Monday, April 4, 2011

Should we compliment each other on our looks?

Last Thursday morning I decided to notice what I wore to my writing class with Valley Haggard.  I chose one of my favorite shirts and a red zip-up hoodie.  Valley complimented me when I walked in on how I look.  I felt giggly on the inside that she noticed and smiled broadly at the compliment.

Later that evening I went to the Orchard House School to hear a talk by noted author Catherine Steiner-Adair.  Her talk was called The Body Image Factor and was about how to help middle school girls retain their sense of self.  It was excellent, and I'll blog more about it another time, but I'm bringing it up now because she said a couple of things which are relevant to this blog.

About 30 minutes into her talk, she commented that many of those in attendance would have already judged her on her appearance and decided she was too _____  (you fill in the blank - skinny, fat, ugly, pretty, etc.) and would have begun discounting what she had to say because of it.  She noted that frequently happens to women - their words and/or actions get discounted because of their looks.

She recommended an antidote to that - that when we greet other women, we NOT say anything about how they look.  Don't say, "You look great!"  "You got your hair cut!  It looks great!"  or anything else referring to appearance.  The reason for this is that it puts an emphasis on looks rather than personality or anything else.  She suggested replacing it with "It is so good to see you!"  or "I'm so glad we could get together today!"

She acknowledged how difficult this can be - she was working with some camp counselors who were about to greet the incoming campers for the week.  She asked them not to comment on the girls' looks when they arrived.  Instead they should say things like I mentioned above.  She said virtually everyone had to bite their tongues many times to keep from commenting on how much the girls had grown, or the fact that they'd gotten their braces off - the list goes on and on!

Hearing her talk about that, I realized that I don't normally comment on how people look when I see them.  I've mentioned here before that that caused some heartache between a former friend and me because she was hurt that I didn't tell her how great she looked - specifically - clothes, hair, etc.- when we would see each other, yet she complimented me heartily.  I often felt a bit overwhelmed by her assessment but flattered by the attention.  I usually didn't think to reciprocate because I was so glad to see her and wanted to hear all about how she was doing and what she'd been up to since we'd last seen each other.  I recognize that commenting on appearance is simply what people do in this society.

I wonder how much of a difference it would make if we stopped doing that and began focusing on other things as Steiner-Adair mentioned.  I think it might begin to shift where we put the emphasis - away from looks and towards more substantive things ideally...

And I recognize that I enjoy being complimented on how I look, especially if I've taken some time to put myself together that day.  I told my husband what Steiner-Adair said, and now he's feeling stymied - like he shouldn't compliment me or he'll be breaking a new rule!  It sure is complicated!


  1. Commenting on how someone looks is clearly not something that will go away--we want people to notice us. Isn't that why we choose to dress the way we do and cut our hair or adorn ouselves with jewelry, etc.? If, however, we judge people soley on how they appear, we are making a mistake. The adage "don't judge a book by its cover" comes to mind. Perhaps that what we need to be emphasizing more; asking people not to comment on how someone looks is counter-intuitive and seems phony to me. Someone is looking back from the mirror at us--and that someone wants to feel good about how they look--but we want to be known for who and what we are also (and perhaps more so...) Both seem important to me--I cannot imagine not letting others know that I notice their beauty or their new style, as I hope others will let me know if they notice it in me. But no one wants it limited to the outward appearances only. That is what our culture over-emphasizes ( this is news to you!) The remedy is not, to my mind, disengaging from the practice of noticing looks, but rather acknowledging the whole person--the inward beauty and also that "imperfections" are what make us who we are---they are a part of us, too. I'm rambling but your blog post prompted me to respond!

  2. Thanks, Jim, for your thoughts on this complex issue. I love getting more input!

  3. For me, the way I dress is another way to express my creativity. Sometimes my work with the elderly can be depressing and wearing something that I really like brightens my day. I have friends at work who also express their creativity with cool jewelry or clothing and I always compliment them on what they're wearing as they do me. Of course we talk about other things; our families, our art (one paints,another makes jewelry) our politics, food, pets, religion -- whatever. These women have depth AND they are snazzy dressers. They are by no means all perfect size fours, and who cares? Not me. I can see the point of the author you mentioned, but I think about some of elderly folks and how they just glow when someone compliments them. When someone does that, it means that they have seen that person and taken time to notice something about them. It also can open the way to conversation and connection. Mrs. W got that broach from her mother and there's a story behind it...I'm not giving up compliments about the way people look as long as it's not the only thing to which I'm paying attention.