Which of these things have you said in the last week?
You look beautiful!
I love that shirt/outfit/accessory!
Love the new hair!
I admire your confidence!
You are so joyful!
I love how you embrace change!
And who did you say them to?
If you’re anything like me, your compliments tend towards the first half of that list, and they go to women.
I was at an event recently where three talented women shared how they are helping women in tech in Omaha. At one point, I noticed that I was thinking about how beautiful each woman is. I was noticing their outfits, the way they held their bodies on stage, their smiles.
Generally speaking, we (people of all genders) have beautiful forms. It is what it is. Our bodies are noticed by other humans.
And, it’s so much easier to talk about superficial things. You’d compliment your boss’s new haircut before mentioning her decisiveness, which is what you really love about her.
Easy isn’t good enough. Easy is harmful.
The thing is, easy isn’t good enough.
More than that, easy is harmful.
The video that pissed me off
Last week, I did a quick Facebook Live. Under the theme of Spring Clearing, I spoke about my newfound business clarity and marketing changes, specifically that I’d be closing my Facebook group.
Here’s how I started: “I have been in such a spring clearing mood, and I think it’s in the air because I got my hair cut last night, and my stylist Kat had cut off 14” of her hair. She’s changed her style completely…”
Every single person who commented on my video complimented my physical appearance, while 40% of them also referenced the content of what I said. Those body compliments ranged from “Cute hair!” to “You’re so pretty.”
I had to wonder, did they hear anything I said beyond “I got my hair cut?”
They’ve been in this group for as many as 9 months, reading my posts, engaging with other members… It wasn’t my beauty that created that opportunity for connection and awareness. My beauty didn’t create engaging content.
Or am I nothing more than something pretty to look at?
This is what the mind does.
The graduation ceremony that pissed me off
I recently attended a high school graduation. This is a conversation I had with the graduate’s uncle as we all met with her before the ceremony.
Uncle: She looks so pretty, doesn’t she, Mandy?
Me: (makes eye contact and smiles, silently trying to avoid the sudden situation)
Uncle: She looks really beautiful! (holds eye contact, eagerly awaiting a response)
Me: (deciding to play passive-aggressive) I think she looks smart and accomplished.
Uncle: I just think she looks so beautiful!
What the what?
This young woman, who grew up with divorced parents and no doubt loads of other challenges I don’t know about, has travelled our state winning awards. About to graduate with honors and a long list of scholarships, she has plans to continue her education. She’s standing here beaming, expressing gratitude to her family for traveling to celebrate these accomplishments with her.
And all you can say is that she’s beautiful?
Yes, I see it, too. Her body is beautiful. Seeing her face is a pleasurable experience.
She was born with that thick hair, those freckles, her bright blue eyes. She did nothing to create this physical beauty.
More pointedly, who cares?
Your compliments come with a cost
Research professor Brené Brown has found that the issue women experience the most shame around is their physical appearance. (Do I really need a reference to support this sentence? Hah!)
Tell a girl or a woman over and over again how pretty (or ugly) she is, and of course she spends more energy thinking and worrying about her physical appearance than any of the far more substantial aspects of her being.
Yes, I’d love to be so woke that such compliments cause me zero stress. But until my enlightenment, know that your thoughtless words are not making girls and women more confident—they are making us more focused on the one aspect of our identity we can’t change.
What we can do instead
It’s natural to notice and appreciate beauty. This is OK!
And when it comes to women’s* physical appearance, simply pause before you speak to notice why you appreciate what you do. What’s the deeper, more profound spark behind your superficial pleasure?
At that women in tech event I was thinking, “I so admire their confidence to get in front of a room of unfamiliar faces and share their personal stories.”
Someone in my Facebook Group might have thought, “I love the way Mandy is always embracing change, whether it’s a new hairstyle or a whole new career.”
Uncle might have thought, “I love the way my niece seems to be brightening this room! She is clearly joyful and grateful to have her family supporting her today.”
Tell her that.
As a woman (with Words of Affirmation as my top Love Language no less), I can assure you this:
Being told I am admired for my confidence, or for how I embrace change, or for my joy and gratitude, feels far more loving than being told I’m pretty.
*I’ll make a broad generalization about my gender, but I won’t go so far as to guess how men feel. 😘