interest stacked against it, in terms of, there’s a lot of money being made about people feeling bad about themselves [in the dieting and cosmetics industries]. I’m not blind to the fact this is a challenge.

The Telegraph chose to illustrate this article with two pictures of bikini clad bums and a beefcake pose by Daniel Craig. Hmm…


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This entry was posted in LibLink.


  • Oh dear, oh dear, Jo, you’ve got this one so, so utterly wrong. I really hate to say this, and try to avoid doing so, but when you have your own kids your view really changes on this.

    Of course you praise your child for completing a jigsaw, doing well at school, or asking the right questions. But sometimes you have to tell your daughter she’s beautiful, or that a particular piece of clothing suits your son. In fact, I would strongly argue that – if your daughter has body confidence issues – NOT telling her that she looks good could actually cause greater harm. Can you really imagine how a child would feel if they asked their parent if something made them look good, only for the parent not to answer or avoid the question? If that child already has self-esteem issues and was looking for reassurance from the person who loves them the most, it would be utterly crushing.

    Given the work done on this, I’m hoping that this was just a “mis-speak” and not what Jo really believes. Please,,,,,

  • How I loathe the use of the word “issues” when people really mean problems or difficulties. Sadly, it has proliferated outwards from the world of American psychobabble into the world of IT and far beyond.

    Beauty or its absence has been noticed by human beings from the dawn of time, so whether we like it or not, it is going to be a factor in life whatever parents do. The point is to give everyone self worth in other areas, so physical looks are only one aspect of a range of a person’s qualities. Pretending looks don’t matter if your parents don’t mention them is patently absurd.

  • Geoffrey Payne 28th May '13 - 12:48pm

    I agree with this completely. I was disgusted to hear Germaine Greer the other day criticising Andy Murray for being ugly. He is a tennis player, his looks are irrelevant. I suppose people will always judge others on appearance, but any attempt to reduce that is to be welcomed.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th May '13 - 12:51pm

    Jo Swinson has succeeded in letting the Telegraph make a laughing stock out of her and to a smaller extent our party.

    We need to do something to stamp this out, I can be guilty of saying radically unpopular things myself but generally radical ideas are only good if they receive wide public backing.

  • Peter Watson 28th May '13 - 12:52pm

    I really hope that the title for this article does not truly reflect Jo Swinson’s views, and that is just the sort of terrible sensationalised misrepresentation of a sensible point that I would expect to see as a headline for a Mail/Express/Telegraph article.
    Children should not believe that their physical appearance is the be all and end all, but we should not become paranoid that every compliment we pay our beautiful children will lead to “issues” in later life.
    But if we want to take positive action, could I request (plead) that we ban any ‘constructed reality’ show that contains the words Kardashian, Chelsea or Essex, as I could believe that such programs could give the impression that physical beauty is enough to make up for the most appalling character defects.

  • I agree with Keith. I hope this is just a misinterpretation. Can we have the full text of what Jo actually said please?

    If this article is accurate then I’m afraid Jo has gone too far. She is far too close to the issue and no liberal should be telling people what they can and can’t say to their kids. Talk about a nanny state! Is she living on another planet?

    I think it’s time for a new job for Jo. This clearly isn’t right, and not to mention the Shares for Rights issue she signed off.

  • My kids will always be beautiful / handsome to me and will always be told so….. Do the other bits as well but don’t stop telling them they’re beautiful and try to teach them to be so inside as well as out…

  • Guy Patching 28th May '13 - 1:09pm

    I can’t believe people are having a big problem with this. What is wrong with some advice after having done an extensive study? Why should our anecdotal “common sense” hunches be better than that?

    And if we want to marry it up with common sense gut why are we at all surprised that children take their behavioural cues and values from all around them – including their parents?

  • Kevin McNamara 28th May '13 - 1:20pm

    did people actually read the article or just the title? i think her views are there in black and white.

  • mike cobley 28th May '13 - 1:28pm

    question is, which kind of flattery is more likely to feed egomaniacal, self-centred tendencies – what you get from your parents, or what you get from advertising?

  • AlanPlatypus 28th May '13 - 1:38pm


    Really? People being unhappy with the way they look is nothing new, only the scapegoats are new. However the ‘advice’ is something to behold as there is no evidence to suggest that this is a way to make people feel better about their appearance (my own anecdotal evidence contradicts Jo’s suggestion). I’d go as far as to say that short of making everyone blind you will never solve body confidence issues because these are derived from how we wish others to see us and how we wish them to react to us. If that reaction is not forthcoming then it can lead to body confidence issues.

    Also I don’t know if you picked up on this but the ‘extensive study’ may just have a slight bias, and that’s being charitable.

  • @Gareth, if I dismiss someone’s views because they look overweight or because they don’t conform to a societal norm of “beautiful” then to me that’s of concern because I’m justifying my objection to someone’s views on a purely superficial basis. I’m teaching my daughter not to do that, so I don’t do it either.

    But if my daughter is picked on in school and belittled by a minority of people because of her looks, am I going to simply stand back and not say she’s beautiful, if she comes to me for reassurance? No way. Am I going to stop reinforcing this through her life? No. Am I going to refuse to say she’s beautiful on her wedding day, because it might reinforce a stereotype? Not a chance.

    @Kevin – I did read the article before posting, and that’s why I think it’s a mis-speak – Jo has done some excellent work on body confidence and body image concerns over the last few years and really brought to the fore some points which had been hidden up until then. I don’t think that Jo was intending to tell parents how to bring up their children, but unfortunately that’s how she’s come across.

  • My sister is a psychologist and would disagree with Jo’s assessment, so I think those saying that it is ‘shocking’ that some have concerns about the way she expressed this point is shocking.

    I agree completely with her point, looks should not be a deciding factor in most things, which is why I disagree with Taiwanese companies making applicants put their photos on the application forms – a rule which seems to be more strictly enforced on female applicants – and we must ensure our children are raised to realise this fact; however, to outright say ‘telling someone they look good is wrong’ is wrong because it is a blanket approach, which as Liberals we should instantly be wary of.

    When my young cousin came to me crying because a boy had called her ugly, I told her that she is beautiful and that beauty is a complex thing which no one person can ever define – once I had sured up her confidence about her appearance and made her realise that she does not need to look like some ‘model’ in a magazine to be beautiful, I then started to explain that beauty goes beyond the skin and that you are as a person is what really matters. If I had gone straight into this message, then she would have just rejected it as ‘old-man talk that family has to say’.

    Furthermore, sometimes we just need telling we look ugly; I used to be 16 stone, that is not good because I was fat and damaging my body – some of the scars remain today; however, all the logical arguments about the problems with being overweight did not get through to my young, ignorant mind – it was not until a girl I liked said rejected me for being fat and ugly that I finally took a long hard look in the mirror, put down the fork and got myself to the gym. Now, may be my initial aims of becoming skinner for shallow vanity may be wrong in some people’s eyes, but I do not mind because I am now a healthy weight and I keep my body in much better condition. I am now older and wiser, so I now do it for the sake of being healthy, but the fact is, that initial kick was needed.

    If my cousin was about to head to an interview with unclean hair, wearing a dirty tracksuit, would it help her purposes in anyway for me not to inform her that is not appropriate? No, I would need to tell her because no company would want someone who does not care about their appearance in anyway representing them, so actually pride in one’s appearance is not a bad thing, so long as it is not plain vanity or being based solely on your ‘beauty’. To my mind we should be careful to therefore differentiate between having pride in our appearance and wishing to look professional, and just being vain.

  • Nick Partington 28th May '13 - 2:34pm

    To blame parents for an image obsessed celebrity press and popular culture seems entirely unjust. The Hiltons, Kardashians and Childs of this world are absolutely more culpable.

    Of course parents should compliment children on more important things (creativity, ingenuity, intelligence) but to suggest that any comment on their appearance (likely to serve to increase their self esteem) will have an irrevocably negative effect on the child’s perception of their self worth seems absurd. As noted above, a minister castigating parents for doing such things has a distinctly illiberal quality.

    In saying this, Jo Swinson sadly gives more ammunition to a right wing press inent on portraying the Liberal Democrats as interventionist, (nanny) statist moralisers.

  • Eddie my friend, I’m afraid your party IS a laughing stock! I voted for the Libdems in 2010 but doubt I will in 2015.

    ‘Lilllivered Liberals’ is the cleanest one I heard mentioned over the bank holiday.

  • Tony Greaves 28th May '13 - 3:34pm

    I remember when my daughter, aged about 3 I suppose, was sitting on my knee and made a very perceptive remark. “You are not just a pretty face” I said. She looked at me fiercely and replied “I am”. Put me in my place.

    I am interested in the “finding” that 25% of 11-15 year-olds are “unhappy about their appearance”. Only 25%? Things have obviously improved a lot since my day.

    Tony Greaves

  • The classic example of this kind of thing is that it’s better to praise children for working hard, instead of praising them for being clever.

    I was under the impression that the research for this was pretty solid, praising children for things they do reinforces doing things and praising them for abstract qualities they posses reinforces arrogance and laziness. Perhaps it is solid, perhaps not, in either case anecdotes about what people reckon aren’t very helpful in discussion of psychology studies.

  • I used to believe in marriage. I used to think Jo Swinson talked sense. But since she got married, I seriouslydoubt both!

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 28th May '13 - 5:56pm

    If you read what Jo actually said on this one, it’s that looks shouldn’t be the be all and end all of everything.

    I once had a teenager in meltdown (not my own) because she’d forgotten to bring her hair straighteners to our house and couldn’t possibly go to school with unstraightened hair. She really was upset that she would get teased about it. She looked absolutely fine the way she was. I was so upset that this could even be an issue.

    There is far too much emphasis put on appearance. When celebrity magazines villify a woman for going out without makeup, it’s getting ridiculous. Kids see this stuff and think it’s important.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 28th May '13 - 6:06pm

    I should say that I tell my daughter that she’s beautiful probably far too often. I tell her she’s lots of other things, too: funny, quirky, kind, compassionate, liberal, clever, fair, excellent debater. I’m not biased, obviously, but I probably did overdo the “beautiful baby” thing from when she was very young.

  • Caron always says just.the right thing 🙂 Baz hurman was also pretty spot-on in his “sunscreen” song.

    Body confidence comes from using your body confidently, eg SPORT

    Lets make sure children have all the opportunities to take part in activities they enjoy, whether that’s ballet, face art, knitting or the Olympics.

  • Introduce Olympic knitting! Britain would fare well. 🙂

  • Helen Tedcastle 28th May '13 - 9:12pm

    Dear oh dear. I think this is Jo Swinson’s Harriet Harman moment – better move on to other issues quickly Jo …

  • It sounds like good advice. She seems to be being mis-represented by an awful lot of people who mistake sensible advice as political correctness. She’s merely saying that concentrating on appearance (which may be a natural thing ffor an enamoured parent to do) can skew a child’s views. This is a basic of child psychology and should not be controversial. She is not saying that we should not tell our children that they are beautiful.

    We know that children get their values in life at a very young age from their parents and will quickly learn what is important and what gets attention. Most of this is unconscious. Then when they get a bit older in school they learn what is important from their peers. Girls in particular learn a lot about what being a woman is about in the media.

    What on earth is the fuss about Jo making a very welcome contribution to something that is already well known and established.

  • If she said something significantly different from what is in Telegraph than why is this misrepresentation reposted here without editorial clarification? In the following I’m working on the assumption that this LDV article is accurate.

    It is described as “her” research. If only 25 percent of younger teenagers are able to admit to Jo Swinson that they are unhappy with their appearance, then there are two realistic possiblities:

    a)The sample size was either four or eight teenagers
    b) Jo Swinson had already given them a lecture on why being confident in ones appearance was important before asking the question.

    Despite what you might hear from politicians, for whom “liberal” has the same definition as it has in America – i.e. general vanilla left-wing, actually obesity is the true body-problem in Europe and North America, and the dieting industry, if it wasn’t mostly based on quackery, would be part of the solution. Remember, doctors advise you keep your BMI under 25. That means 81 kilos if you are 1.80m, 72 kg if you are 1.70m and 64 kg if you 1.60m. Above those weights you are most likely to be unhealthy and yes, other people can see it too and it makes you less attractive. I am 20 kg over myself and I am trying to work on it.

    Are we really suprised that Jo Swinson is giving parental advice without having had any kids? A few months ago she was seeking to make changes in the terms of trade between supermarkets and small suppliers without having any experience of running a small or large business.

  • Sorry Jo. You’ve got this one wrong. I speak as someone who has never had children but has neices and a great nephew. It is important that you make sure they are confident and happy in their own skin. You have to stop them thinking there is something wrong with their looks. This is the same for boys and girls and usually happens about the age of 12 onwards.

  • Thanks for the comments folks. For the record, this headline was not an accurate representation of my remarks. I spoke to the Telegraph journalist in a 20 minute interview to discuss today’s publication of the progress report on the government’s work on body confidence:

    The point I was making, which many of you have gathered, is that if praise is generally given about appearance, then the message that sends is that appearance is what is important – which reinforces the problems with self-confidence around body image that the evidence is showing. Of course there is no problem telling children they are beautiful, as I said in the interview. The more nuanced point makes for a rather less sensationalist story however…

  • Hmm. Yes, the headline is clearly a gross misrepresentation, and yes, the intention was obviously to say something far more nuanced. However, if you say “Parents that praise their sons and daughters for looking ‘beautiful’ … risk sending the wrong message”, then you are gifting the Torygraph an attack line, aren’t you!

  • Helen Tedcastle 28th May '13 - 11:58pm

    Thanks for taking the time comment on this on the thread, Jo. It’s appreciated.

    I think the Telegraph were very unfair to you and did the issue no favours – it was unnecessary of the Journalist to comment that you are not a parent, implying that you have no right to comment . You have every right.

    The only problem is the perception of ‘telling parents’ what to say and do and in the spirit of a Harriet Harman, the doyenne of prescriptive political correctness – I’m sure, now you’ve clarified, that wasn’t the intention. Unfortunately, that’s how it has come over via the wonderful media we have – and I certainly saw it that way upon first reading.

  • I think Ill take advice from from a politician on how to raise my kids when hell freezes over.

  • Peter, I met quite a few political offspring in Cambridge, and most of them were raised by proxies in boarding schools. I can conclude that the working patterns and socio economic status of MPs gives them little insight into children. Im sure you get the odd young woman with “daddy’s little princess” syndrome, but I would have thought that media and peer pressure are a far bigger problem. Parents block out either unless they relocate to the wilderness and homeschool.

  • Helen Dudden 29th May '13 - 2:19pm

    How about children with eating disorders? I have written on the subject of areas of law that fail. Self harm, lack of confidence, eating disorders, and I would say that the comments should be used with care.

    I have been a mother to two children, and I gave them what I felt they needed. Most teenagers would be concerned about looks, even a small spot on the face can be something that bothers , the need to look the same. They even dress the same.

    I have been telling my new great daughter just weeks old how beautiful she is, and she is to me.

  • Keep going at it Jo, this and many of your other similar campaigns and talks are needed. I think many parents appreciate the efforts you are making. Unfortunately, some people seem to feel very defensive over what you said and seem to misconstrue what you said

  • Helen Dudden 29th May '13 - 10:47pm

    I merely state that to generalize on the attitude of different human beings, and the way they react is not wise.

    I feel the nanny state, is not one truly needed.

    How about more interesting articles on the bedroom tax, the movement out of London and rehousing in other areas? Housing, and the need to get to grips with the dire situations at present. The EU and it’s problems, much unhappiness again tonight. Jobs for the young, the high street. There are other subjects.

  • I think now that Jo has clarified the position, we can say this is just another wonderful example of how our media warps society – oh the irony.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 1st Jun '13 - 11:34pm

    Two things I have learnt not to do, even as an equalities advisor.

    One never criticise or offer up solutions as to how someone should treat their faithful hound, and two never likewise criticise someone’s parenting skills unless their actions involves a court case.

    As a dog owner of many years, I may have many helpful ideas regarding dog rearing, but as a childless individual, although an uncle many times over, I cannot pass judgement on the primeval role of being a parent.

    I will stick with my boys, who adore sticks, balls, swimming and having their ears massaged, and do not cost me exorbitant university fees.

    One thing though, my boys look spectacular, and I do not mind who knows, and I tell them so regulary, apart from when they are wallowing in mud (or worse), when I am less complimentary.

    A question though, is it OK for non-furry children to sleep out in a centrally heated ‘child kennel’ at night, with radio 4, 3 dwarves (Snow White, and 4 of the dwarves have disappeared over the years) and a water feature as my boys do? I can assure everyone that having ‘outside children’ seriously cuts down on the clutter that they seem to cause. Oops, apologies, I have gone into advice mode, and broken my own rules, sorry!

  • Don’t tell your kids they’re beautiful. Tell them they’re interestingly ugly and enjoy their puzzled faces.

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