I’m going to get straight to the point and share a truth with you: Beauty and appearance are actually some of the least important things about us, even if society likes to tell us — every day — that image and appearance are the key to a “better life” and happiness.
We are bombarded with this superficial message, and it’s easy to fall into a place where giving an appearance-based compliment seems like a sweet thing to do. Some of us might even relish these compliments, as we too believe they are valuable.
When I think of compliments, I think most of them are from a well-meaning place. We are trying to affirm someone and/or be kind. Unfortunately, the actual effect is that compliments about a woman’s body make her more conscious of her body and increase feelings of self-objectification and body monitoring. A fixation on appearance also moves toward placing a person into the “object” category. To make us more conscious of our bodies reinforces the idea that bodies are more important than the people who inhabit them.
I have never liked campaigns aimed at telling all women (especially those marginalized by mainstream expectations) that they are beautiful. What if women didn’t have to be beautiful? By commenting on appearance (“being beautiful”), we are again conditioning women that appearance is the most important thing.
There is a time and a place for appearance- or body-based compliments (such as a friend’s new haircut they are excited about), but we have to break our instant focus on such externals.
However, affirming our peers, friends and strangers needs to go past physical attributes. Compliments can be genuine, thoughtful and have absolutely nothing to do with someone’s body. Individuals’ relationships with their bodies are complex enough.
Here are some quick tips for when we want to give compliments that help to elevate women (or anyone) as a whole:
- Focus on abilities and what a body can do, not what it looks like.
- Stay grounded around qualities and characteristics. Think of what qualities you would like to be noticed by those around you. Is it being kind? Strong? Smart? Determined? Calm, powerful, inspiring, insightful, thoughtful, curious, patient, etc., etc. The list could go on, but these intangibles are worthy of compliments.
- Stay mindful of another person’s world. We never know what anyone else’s relationship with their body is. It’s also inappropriate to put our body ideals on them in the form of appearance-based compliments.
On the flip side, we need to own what we do when other people compliment (or comment on) our bodies. It is when we do not view our bodies as objects that we can let these comments roll off us. When we know we’re not objects, comments of any sort carry less power. That’s when we know how our body looks (good or bad, up or down, big or small) does not define who we are.