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Compliments can hurt: Appearance-related comments increase girls' self-objectification

by Kim Nguyen

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

Compliments. I love giving them and am generally comfortable getting them. I love original and artistic expressions that people rock (because I’m slightly jealous of people who can pull off super unique looks) and I like to make other people feel good. I like to think I have an eye for design and I LOVE fashion, art, and creative looks. Whenever I see a friend with a great new outfit or haircut, or someone with a cool look, I tell them so. I also appreciate it when someone notices something interesting about my look. But lately, I’ve been thinking about the fact that some ‘compliments’ end up making me think a little too much about how I look. The more I get noticed, the more I tend to fixate on my looks. Herein lies the conundrum.

I’ll tell you what I mean – When I started college, I put on the typical Freshman Fifteen. But then, in the spring semester, my boyfriend and I broke up. I got depressed and when I get depressed, I just can’t eat. After a few weeks, I noticed I started getting comments from my friends, like this: “Wow! You lost weight, you look great!” Little did they know that it was because I was devastated. Instead of making me feel better after my breakup, comments like this made me mindful about not putting back on the weight I had lost. I’ll admit that even now, I still monitor my body and am self-conscious about my waist. My belly has always been my “problem area” and I’ve never been able to get a six-pack like the models I see plastered all over the media. I know my friends didn’t mean to make me feel self-conscious or obsessed with my weight, but it still made me uncomfortable. I certainly don’t want to make someone else feel the same way that I did. In psychology, this fixation on appearance is known as self-objectification, when we focus on how we look rather than how we feel. As we have written about in other research blogs, self-objectification has been linked to a bunch of negative outcomes for girls, like depression and eating disorders.

Nowadays, internet trolls and bullies can be vicious about how people look and so sometimes I feel the need to tell people how beautiful they are – that not everyone does or should fit the standard mold of beauty. But what if, what if… the more we talk about and focus on our looks, the more we, in fact, objectify ourselves and each other? I know negative body-related comments make me and my friends feel bad, but I started to wonder about how even positive appearance-related comments might also affect young women’s self-objectification. Turns out, researchers, Amy Slater and Marika Tiggemann[1] have studied this, so I turned to them for some answers.

Slater and Tiggeman conducted a study to look at how appearance-related comments affected high school girls’ self-objectification, self-surveillance (habitual monitoring of one’s appearance), body shame and disordered eating. They wanted to know not only if negative appearance comments (like, “I don’t like your hair”) had harmful consequences for girls, but if seemingly positive or well-meaning appearance-related comments (like, “You look hot”) also had a negative effect. The 1,087 girls who took the study reported how often they received negative and positive appearance-related comments from other girls, boys, and parents.

And what did they find out? Well, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that negative comments about how girls looked were related to self-objectification, body shame and disordered eating. It makes sense that hearing something bad about your body would make you feel bad about how you look. Their other finding though, may surprise you. It turned out that positive comments about girls’ looks were also related to self-objectification and self-surveillance. Basically, the more attention that girls got about their looks, regardless of whether it was good or bad, the more that girls became aware of their appearance and the more they monitored their bodies.

It’s sad to know how much we can be affected by people’s negative comments about our bodies. Now, obviously I never go around insulting girls’ and women’s looks. But the findings from this study made me realize that even when I pay a compliment that’s related to how someone looks, I might actually be doing more harm than good. I remember when my friends’ compliments about me losing weight actually reminded me about how terrible I felt about the breakup. It also made me think “Boy, people notice my weight.” I knew I had put on some pounds my freshman year but I remember paying a lot more attention to my body. Now thinking back, I wish they hadn’t said anything.

So what do we do with this information? Personally, I still want to compliment women when they’re rocking unique styles. I still think it’s ok to encourage unique forms of self-expression. I will just be more mindful to not simply comment on how they look. Instead, I can focus on their achievements, sense of humor, openness, intelligence, and so on. And I want others to notice more about those parts of me than how I look, too! I know people mean well, but I am so much more than my appearance. Ask me about my latest art project or the last book I read that I really loved. If you get to know me, I might tell you how I built my own book shelf! Let’s use compliments to engage with one another past the surface stuff and really connect.

There are people already at the forefront of this movement away from commenting on our appearance to complimenting on qualities of our humanity. If you’re interested in more information, check out this “No Body Talk” summer camp. Eden Village, a farm in Northeast New York, run a youth summer camp where there is a specific rule about not commenting on someone’s appearance, be it negative, neutral, or positive.

[1] Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2014). Media exposure, extracurricular activities, and appearance-related comments as predictors of female adolescents’ self-objectification. Psychology of Women Quarterly39(3), 375-389.

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