I had a random conversation with a lady at the train station the other day. It went like this:
Lady: “Are you a lawyer?”
Me: “Uh, no… Do I look like one?”
Lady: (Looks at me again) “Yeah.”
A few seconds pass.
Lady: (Looks at me again) “Why are you so skinny?”
Lady: “Don’t you have anyone to cook for you?”
Me: “Uh… No.”
The interaction lasted about a minute, but it caused me to think about the complexities that come along with making comments about a person’s physical appearance.
Is there anything good that can come from making a comment about a person’s physical appearance? I think it’s possible. I enjoy compliments, and it feels nice to know a person noticed something positive about me, whether it is a new outfit or the work I have been doing in the gym. So I think there is a place for positive compliments about appearance.
But it’s complex. Often when people comment about a person’s physical appearance, it’s more of a judgment than a compliment. Take the lady on the train, for example. She wasn’t talking about how fit I was—she thought I looked too skinny. So that didn’t feel too great. There is a lot of variability in physical appearance—it isn’t necessarily good or bad—it just is. Calling attention to something that is different can make somebody feel badly about themselves.
Another problem is that even when we give a compliment about a person’s physical appearance, it can be problematic if we place too much attention on that. I think this is especially important when raising kids. Sure, go ahead and tell your daughter she is beautiful. But also tell her she is smart, kind, resourceful, energetic, and strong.
Finally, a lot of people have experienced struggles in regard to their physical appearance. You never know what you might be tapping into when you make a comment. The lady at the train station didn’t know this, but I struggled a lot with getting made fun of for being overweight when I was growing up. I’ve worked through a lot of that in my own counseling, but it’s still a sore spot when someone makes a negative comment about my appearance. You never know when a simple comment might trigger a past hurt. So it’s good to be cautious.
Discussion: What do you think about making comments about a person’s physical appearance? Do you think it’s a good thing, a bad thing, or a mix?