(Without complimenting people on how they look...)
People new to body neutrality often find it super difficult to stop complimenting people’s appearances.
Even if they’re on board with the concept that complimenting appearance generally does more harm than good (by upholding oppressive beauty ideals and body hierarchies, as well as reinforcing the link between a person’s appearance, and what they deserve), it’s still hard to break such a well-practiced habit.
Plus, it can be incredibly confusing, which is why people often ask things like:
Ok but… what should I say instead??
Sometimes people really do just look amazing… am I just supposed to ignore that??
I’m a positive person and I like to spread positive energy, do I really have to give that up?
For anyone in that boat, I’m going to share my biggest piece of advice when it comes to giving compliments: focus on sharing impact, rather than sharing opinion.
Sharing opinion is how most of us have learned to give and receive compliments: it’s a way of ranking or assessing something about a person, and then sharing our score with them. The issue with this is that we end up sharing our opinions as if they were facts, when they’re not.
Some examples of opinion-sharing compliments:
You’re so sexy.
That outfit is very flattering.
You’re better looking than _____.
That dress is gorgeous.
You look beautiful.
There are many problems with this kind of compliment, starting with the fact that it reminds the receiver that their appearance has just been (and is constantly being) ranked and assessed.
Every time you compliment someone in this way, you’re saying: I just evaluated your body/appearance. And even though it ended in a positive score (this time), it still reinforces the idea that the receiver is always being looked at, evaluated, and scored in this way.
That right there is objectification.
By sharing an opinion-based compliment, you send the message that this objectifying dynamic is acceptable and appropriate: that the receiver’s body exists to be enjoyed and evaluated by others, and that the viewer’s score matters– or should matter– to the receiver.
Again, this sends a harmful and objectifying message:
Your body and appearance exist to please me, therefore you should feel happy, grateful, and successful when I like it.
And on the flip side, of course:
Your body and appearance exist to please me, therefore you should feel ashamed, unhappy, and like a failure when I don’t like it.
You can’t send one message without sending the other.
Another problem with opinion-based compliments is that they don’t have much of an effect on the person being complimented.
This kind of compliment is intended to sort of convince a person they should feel good, but by using an opinion in the place of a fact, the person is very rarely convinced of anything. After all, an opinion can always just be disagreed with.
This is why so many compliments seem to just bounce right off folks struggling with body image issues—someone says “you’re gorgeous,” and your mind just immediately says “nope, they’re wrong.” Opinions are notoriously bad at convincing people of stuff.
So… if the point of complimenting someone on how they look is to make them feel good, why would we compliment people in a way that doesn’t do a very good job of that??
Enter the impact-sharing compliment!
By letting a person know what impact or effect they’re having on you, people can’t really disagree with you. You’re sharing your personal experience, and not trying to convince someone of anything, so your words tend to feel more true and meaningful, and to have a much bigger impact on how the receiver feels.
Some examples of impact-sharing compliments, with regard to a person’s appearance:
It makes me so happy to see your face.
I desire you/You’re turning me on.
Looking into your eyes makes me feel warm and gushy.
Seeing how you express yourself through clothes always brings me joy.
Looking at you makes my body feel like sunshine.
Of course, you can also go even deeper, and share the ways you’re impacted or affected by them as a whole person, to get even further away from appearances, such as:
The way you take care of me makes me feel loved.
Being around you always makes me feel better.
The way you communicate your feelings turns me on.
Your thoughtfulness makes me feel seen.
Your courage inspires me to be braver.
I feel so honored and trusted when you open up to me.
Whew! Do you see the difference??
Not only do impact-sharing compliments avoid upholding systems of oppression, and avoid objectifying someone, they also just… feel better.
Try this out and let me know how it goes! Yes it takes a bit more courage, vulnerability, and effort than telling someone they look great, but the outcome is less harmful and more effective at making the person feel good.
And that, to me at least, is what counts.
Big hug! Jessi