One of my earliest memories is of an adult telling me I had beautiful, long legs. I was maybe five, and I was perched on a bench with my stumpy, sun-browned legs stretched out in front of me. It’s so distinct, this memory I have of one moment inhabiting my body in a casual, non-self-conscious way, and then hearing that statement and looking down at my legs and suddenly seeing them differently. They instantly stopped being mechanical bits of me that carried me where I wanted to go and instead became tools for potentially eliciting approval. Note to self, said my five-year-old brain. “Long” legs are preferred.
According to my grandmother, I was one of the most beautiful children ever to grace the planet. All grandparents think this of their grandchildren though, right? But I also entered beauty pageants when I was very young. Then I got into cheerleading. Beauty was a constant topic of conversation in my world, emphasized reflexively and haphazardly. I was constantly told I was pretty. Before I hit puberty, my father’s friends would comment inappropriately about how beautiful I was. I received so much praise for my looks that the idea of not being pretty was literally terrifying.
To be clear, if we’re measuring by the beauty standards of the time, I was not an exceptionally beautiful child. I think in those days, parents and other adults worried about kids’ self-esteem and thought that constantly complimenting a child on their looks was a confidence-building affirmation.
Many reading this will have experienced a similar constant stream of looks-focused compliments (or criticisms) throughout their childhoods. And of course there was the neverending barrage of society’s beauty expectations that no child of the ‘80s (or ‘90s or ‘00s) could escape. Via every possible type of media, we were told explicitly what beauty looked like: white, thin, tall, symmetrical, and blemish-free.
Now, as I enter middle age, I’m pissed I spent so much fucking time obsessing over my appearance. I’m embarrassed I was ever prideful about my looks. I’m frustrated that even now I waste precious minutes of my life being disgusted by my aging face. For decades, my somewhat pretty face garnered approval from others. As it sags, I wonder how I’m supposed to love myself anyway.
What an absolutely idiotic thing to even think about.
We need to do better. For ourselves, and for upcoming generations. I love that we’re seeing social movements that model a much more inclusive measure of beauty. All sizes, shapes, and colors can be and are beautiful.
But we also need to be wary of centering our compliments around looks. Beauty is arbitrary, subjective, and temporary. Building a person’s self-confidence, or worse, their self-worth, around their appearance links their beauty to their identity when the two shouldn’t be related.
To compliment someone’s weight loss is to issue an implied expectation about that person’s body shape. Their body shape becomes part of their identity, and now who will they be if they get fat, and are they still worthy of a compliment? (Also, what if they’re sick? What if they have an eating disorder?) To compliment how young a person looks centers “looking young” and makes a person leary of showing their age. If you compliment a person’s hair and “good hair” becomes part of their identity, god forbid they lose their hair for any reason.
Beauty doesn’t fucking matter. It’s all temporary. It doesn’t have anything to do with who a person actually is.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t compliment one another. It also doesn’t mean we can’t ever compliment a person’s looks. A special outfit or occasion warrants a compliment. If someone is looking particularly ravishing one day, by all means, tell them so.
It should also be noted that I’m a white woman writing from my own personal experience about how beauty standards have damaged my self-image. I may not have met every arbitrary beauty standard that dominated my youth, but the young women staring back at me from ads, movies, and magazines looked more or less like me. I’ll never know how it feels to have every beauty standard point at people who don’t resemble me at all.
Mante Molepo wrote a poignant piece for Huffpost in 2019 about the importance of parents telling their Black children they are beautiful. My children are half Peruvian. Most of my compliments toward them have to do with non-physical attributes, but when I do compliment their appearance, it is frequently tied to the parts of them that look Peruvian. I want them to be proud of their beautiful heritage, including how it contributes to their looks. This is important in a culture that, for all the inclusivity we see these days, still remains mostly white-washed.
And, of course, like all parents, I really do think my kids are gorgeous, so it’s hard not to gush over all the little things I think are beautiful about them. It’s just as hard with my partner and my friends. I want to constantly tell them how beautiful they are. And yet, I do try to compliment my loved ones about attributes that have nothing to do with their appearance. Instead, I try to compliment things like energy, passions, tenacity, creativity, and how a person makes me feel.
“You have a joyful smile.”
“Your laugh is the best thing ever.”
“You have a way of lighting up a room.”
“You’re fierce as hell, and I’m here for it.”
“I admire how strong you are.”
“Your tenacity boggles my mind.”
“I always feel safe with you because I know you’ll tell me the truth even when it’s hard to hear.”
“You have a calming presence.”
“You’re so creative!”
“It’s obvious you put a lot of work into this.”
“Your makeup is incredible — that takes skill.”
“Your organizational skills are top-notch.”
“Your outfit is rad — you have such a unique fashion sense!”
“You always have the best ideas.”
“I love how you see the world.”
“I’m grateful to know you.”
These are just a few examples, but the point is that our energy and what we bring to the world is more important than whether we have a thin body or a symmetrical face. We’ll all be better off the more we can shift the focus away from the way we look and onto the parts of ourselves that really matter — like the contributions we make to our communities and how we make people around us feel. Because these are the parts of us that don’t ever fade.