“You’re beautiful.” They are two of the most powerful words—especially for women. Even more so for girls. It’s a phrase that gushes forward from a slew of yoga studios, fitness blogs, and screams at you from graphic tees. At first blush, it seems like an obvious compliment and a step in the right direction when it comes to embracing the good stuff. You’re beautiful! What’s wrong with that? A lot, as it turns out.
The recipient may hear, “You’re beautiful. Thank God. Because, as a woman, what you look like is the most important thing about you.” Youthful beauty changes and fades. That’s natural. If a person believes their most valuable asset, or even their only asset, is their beauty, what’s next? What about when they get older and may no longer meet our manipulated ideas of what beauty is? What if they gain or lose “too much” weight? What if they move to a region where their aesthetics are no longer considered by the majority to be beautiful? What if they’re in an accident that permanently changes their looks? What if they develop a condition or contract a disease that alters those precarious and completely unimportant features that made someone call them beautiful?
Let’s forget the fact that “beautiful” is perhaps the most subjective adjective there is. You will not find or create a single image that the entire world agrees is “beautiful.” You can’t even find or create one that a local group of 100 people will likely agree with!
The Ugly Side of Beauty
I’m not immune. I’ve long surrounded myself with beautiful women—the kind that are so used to turning heads and turning down dates that they don’t even realize what they experience isn’t normal. Maybe it was my way of compensating, hoping that some of their magic would rub off on me. Maybe I would get called beautiful sometimes by association.
Thanks to my closeness to such women, I’ve also seen what happens when they internalize what they’re told (often by strangers) their whole life to such a degree they start to drown when age, childbirth, and life happens.
One broke down entirely during what was supposed to be a weekend trip with girlfriends. She was thirty. She’d made her entire living off of her looks in the kind of industries where you simply could not continue after a certain age. Now, the Botox wasn’t (totally) working anymore. She couldn’t keep her body as tight and slender as she used to. She was, quite simply, growing and changing but was convinced that her beauty was the only thing of value she had—and now it seemed to be falling away.
Another friend found herself closer to 40 than 30. And newly single. That would have been fine with her if she hadn’t married her high school sweetheart, survived one hell of an unbelievable divorce, and began “starting over” again in a body that no longer gave her a free pass to anything she wanted. She was stunningly gorgeous by the definition of many as a teenager. Now, she had 20 years and two biological kids under her belt since the last time she dated. She flailed. She tried to fall back on what she used as a 16-year-old to attract dates and, let’s face it, for girls who’ve been told their whole young life they’re beautiful, those tactics included low-cut shirts and contoured cheeks.
She felt she had nothing to offer besides her looks. And, to her, even that was quickly disappearing.
The Compliment Conundrum
I try to make a conscious effort to craft my compliments to do the best possible good. There are so many other ways to compliment people that are so much more important than looks. Remarking on how strong a woman is when she goes up in free weights for her squats, how powerful she is when she finishes her first 10k, or how much you admire her endurance when she powers through her first spin class are all ways of complimenting both her aesthetics and her inner self in ways that can’t be read negatively.
I’m also a big fan of complimenting aesthetic details, especially when they won’t change with age or it’s a feature that’s clearly altered for fun. Examples include an especially smashing manicure, haircut, and attire. It lets the person know you recognized they put in some work, time, money and maybe even took some big risks and that you admire it—but it’s not even close to being indicative of who they truly are.
Spreading the Love
Obviously, there are much deeper compliments you can give. About a person’s mind, their heart, their empathy and their kindness. Those are the ones we should focus on more, but it’s hard! They’re not always so obvious. You’ve got to really pay attention to be able to suss those out. They’re nearly impossible to pinpoint with strangers because you don’t know the person yet. Instead, we use compliments as social lube to get people to like us. To make small talk. And those compliments are largely about our looks because that’s what we first see when we meet someone. It would be pretty weird if you walked up to a stranger and said, “Wow, I love your sense of humor!”
I came across a particularly sticky situation recently with a friend’s newborn baby, a little girl. I didn’t meet her in person, so all I had to go on was a photo. What can you say about a newborn, especially when you don’t even have a clue about her personality? You’re staring at the photo, and the parents are staring at you expectantly. “She’s beautiful.” It’s what you’re supposed to say. What else can you say?
“She looks just like you!” And they smiled, because she did.
We are more than our looks, than our perceived beauty. But sometimes it doesn’t feel that way, especially for the women who count those two words as making up the vast majority of compliments they’ve ever received. What a terribly shaky and scary foundation to build your sense of self-worth on.
Make your compliments count. Make them deep, and make them matter. Your words may have a bigger impact than you will ever know.
(Photo is personal)