Back in high school, my friends and I started blogging on a site called opendiary.com. I used to fill out this survey at the end of the year about what the year was like for me, and what I hoped/expected for the future. This personal tradition dates back to 2003, and is something I cherish having now as a window into my younger self.
In filling out the survey for 2010, I came across my new year’s resolution from 2009:
[My] resolution for next year that I started about a month ago is to never comment on anyone’s appearance. It’s a common theme in psychology […] that we learn about ourselves through the way others see us; this is a self-concept, and it’s directly related to self-esteem. We rely on others’ actions and reactions to validate our gender display and especially for women, sexual appeal […]. The false beauty ideals that we have collectively internalized harm EVERYONE and do no good except to create an invalid and unreliable standard against which we can judge ourselves[…]. By refusing to reinforce these norms I can try to deprogram my own lookism and help to build a positive self-concept in others that is unrelated to their physical appearance […].
“Nice haircut!” or “You look cute with those boots on today!” sounds harmless enough. But what are we really saying? “Today you are a close match for our beauty norms”. An innocent complement can reinforce appearance norms, and confirms that people need to dress/groom in a way that’s pleasing to others. There is a difference between “Your christmas socks really make me feel cheerful” and “that outfit makes you look good”. The first one is commenting about how they make you feel, not how they look. Think about it: it makes you “look good” according to whom? Who gets to be the judge of what does and doesn’t look good?
Since it is still thoughtful and kind to show someone you are paying attention, I haven’t stopped giving complements – only changed the format. Instead of “Your haircut looks nice,” I’ll say “You got a haircut! Do you like it?” or “Oh this color is much more red, do you feel like it’s more ‘you’?”. This shifts the focus from how others feel about their appearance, to how they feel about their appearance.
What matters about someone’s appearance is whether they like it or not. Not whether you, their classmates, or even significant other(s) like it. In the face of such prevalent and harmful sexist, racist, ableist, sizeist, etc. standards of beauty, and false norms that (especially women) aspire to, we need to be careful what messages we send about appearance. Commenting on others’ appearances is strongly ingrained into our culture, almost unthinkingly so. Friends are supposed to do it. Family feels it’s their job to do it. Strangers think it’s nice to do it. We comment on others’ appearances as a way of socializing each other, of helping each other find a way to ‘fit in’ and sometimes, preparing for the judgment we will face in the outside world. But this is a reactive approach to dismantling lookism and promoting body acceptance. We need a proactive approach.
Make it YOUR New Year’s resolution to stop commenting on people’s appearances like it’s YOU who matters.