I grew up in one of the most image-conscious cities in the world. As a child, I took it for granted that people were always commenting on how other people looked. With age and experience, however (and now as a mother), these comments have become awkward for me, and even unwelcome — yet they are surprisingly pervasive.
During a stressful period in my twenties, I developed stomach pains which made it hard to eat and I started losing weight. Of course, everyone noticed the weight loss and told me that I “looked great!” I appreciated the compliments, but it also felt strange to get so much positive feedback for my appearance, while feeling like a total mess on the inside. It took me a while to realize that my inner world needed a lot more attention if I wanted to feel great about myself again.
Many years later, the same thing happened in my thirties. A stressful period prompted a sudden weight loss and everyone commented on how great I looked. This time I knew better than to trust the external validation, and I turned the focus inward, to let my body recover from the stress and find it’s natural equilibrium.
In the context of my own experiences, it now seems like a strange social custom to habitually comment on how people look — especially to the extent that we use it as a greeting. I recently attended an event with some old friends where at least five different people (whom I hadn’t seen in a few years) greeted me with an emphatic, and surely well-intended, compliment — as in “Wow, you look great!” In some circles, it’s a pretty common greeting.
As nice as it is to hear, the skeptic in me takes note of the underlying questions that arise: what these people would say if I wasn’t looking so “great” that day? Was it a meaningful compliment, or a social reflex? And when exactly did we decide that commenting on a person’s appearance is a culturally acceptable way to greet one another?
Wouldn’t it be better to simply say, “it’s so great to see you!”
A compliment can be very appropriate and even uplifting — it’s definitely a great thing to hear once in a while — but employing superficial judgements as a form of greeting (or as social commentary) is a tradition that I’m not interested in carrying on for future generations. The subconscious message behind these comments is that it’s okay to make superficial value judgements about each other, and I just don’t agree with that.
Let’s encourage our kids to keep these value judgements out of the conversation by modeling it ourselves. Lets be conscious of the way we speak, and greet our friends and loved ones. Next time you see an old friend, don’t just tell her how great she looks — tell her what a pleasure it is to see her again. Lets focus on the intrinsic value of our relationships rather than external value judgements.
I know that there is a lot more to me than what my appearance reveals — and we all need to be reminded of that. I want the children in my life to preserve the awareness that real value lies within.