In the last blog, I discussed women’s culturally sanctioned inclination to engage in body bashing. This verbal bashing is both toward one’s own body as well as the bodies of others. This week’s blog will address the flip side of this issue: how women respond when on the receiving end of a compliment.
In Esteem’s body image seminar for teen girls, we do an exercise requiring each girl to give her partner a compliment about her body. There is no direction given regarding what the person receiving the compliment is supposed to say or do. The girls are usually quick to come up with a compliment for each other, but what’s interesting about this segment of the training is how the compliment is received.
The recipients’ responses generally fall into four categories. Partners who are complimented respond by:
- Returning the compliment: “I think you have pretty eyes, too!”
- Downplaying the compliment: “Well, these pants make me look slimmer than I really am.”
- Denying the compliment: “My skin may look okay because of the make-up I’m wearing, but I really have serious acne problems.”
- Just saying, “Thank you.”
After this exercise, I ask for a show of hands to see how people responded to the compliment. In a class of 20 girls, 40 compliments are given and received. Of those 40, usually only two girls respond by simply saying “Thank you.” The remaining responses fall into one of the first three categories above, illustrating how difficult it is to simply accept a compliment about our bodies and how ingrained our sense of self-criticism is.
When I ask girls why they didn’t respond with a simple “thank you,” the most common answer I hear is that they didn’t want to seem conceited. I encourage them to reflect on the last time (other than the training exercise) they gave someone a compliment and to consider how they would have felt if that person had accepted the compliment with a simple “thank you.” They generally respond by saying they would not have thought the other person conceited if she’d merely expressed gratitude for the compliment, and they are often left to puzzle over this mysterious anxiety they’ve harbored about seeming “conceited.” This concern is not limited to teenage girls: I’ve had similar conversations with adult women ranging in age from their thirties to their seventies. We think we’d like a compliment, but then we are left feeling confused about what to do with one when we get it.
This week’s challenge (you knew this was coming):
When someone compliments you in any way, whether it is about your work, your personality, or your physical body – just say “Thank you.” No qualifiers. No hedges. Don’t even return the compliment. Just accept it, and hopefully, pay it forward! And remember: there’s a lot more to compliment women on than their physical appearances.
Next week: Body Bashing Part Three: Making a Difference
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