The compliments flew fast between old friends, zinging across our crowded table and returned just as enthusiastically. It was our way of greeting one another, connecting after time apart, and reestablishing the bond of friendship now that we could see each other in the flesh, and not just in a Facebook photo or Instagram stream.
For women, exchanging compliments is a sort of culturally hardwired ritual, not unlike the way dogs sniff each other’s butts and apes groom one another lovingly. For many of us, it’s become so automatic that while the compliments themselves may be genuine, the instinct to produce them is more habit than anything else. And for most grown women who have reached a certain level of self-acceptance through time or age or by watching enough Oprah!, the exchange game is pretty harmless. Most of us don’t live or die by every stamp of approval; we haven’t attached our self-worth to what somebody says about our handbag.
But what about our daughters?
Knowing what we do now about young girls and self-esteem — that body image issues start as early as preschool, that girls who feel good about themselves are more likely to wait longer to experiment with sex and alcohol — compliments become more problematic. I want my daughters to feel beautiful, but I don’t want them to tie their worth to the way they look. I believe that paying a genuine compliment is a gracious way to connect with another person, but I don’t want them to place more importance on flattery than it deserves. I want them to learn to say “thank you” when they receive a compliment, but I don’t want them to feel slighted if they don’t. It’s a tricky balance.
Is the solution to stop complimenting our girls on the way they look or their sparkly shoes or their divinely creative hairdos? To stick to empowering them by focusing on their inner beauty and growing minds? Maybe, strictly speaking. But in the real world — the one where my girlfriends and I also fall into flattery as an easy means of female connection — I’m not sure that eliminating comments about appearance solves the problem. Yes, it’s important to ask great questions and treat our girls as the bright young people they are. But I also think there are ways to compliment a young girl on the way she looks that helps to teach her what to value about herself and other women.
When it comes to my own two daughters, I’m not trying to stop complimenting, I’m just trying to do it better. Here’s how.
Oh, the outfits
It’s easy to see how a preschooler who hears again and again how pretty she looks in her princess dress will begin to draw the conclusion that without it she is less so.
I steer my compliments in the direction of creativity and activity, two traits I want my daughters to own with pride. “I love all the colors you have going on today! What’s your favorite?” sends the message that her creative choices matter. “You look so pretty in pink!” reduces the outfit to a single color and her to that loaded adjective. I also say things like, “Those shoes look like they’d help you run really FAST!” or “I love dresses in the summertime because they’re so comfortable and cool, don’t you?”
My 7-year-old has amazing eyelashes: long, dark, and impossibly thick. She’s so used to being told that her eyes are beautiful that she shrugs it off with a quick “thanks” and moves on. When it comes to complimenting little girls on their natural beauty — darling dimples, gorgeous curls or flawless skin — I think we have to tread carefully for two reasons. One, often the features we covet as women are just the ones young girls wish they could do without, so remarking on her sweet freckles may not be what a tween girl wants to hear. And two, Mother Nature is a fickle lady (as those of us approaching middle age know too well): straight hair turns curly, porcelain skin meets puberty, and someday my daughter may choose to fixate on her well-endowed brows over her luscious lashes.
I try to stay away from complimenting little girls on their pretty hair or long legs, but I do find ways to admire their natural beauty as it relates to their whole self. “I love the way your whole face lights up when you smile,” or “You looked so confident up there on the stage” takes the focus off the features and onto the person they belong to.
Size doesn’t matter
It’s the first thing we often say to a child we haven’t seen in a while: “Wow! You’re getting so big!” It isn’t even a compliment, really, but it often comes out sounding like a general appreciation of a kid having successfully outgrown her last year’s pajamas (as if she had anything to do with it). But compliments that involve a girl’s size lead down a slippery slope, even when we think we’re being careful about “fat talk” and hot-button body image issues.
Instead of commenting on growing girls or size in general, I love to point out what they can DO with those growing bodies. “You’re tall enough to ride the roller coaster now — how fun!” puts the emphasis where it belongs — on all the things she can do with her body, not how big or small it is.
Model great compliments
I can’t change the fact that it’s ingrained in our culture to gush over big blue eyes or fawn over a pretty dress. Like it or not, my daughters are going to receive those kinds of compliments in their growing years. But I can be intentional about the way I compliment other girls and women. Recently I’ve made a point of saying out loud some of the things that run through my head when I see a particularly poised or stylish woman — especially when it goes against the grain of conventional beauty.
“I loved chatting with that woman in the bookstore,” I might say. “She was so passionate about her job, and so helpful to us. And didn’t she have a cool collection of bracelets on her arm?”
At my recent girls’ catch-up lunch, the compliments were just the warm up act. After a flurry of hugs and flattery, we got into the real meat of life, the sticky stuff reserved for in-person conversations. We talked about kids, mothering, marriages and our parents’ health. We asked hard questions and laughed loudly. We left feeling full, and also lighter.
There was intelligence, honesty, bravery and hilarity around the table that afternoon. There were also some amazing shoes, gorgeous eyes and at least one enviable handbag. All of it was worthy of praise.
That’s what I want my daughters to know. Your outfit doesn’t define you, nor does your size, or the coincidental proximity of your God-given beauty to a man-made aesthetic. On the other hand, your outfit is fabulous because it reflects your creativity, and your lashes are gorgeous because they are a part of you, and your long legs can take you to the top of a mountain or the front of a stage, if that’s where you want to go. You look great, and you are great. You are beautiful because of who you are, not who you are because you are beautiful.
(And sparkly shoes are just plain fun.)
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