Seriously. Stop calling girls pretty. Ok, don’t stop completely. But stop using pretty/hot/good looking as the only compliment you give out to people. I am writing this think-piece from my point of view (obviously) using my experiences as a girl who grew up in a society where “you’re so pretty” is considered the highest compliment you can give. No, this isn’t a whole post where I complain that people find me attractive or I complain that life is really tough for someone who fits into society’s norms of what is attractive. Quite the opposite actually. I would write this more generally but then I’m afraid it would lose its impactfulness so, I am risking sounding narcissistic in hopes that my personal account of the harms of shallow compliments sticks in your head.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t negate the positive feeling that comes with being complimented on physical appearances. But, as I’ve grown older I’ve realized that only complimenting one’s outer features is truly detrimental to their well-being. Let me start from the beginning and explain to you how I reached this conclusion.
Growing up I was always known as the “pretty girl”. Family and friends would be quick to comment on an aspect of my physical appearance every time they saw me. This continued affirmation gave me a sense of confidence as I went about my life. These compliments propped me up and made me, at often times, feel invincible. I knew that we lived in a society so driven by looks that being conventionally pretty guaranteed a fast pass to success. But, as I continued to get showered with praise for something over which I had no control, my efforts in other aspects of my life often got overlooked. Rarely seen as the “smart girl” when I won speech contests and writing contests or as the “funny girl” when I made people laugh or as the “driven girl” when I held countless student council positions. I was underappreciated for things I accomplished and over appreciated for something way out of my control.
Although I always felt slightly peeved by everyone’s insistence on putting me in a box of a one-dimensional personality based solely on my outer appearance, the real moment I saw the true detrimental effect of being told my worth was in my physical appearance was my first semester of university. For most, the first year of university is a crazy time where you make amazing friends, have life changing experiences and discover yourself. Yes, I did make amazing friends and had some incredible experiences my first semester of university, but, I also had the toughest 4 months of my life. At first, everything was going great. I loved my program, loved my roommate, loved my newly joined sorority and was truly happy where I was. Then, as the months went by I noticed that I had lost a piece of myself. I dyed my hair brown in November and it was super thin and gangly from the lack of protein I was consuming in the underwhelming dining hall. Despite the underwhelming-ness of the dining hall I seemed to have been slightly whelmed by it as I found myself eating constantly and got hit with the freshman fifteen. This was the first time in my life people stopped calling me pretty. I became distraught. Sure, I was getting straight A’s in my classes and I was meeting all these amazing people and I got elected to serve on the executive of my sorority. But, I was miserable. For so long I had put so much value on how I looked on the outside that I didn’t know how to react to life when I no longer looked the way I wanted to.
This brings me to the whole point of this post. When you get told your entire life that you are pretty and rarely get complimented on other aspects of your character, the transient nature of beauty will really screw you over.
Thankfully, going through this rough patch in my life made me realize what was truly important to me and gave me a space to grow as an individual. I realized how to find a balance between caring about how I looked and not letting it dictate how I perceived myself. After discovering that the root of my unhappiness stemmed from my unhappiness with the one thing I thought I had to offer to the world, I was able to see that my looks were the smallest facet of my personality and that I had many other things going for me. Yes, I ended up dying my hair back to blonde and working out every morning but, those two ‘superficial’ changes I made paralleled the internal shift I had made. I no longer just saw myself as the pretty girl, instead, I saw myself as someone who can offer the world my brain, my personality, and my opinion. In the perfectly articulated words of my role-model Elle Woods, “I just felt, like, for the first time… that somebody expected me to do something more with my life than become a Victoria’s Secret model.”
Xoxo – J