The other day, while scrolling through Facebook, I saw a picture that a family member posted of her daughter relaxing in the passenger seat of a car, smiling at the camera. The caption read that her daughter was now officially a sophomore in high school. “Where does the time go,” her mother declared. I decided to quickly browse the comments before adding my own, and what I found there is the basis for this post. The comments were downright insulting– and by that, I mean that every comment was about her beauty.
I know. I was getting your feelings all hot and bothered for a moment there. You were about to pounce on the assholes who insulted a sweet teenage girl. No, everyone was being nice, but when it comes to girls and women, we’re programmed to center our compliments on appearance. The long stream of comments saying “beautiful” “so beautiful” “she’s so beautiful” and “BEAUTIFUL!!! (heart eyes emoji, heart eyes emoji, heart eyes emoji)” tells me that people are sincere but either desperately lacking in knowledge of adjectives, synonyms, themes and/or substance, or they are operating on autopilot and unaware that they have morphed into a broken gender-biased record.
Granted, the picture wasn’t giving me tremendous fodder for a thoughtful response, i.e. she wasn’t holding a degree or scaling a mountain, nevertheless, I did take a moment to frame a thoughtful, relevant compliment that didn’t include the word beautiful. It wasn’t hard. I commented on her accomplishment and future accomplishments.
In the dating world, this narrow focus on appearance is called going for the low-hanging fruit, taking easy street, laziness. But in a broader social context, women take part in this behavior just as often as men do, sometimes more so. Studies have found that girls and women, no matter how smart, funny, accomplished, passionate or daring, are primarily given appearance-based compliments. Nice dress, nice hair, love your shoes, great skin, you’re hot, you’re so pretty.
Of course, we all love a good old-fashioned compliment. On some days, a good compliment can be iced tea swirling in an ice cold pitcher on a hot summer’s day; however, in this age where women have unprecedented opportunities to make use of their intelligence, humor, passion, skill, wit, talents, courage, voice; when we are accomplishing so much, surely it’s a damn shame to be getting compliments primarily on our appearance.
Do we tell little boys how smart they are and little girls how pretty?
Chances are the answer is yes.
In discussing the differences in people’s responses to her infant daughter, B.J. Epstein makes this poignant observation:
[When people believe that they are interacting with a baby boy they say things like:]
“What a well-behaved boy you have.” “He’s really studying the world. He’s a curious one, isn’t he?” “He seems like a cheerful boy!”
[And when they learn that she’s a girl:]
“I’m so sorry! Of course she’s a girl! What a gorgeous little girl! Aren’t you beautiful? Look at those eyes!”
Why do we focus on girls’ appearances, but boys’ behavior? What message are we sending to even the tiniest babies about what we value in them? When we compliment girls on their looks but boys on their actions, we suggest that boys do and girls just are. Boys are active and girls are passive. Boys look and girls are looked at.
The least that we can do is pay attention and keep reminding ourselves that girls are more than the collection of features and garments we see before us. As with everything else that women through history have done for us, progress will be in small increments at a time, but that’s still moving forward and every bit counts.
I get it. Women’s beauty and bodies have been our strongest commodity throughout most of history and throughout most cultures. We’re used to it. It’s in our subconscious. We do it without thinking. It feels natural. It’s embedded in our history, and in our culture, and in our families, and among our friends, and woven into the fabric of everything. Also, it’s low-hanging fruit.
Women are out here accomplishing stuff and being what they want to be; they are nurturing families and working with intelligence and wisdom and boldness and kindness; they’re passionately creating things that they love; things that will be remembered, and things that will be forgotten, but they’re pouring their hearts in either way. They’re telling our stories through letters and film and photography. They are, we are, breaking through– living lives unimaginable for the women before us. So, let’s compliment each other as whole humans.
Compliment her on her accomplishments, hard work, creativity, personality traits, intelligence, career, passion, sense of humor, resourcefulness, wit, ideas, athleticism, skills, talents, courage.
Am I saying it’s a crime to pass a woman on the street and tell her you that love her shoes? Heck no. Do it. But when we have an opportunity to get to speak to someone beyond a two-second encounter, let’s strive for something more substantial. And as our daughters go into this next school year, let’s remind them of all the beautiful things they have to offer.
Andrew Marvell understood the makings of a good compliment, as shown in this excerpt from his highly anthologized poem “To His Coy Mistress”
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
The speaker makes his love of her bosom quite clear, but he also mentions her heart. Okay, nevermind, I’m getting the feeling that he just threw her heart in there for good measure. If you’d like to know what all the fuss is about, check out my Lit Talks this and every Thursday night at 8pm est on Instagram Live where we read and discuss a work of literature.
My name is Lyz-Stephanie and I want to inspire you to be more connected to yourself and the world, to find beauty in simple pleasures, and to have more adventures. Every day we can do something to make our lives happier and richer, make our minds more active and engaged. I’m on the journey. Will you join me?