Compliments are controversial around these parts. I’m a fan of both giving and receiving them, and feel that doing so is beneficial. But I’ve heard you folks say time and again that compliments can be tricky, confusing, even painful depending on how they’re presented and how the person receiving them interprets them.
Since I am fascinated by all things style and body image, the compliments I tend to encourage have to do with those two topics. And what I’ve learned is that when some people are told, “You look great today,” what they hear is, “You look better today than you usually look.” That when some people are told, “You’ve got gorgeous hair,” they feel uncomfortable accepting praise for something that is genetic, inherited, and mainly beyond their control. That when some people are told, “You look fabulous in that dress,” they feel the underlying implication is, “You have conformed to social beauty norms. Good job.”
All of that is valid. And, frankly, frustrating. When I hand out these compliments, I don’t have a hidden agenda that’s intentionally tied to manufactured norms, fueled by keeping tabs on how “good” or “bad” someone else looks from day to day, or based in the belief that biological traits are the only ones worthy of praise. I give compliments so that people feel appreciated, significant, noticed, and happy. I give them to lift spirits. And knowing that an urge promote positivity may be inadvertently creating negativity? It saddens me.
In attempting to defend compliments on personal style and physical beauty, I landed on the idea of stewardship. We cultivate personal style, select our own clothing, and make decisions about how we clothe our bodies. Compliments on personal style and the clothing items we wear are tied to taste and active choices. Someone may say, “I love that skirt,” but underneath that is, “and your taste and personal style.” And while gorgeous hair may be an inherited trait, it must be washed, cared for, styled, cut, and … well, stewarded. Same goes for great skin, fabulous legs, perfect nails, and marvelous posture. Biology gave a those traits a leg-up, but invested time and energy, care, and active stewardship keep them in admirable shape.
Sounds good, right? But this defense falls short because so much of how we look is beyond our control. We wear what we can afford, what fits, what is geographically available. We wear what’s appropriate to our jobs and social circles. And while working within constraints is admirable, it can feel like a rigged game when many who receive style-related accolades have different constraints. Or none at all. And what about the aspects of our bodies that change despite our best efforts? What about physical changes that happen to us and leave us struggling to react?
And that brings us to the philosophy of complimenting things that people DO instead of things that people ARE. Which I love. It can be trickier to implement and requires a more intimate connection with the complimentee, but often generates compliments that feel more meaningful, genuine, and earned.
Which leaves me chasing my tail. Because if I see a woman on the bus who has the most gorgeous hair I’ve ever clapped eyes upon, I want to tell her. Can I? Should I suppress the urge? What if I say I love how she styled her hair? Is that more doing than being? I want to be able to praise people I don’t know, and I want to be able to hand out compliments that boost self-esteem as it relates to body image. But this circular logic has me wondering how.
I suppose I can just encourage you – and myself – to assume positive intent when in comes to compliments. Maybe I’m naive, but I believe most praise of this kind comes from gut-level reactions to seeing pleasing things, and is unlikely to stem from premeditated hopes of undercutting confidence or long-term comparisons. When people see beauty, they remark. If it is your beauty that is being remarked upon, I’d urge you to see the good inherent in that act instead of defaulting to suspicion. It won’t always be possible, but it’s something to strive for.
Image courtesy Tor Kristensen