Non-appearance-related compliments

Our culture focuses so much on appearance that it can seem like a fact of life. For some decades now, thinness has been considered the ideal for how people should look. Lighter skin tones are still quite honestly considered a basic standard, but not skin that’s very pale: a nice “healthy” tan is desirable. Clear skin is best. Straight hair is currently “in.”

We focus so much on appearance that it can be difficult even to give someone a compliment that’s not looks-based. Take a look at your social media feed and you’ll see what I mean. Anytime someone posts a new selfie or changes their profile picture, there’s a barrage of comments all saying “you look great!” “beautiful!” “haven’t changed a bit!” That’s so common, in fact, that Facebook makes “beautiful” and “gorgeous” automatic reactions on stories. You don’t even have to type it! Just click on the words to react.

But doesn’t the ubiquity of those words ever make you want something different? Do they ever feel a little insincere? Do you want to stand out from the crowd by receiving or giving a compliment/reaction that isn’t the same as usual or that at the very least captures more of who you or someone else is than how your/their face or body looks?

It’s time to up the compliment game. First, challenge yourself to stop commenting on others’ appearances, or at least to make it just a 1 in 10 occurrence. Second, dig deep. If you are reacting to someone’s photo on Facebook or Instagram, for example, you are likely friends. You know something about them and like them (if not, you may want to consider paring down your “friends” list). What are qualities you treasure? My friends are, among them, kind, strong, courageous, faithful, wise, well-read, knowledgeable, patient, generous, loving, outgoing, thoughtful, fun, hilarious, clever, persevering and talented. And that’s just a few of their admirable qualities. They’re great parents, hard workers, experienced in all kinds of work and non-work capacities, dedicated volunteers. In short, they’re people I adore.

I like to say these kinds of things:

  • “I love seeing that big, friendly grin.”
  • “You always do such fun activities with your kids.
  • “The way your eyes light up makes me smile.”
  • “Your style is always so fabulous and reflects you so well.”
  • “Seeing your face reminds me how good it feels to be around you.”
  • “Your goodness just radiates from your face.”
  • “I love the twinkles in your eyes.”
  • “You have such great taste in clothes.”
  • “I’m so blessed to know you.”
  • “Your smile is 100 watts of happiness.”
  • “I admire so much how caring you are.”
  • “I can see that fun mischievousness I like so much reflected in this photo.”

It’s even possible to compliment people you don’t know, out in the real world. You can compliment a harried mom in the supermarket on how kind and patient she is being with her toddler. You can tell someone their scarf is gorgeous or the color of their shirt is stunning. You can compliment a stranger on their smile.

Just think how much you can lift someone’s day by taking a minute (or a few) to figure out a different way of commenting besides saying how beautiful or gorgeous or thin or young they look. Pick a compliment with staying power: it sticks because it’s different, and it sticks because it reflects something about them that is more real and long-lasting than what’s on the surface. Go and have some fun crafting your own. (Or you can use some of my ideas; it’s OK.)

Share some of yours with me, too, if you like.

I’ll never have a thigh gap, but I am experiencing a big gap between ideals and reality

You know when you dream about eating something off-diet and demanding of some complete (thin) strangers walking by, “Do you ever eat?!”, you’re self-conscious (and frustrated) about your weight.

I’m half-proud, half-embarrassed for myself that I embarked on a strict diet last week, mainly because, yes, I want to look better. And I want it to happen fast. Here’s the thing: I have felt very self-conscious about my weight in photos of late, and I have several big events coming up for which I’ll be in numerous photographs, and I don’t want to look fat.

Yep, there it is.

Yep, my self-image is pretty distorted right now.
Yep, my self-image is pretty distorted right now.

As much as I talk about self-image and how bad our society is about focusing on looks, whether it’s regarding weight, age, or relative size of body parts, I still struggle with it myself. Sometimes not so much, other times mightily. As I most recently mentioned to my therapist, “I feel horrible about how I look.” Her response: “Right now you’re very stressed and not feeling good about yourself in lots of other ways, so that’s not surprising.” Meaning, essentially, try not to worry about it; it’ll pass when you manage to process everything else that’s had you down.

So I kind of feel like a hypocrite when I’m urging everyone, male and female, to be more aware of how media and society all around us dose us liberally and continually with the religion of thinness and image, of airbrushed (impossible-to-achieve) perfection, and I am struggling with it so much still.

It’s complicated by the matter of health: when I’m stressed, I eat sweets. I overeat. That’s simply not good for my body, and that’s important. So I do also want to work on that. I want to break my physical and emotional addiction to sugar and my reliance on food as a crutch. But I would like to figure out how to separate that out from my worries about how those habits affect my LOOKS.

Here’s another thing: plenty of people out there have far worse eating habits than I do, but they’re thin. So their health might be in need of improvement, but they either don’t worry about it, or they don’t worry about others seeing them as fat. Because don’t we tend to judge people who are overweight? We automatically think, They need to eat less. They need to have better self-control. They need to take better care of themselves. But health and thinness are not always directly correlated.

That’s not to say I excuse myself for slipping into bad habits. I can do better by my body sometimes. But our society judges on appearance, and I judge myself. I have a lifetime of negative messages to overcome. And that simply makes it much more difficult to just take care of myself the way I should because I’m devoting so much emotional energy to the image part of the equation, which is NOT the important part; overall health is.

I have had a lot to deal with the past months, the past year, with a few breaks in the onslaught of expectations, responsibilities, and struggles to catch my breath. I anticipate having some breaks to catch my breath and focus more accurately on taking care of my health — emotional, mental, spiritual and physical — fairly soon, but in the meantime, I’m just getting through it as well as I can.

And dieting. Like I said, I’m a little embarrassed because I’m doing it almost exclusively for the reward of looking better in pictures. It’s not the example I’d like to set but I’m doing it anyway, just because right now so much has beaten me down I don’t feel good about myself in many ways; I feel weak and run-down and just not up to snuff. I feel like I’m letting people down left and right because I simply can’t do everything everyone needs me to do at all times. So that feeling extends to how I look.

I’m going to keep working on my self-image, my self-esteem, the ways I look at myself and talk to myself. I’m going to do better. Just forgive me the lapses right now in my actions and how they don’t match my ideals. It’s a process for me, and it’s a process for us all as individuals and as a society. For me, this topic mixes my mental health awareness-raising with my awareness-raising about society and image. The intersection is a little delicate, and I’m navigating it as well as I can in this tricky time. I hope I’m making progress in it all because all I can do is just hope I’m slowly doing better. I’m going to just try to remember to pat myself on the back for what I’m doing better: life isn’t about improving overnight. It’s a journey with all kinds of intertwined paths leading to a place where we’re our best selves in all aspects.

Speak up about the real value of women

It would be difficult for anyone to argue that women aren’t being demeaned as objects in pretty much every single corner of society. It happens so much and is such a thoroughly pervasive message in media that we’ve almost forgotten to be angry about it. We just take for granted that it’s happening.

Well, I think it’s time for women — and men — to stand up and show some anger about this phenomenon. It’s time to stop the saturation of our culture with images of sexualized women.

You can’t slap a pink ribbon on everything and say it’s “supporting” women.

I’ve been writing off and on about this topic, and I’ve nearly finished the book I’m writing, which focuses on the topic from a faith-based angle. But nearly every day, I see something else that makes me want to shake my fist and just DO something, SAY something. Yesterday it was a USA Today article about how breast cancer is being sexualized. Wha?? Yep, it’s true. I suppose I’d already kind of subconsciously noticed it myself, but the article really clarified the point. I also had just noticed a full-page ad in an in-flight magazine when I was traveling over the weekend: it showed a photo of a very trim, fairly young woman with smallish but nice breasts (a point I feel inclined to note, since most of these kinds of photos show women with larger-than-life breasts) dressed in an itty-bitty white bikini. Flat abs, no fat, no cellulite, no blemishes. And the ad had the nerve to have been run by plastic surgeons touting the message that they can do great reconstruction on women who have had breast cancer. Aaaaiiiieee!

Let’s think about this honestly. Is the average survivor of breast cancer going to look like a 20-something model? Ah, nope. She’s going to have scars, could be some pretty big and ugly ones, depending on how much surgery had to be done. She might be thin (thanks to not being able to eat much during chemo), but not necessarily in the “attractive” way. It might not even be possible for reconstructive surgery to get her back to “normal.” A friend in her 50s recently told me about her experience with breast cancer, and she said that after having a double, radical mastectomy, she was told by surgeons that the process for giving her breasts would be lengthy and, as she put it, “barbaric.” And then she wouldn’t even be able to have normal-looking breasts: they wouldn’t be able to give them nipples. She turned down the surgery; no point in going through all that to have substandard breasts.

Nope, these kinds of demonstrations of support for breast cancer aren’t help. They are simply marketing opportunities painted in pink. The article quotes Karuna Jagger, executive director of advocacy group Breast Cancer Action, as saying, “The implicit message in these campaigns is that it is breasts that are sexy; sexy is what is important; and we should care about breast cancer because it takes those lovely, sexy breasts out of the world . . . Every October, the stunts just gets more bizarre and further removed from what’s needed for this epidemic.”

Why can’t we just stand up and say, ENOUGH, ALREADY!? Sexy, young, thin, well-endowed female models are used to sell almost everything. I work out at the gym every day and can see a bank of about five TV monitors showing different networks while I exercise. I read or listen to music, but I can’t help but glance over at the monitors and see what’s going on. At any given time, I see several images of unrealistically-shaped young women, on commercials or the news or various programs. The anchors on news networks are thin and usually young (at least in comparison to the men, who can be any age). Innocuous game shows feature models showing off the prizes. Soap operas feature cute young girls and some older women who have often had various work done (at the very least, Botox and injections to plump up their lips or cheekbones). All the commercials feature women. Products for men and commercials aimed at men feature sexy models, scantily clad. Products for women and commercials selling those products for women feature women; most of them are for hair color (get rid of gray) or skin creams that aim to reduce wrinkles and make skin look younger and fresher. Car commercials even mostly feature women: young, trim models.

It’s all about sexualization. When will all women say, Enough. No more. I refuse to be sexualized, to be objectified, any more. It starts at home and with our circle of friends, even just on Facebook or Pinterest. Stop pinning the “fitspiration” pins. I don’t. I like to exercise, and it’s a vital part of my daily routine. But I refuse to put another photo in front of me that has a ridiculously skinny teen or 20-something clad in a sports bra and tight boy shorts, touting her amazing workout that will make all of us look just like her. It’s ridiculous. We should be laughing, not trying to emulate those girls! Stop posting about how you feel fat or ugly or that you look old. Don’t expect yourself to look your regular self two weeks post-baby, either. Stop focusing on how you look, period. And don’t focus on how your friends look. Support them as they do great things with their lives, as they work on being their best selves.

Women’s important body parts aren’t our breasts or backsides. They’re our hearts and hands.
Photo by Louise Docker, via Wikipedia

Focus on YOU, women. Allow the men in your life to focus on who you are inside, too. Teach your daughters to be who they are, and teach your sons positive language about women and not to focus on appearance. Yes, be healthy. Try to eat mostly well. Exercise regularly. But don’t make how you look the end-all, be-all. Don’t let yourself be objectified. Don’t let the media and the marketers and the porn producers dictate how you feel about yourself or how society views you. Gently remind friends that they are “more than eye candy,” as Beauty Redefined enshrines in billboards, or that they are more than just numbers on a scale.

We women are amazing creatures. We nurture future generations. We lead society. We do great things. Let’s show ’em what we’ve got! We’re not about our body parts, unless we talk about our brains, our hearts, or our hands. Let’s join those hands and speak up.