We live in a world where, as women and femme folks, our value is unfortunately often associated with our looks. We are constantly inundated with the message that, in order to have worth, we must conform to mainstream beauty standards. We are told that our goal should be to “be beautiful.” And because the assumption is that women want to look attractive, we often compliment others by telling them how good they look. We may feel like we’re telling them something positive, but sometimes those compliments might actually be forms of body-shaming.
Oftentimes if we’re complimenting someone, the intention is not to be hurtful or backhanded (though some people are into making passive-aggressive comments, and this is not for them.) But many times, when we make comments about other people’s appearance, those comments subtly reinforce mainstream standards of beauty by indicating that we think the person looks good because they are living up to those standards, or we think they’d look better if they did.
There are commonly given compliments that may not actually be as complimentary as the appear at first glance. So if you want to compliment someone without unintentionally body-shaming them, here are seven comments you should stop making to other people.
1“You Look So Skinny In That Dress!”
When this is given as a compliment, it equates thinness with beauty. And I hope by now we all know that it’s totally possible to be both fat and beautiful.
2“You’re So Brave To Wear That.”
This one can be taken many different ways, and they’re all equally offensive. Brave because my body doesn’t fit conventional standards of beauty? Brave because I stand out from the crowd by not conforming to trends? Brave because it’s revealing and you think I might be catcalled? Any way you slice it, it’s a backhanded way to shame someone.
3“You Have Such A Pretty Face.”
And what about the rest of me?
4“That Outfit Is So Flattering!”
Over at Bustle, Jodie Layne makes a case for us to do away with this word altogether, and I’m on board. She writes that, "the word 'flattering' is really just body policing wrapped in the illusion of a compliment.” Because what we’re really saying when we use the word flattering is that someone’s outfit makes their body look close to the mainstream ideal — which implies that their body isn’t good enough the way that it is.
5“You Look So Great Without Your Glasses."
My mother says this one to me all the time. And while I know the intention is to say that I have a pretty face (see number three), this is really a way to police the choices we make with our bodies. There’s no shame in needing vision aids, which is what glasses are. Why should we have to hide the fact that we need glasses to help us see in order to be seen as more attractive? Plus, I think glasses are a super fun fashion accessory.
6“You Look Better Without Makeup.”
This might seem like a compliment because you might think you’re telling someone that they’re naturally pretty. But for some people, makeup is a very important part of their gender presentation and they like to wear it. And regardless of your intention, you’re still commenting on someone’s appearance in a judgmental way, and that’s not cool.
7“You’re Super Pretty. . . For A Black Girl.”
Aside from being body shaming, this is flat-out racist. Since Eurocentric beauty is what’s upheld as ideal in our society, when you say this to a Black woman, you’re saying that Blackness is bad or undesirable. You are shaming dark skin, wide hips, full lips, and kinky hair, and any other features usually associated with Blackness. This applies to other races, too. “You’re pretty for an Asian girl” is equally offensive. How about just “you’re pretty,” full stop?