When little boys get loving attention from adults, they are almost told how smart they are. Young girls get this kind of praise too, but if you watch carefully, you'll see that the majority of the conversation is focused on what they look like. I like your dress, sweetie! Look at that pretty bow in your hair!
As we grow up, this informs our interactions with other women, and we start relating to each other through compliments about appearance. In my anecdotal experience, I find that roughly 99 percent of the compliments women give each other are focused on the way we look.
I know I'm guilty of it — and so are my female housemates. I've spent the last several months living in a large house in Peru, and because we all share a living space, we end up spending a lot of time together. As a result, I've made friendships with a diverse group of young women.
As I looked around our big dinner table one night, I realized that I was in the perfect place to experiment with complimenting women on their non-physical attributes. So I decided to spend a week complimenting women on their personalities, instead of their looks. Here's what happened.
Over one week, I would compliment my female housemates, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers on things unrelated to their physical appearance. Even if I was totally into their outfit or the way they styled their hair, I would find things to compliment them on that had nothing to do with their physical beauty.
I wanted to specifically concentrate on the parts of their personality that brought the most joy to the people around them. For example, I would look for opportunities to tell a funny friend that she was, in fact, funny, or a generous friend that she was giving. I rarely hear stuff like this being exchanged between females, so I wasn't sure how it would land.
I revved myself up and promised not to back down for the next seven days, even if I felt slightly awkward about the doting on other girls.
After teaching a Yin yoga class at a local retreat center, I took a stroll at the base of the Andes mountains. As I was trying to find the right angle for a selfie with the mountain ridge in the background, a young girl in a school uniform walked up to me with a sweet smile on her face. She reached out her hand and quietly offered to take the shot for me.
OK, so this girl was cute. She was adorable. And I could feel the word vomit bubbling up: I love your braids! You're so pretty! You look like a model! It all popped up in my head organically, but I bit my lower lip to stop it from flooding out. There was definitely something special about this girl. She was confident. She made solid eye contact and wasn't afraid to ask me where I was from and where I was living. Furthermore, I was impressed with the beautiful pictures she took.
At the end of our little exchange, I gave her a high-five. Then, I told her that she was very mature for her age, and that she has the potential to be a great photographer. She gave me a blank look in return. Eventually, she smiled shyly and said thank you. I think I may have blindsided her, but as I watched her bounce away, I got the feeling that my compliments had brought her some joy.
Madi (pictured on the right) is currently the youngest person in our house. She graduated from high school several months ago, and because she wasn't sure where she wanted to go to college or what she wanted to study, she made the smart decision of taking a gap year.
Being 18 years old in a foreign country while all your friends are posting pictures of their first semester of college is not so easy, though. One afternoon, I could tell she was homesick and needed a little boost in confidence.
I sat down next to her on our living room's couch, squeezed her knee, and told her that she was very brave. Doing your own thing right after high school takes guts, and it's definitely something I wouldn't have been able to do back then. I told her so, and I reminded her that she's a total badass for going through with her plans.
Even though she didn't say anything much in response, her tight hug told me that she appreciated my words.
Days 3 & 4
Sara and Becca, pictured above, earned my love almost immediately after they arrived. Best friends from the West Coast, they're spending the better part of this year traveling around South America and doing various volunteer programs. They're quirky and friendly, and it's impossible not to laugh when they're around. So, of course, I had to compliment them on their infectious humor.
On the afternoon of Day 3, Becca and I found ourselves in a laughing fit in the kitchen. We were standing in front of a huge jar of Nutella and a few loaves of ciabatta bread.
With a full mouth of Nutella toast, I said, "You know, Becs, you have a great sense of humor. You make me laugh like nobody else can."
"Really?!" She looked so taken aback. "I always worry that I'm not very funny!"
"No, you are hilarious. Really, you are," I assured her one more time. She couldn't help but smile, and I gave her the spoon for the Nutella. She mumbled thanks, before we broke out into another round of giggles.
The next day, my boyfriend and I were lounging around in the backyard when Sara came out to join us. As you can see from the picture above, she has an infectious smile, and she wears it every time she walks into a room. But instead of complimenting her on how pretty her grin is, I said this: "Your bright personality lights up the room."
"Really?!" Like Becca, she was in disbelief. Once I affirmed it, she lit up even more.
My friend Megan, who runs a bed & breakfast nearby, has an adorable 4-month-old son named Alex. On the morning of Day 5, I changed his diaper and read him a book about bunnies and cows. When it was time for him to eat, I handed him back to his mom, and I could see she was grateful for the short time she had had both of her hands free.
Megan is an artist and a graphic designer who gave up a wildly successful corporate career to move to Peru a couple years ago with her husband. They opened up a homey, community-based guesthouse that is starkly different from the typical hostels and hotels you find in South America. It's not an easy job, though, especially as a brand new mother. The fact that they've done so well with their business is testament to how hard she works.
More importantly, though, Megan is the kind of woman who is a constant positive influence on the women around her. She coaches them in opening small businesses; she helps them through particularly challenging periods of their lives. So, after Alex had his fill of breast milk, I sat down with her and told her she was a great mother and a huge inspiration. I told her I admired her for juggling all the things in her life that she does — and that she makes it look effortless.
"Wow," she said with a sigh. "Thank you so much. I don't hear that very often."
Days 6 & 7
I was feeling pretty spirited when I landed back in the U.S. for the winter holidays. My parents picked me up at the airport, and as soon as I saw my mother, I almost reverted back to old habits and gushed about how young and healthy she looks, how radiant her skin is.
But after the past week, I knew I could dig deeper than that. My mom is a remarkable woman who has been through the kind of stuff that only lands in tear-jerking movie scripts. Plus, she put up with me during my teenage years. It was time to compliment her on something other than her lack of wrinkles.
When we got home, I told her how great it was that she has devoted so much time to taking care of my dad since he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. I told her that it was moving to see how selflessly she gives her time and energy to the people she loves. She said thank you, laughed, and asked if I needed any money.
I continued giving her props for the next couple days, though. I told her she was the kind of friend every woman dreams of when she showed me the little booties she knit for her neighbor's granddaughter. I told her she's the world best mother.
Every kindness bomb I dropped seemed to leave her slightly shell-shocked. I think it might take a little longer for these compliments to sink in for her. After all, our mothers have been around for a lot longer than we have, which means they have gone an even longer time without receiving the kind of praise they deserve. I'm hoping by next year, I'll have showered her with so much love that she can't help but bask in it.
It seems that these women were in dire need of compliments that weren't rooted in what their bodies look like. When both Becca and Sara gave me the same exact Really?! response, I realized that I had uncovered something very important: we're comfortable being told that we're pretty, but most of us aren't used to people telling us that we're smart, funny, and overall mind-blowing human beings.
While there's nothing wrong with telling our friends that they look gorgeous in the new pair of jeans they just bought, we could do so much more for them by reminding them that their personalities are really what we love most. In a world where our bodies are glorified more than anything else about us, the smallest compliments about our character strengths are actually big self-esteem boosters.
By the end of the week, I truly felt like complimenting women on things besides their appearance is a feminist act that I can adopt into my daily life. It didn't feel awkward to praise them like I'd feared — it just felt good to make other women feel good about themselves. I could see how beneficial it was to them as individuals, and how advantageous it was to our friendship.
I'm sure I'll probably still give plenty of physical compliments, but moving forward, my main focus is going to remain on the beauty that resides inside the women around me.
Images: Gina Florio (6), Giphy (2)