This past spring while I was walking my dog, I ran into my neighbor. She and I have a great relationship and regularly chat about the happenings in the neighborhood. When we were passing each other in the entry way, she said, “Wow, Sarah! You look great. You’ve really slimmed down.” When I didn’t immediately respond, she pressed on, asking me what my secret was. I mumbled that I had been training for a race and kept moving toward my apartment.
While I know that my neighbor had the best intentions, I felt rather awkward. I have spent most of my twenties uncoupling the shape of my body from how I feel about myself. Her comments brought me back to a place of insecurity. I found myself engaging in old fears that people were judging me based on my appearance and that I *had* to maintain a certain look.
I’ve spent a lot of time on my body image in my own therapy, so I was able to manage my emotions about my neighbor’s comment pretty quickly. However, not everyone is in the same place with body acceptance as I am, and some may struggle more.
I think what’s valuable to remember about this epithet is that my neighbor didn’t intend me any harm. She didn’t leave her home thinking, “let’s get under Sarah’s skin today.” She wanted to give me a compliment and chose to comment on what she could see.
She’s not alone. American culture values status and appearance. The silent complicity is most visible when watching reality television shows like The Bachelor or popular films like Mean Girls. The “winners” are often thin, white, and blonde, and many contestants spend airtime deciding to talk about another person’s body. Thankfully, our culture is beginning to see a shift in values in which body positivity icons like Lizzo are applauded and diversity is encouraged, but we still have a lot of room to grow.
The possible harms of appearance-based compliments
Some of this growth can come from learning about how appearance-based compliments may lead to unintended harm. In a conversation with therapist and certified eating disorder specialist Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, she shared the following possible harms of choosing to talk about another person’s body:
- Appearance-oriented compliments perpetuate the idea that bodies that are thinner are better.
- The person who receives the compliment may feel pressure to keep up that particular part of their appearance.
- The receiver may feel that if they show up somewhere looking different, they will receive less praise.
- Someone’s change in appearance may be related to a medical or mental health related issue.
- Those who are in larger bodies that have changed may feel that the other areas of their life are less important.
You may think you know which of your friends and family are open to appearance-based compliments and which ones aren’t. My advice? Proceed with caution. You may not know what someone is grappling with behind the scenes. Also, even if the person you are speaking with is comfortable with these compliments, the compliment itself may still perpetuate some of the harms discussed above – just something to be mindful of.
What to say instead of an appearance-oriented compliment
Though appearance-based compliments have been commonplace in recent history, there are other ways to open conversations that may lead to less harm. Below are some ideas on how to start conversations differently.
- If you want to provide a compliment to someone, remove appearance. You might say something like, “It’s so great to see you,” or “I heard you achieved a goal recently, that’s awesome!”
- You can also begin a conversation by asking a question. A simple “How have things been?” allows the person you are with to exercise some control over what is discussed.
- Another option is to bring up a topic that was mentioned the last time you saw your friend. You may say something like, “Last time I saw you, you mentioned that you were going to Belize. How was your trip?” Throwing it back to your last get-together can also show the person you are talking to that you are a good listener, which is always a plus.
What to do if someone is commenting on your appearance
Now, what is someone to do if they are in the position of receiving an appearance-based compliment? As I mentioned earlier, being a receiver of these words may be awkward, uncomfortable, or even triggering. If you find yourself in this position, try some of these ideas to shift the conversation:
- If someone says something well-intended about your appearance, it’s okay to say thank you and change the topic to something that feels better for you. This may sound like saying, “Oh, thanks, but you know what else I have been up to lately that has been exciting for me…”
- If you have a strong relationship with someone, you can also challenge or redirect their statement. You may say something like, “I understand that you have the best intentions with this compliment. However, I tend to not prefer to hear comments about my body. Would you be open to talking about something else?”
Ultimately, these conversations can be healing and informative for our loved ones who tend to talk about another person’s body. Even if someone is well-intentioned, discussing possible harms of making body-related comments can support someone else from experiencing unneeded discomfort. Healing our relationships with our bodies is often an ongoing process that can be continued with intentional conversation.