I had been feeling really terrible. Actually, I’d been throwing up every day for three months, and I had long since forgotten why I’d thought it would be a good idea to get pregnant. But that evening, I had to put on a gown and go to a work event. An actual gown. It was twilight blue and clingy without losing elegance, with long sleeves and a cinch at the hip, where a sparkling faux diamond bangle nestled. I had gotten it on sale, during a miraculous day of minimal nausea. I felt ridiculous in it, riding the elevator down to the street to hail a cab. Everyone else was wearing normal clothing, and I was unsure of my thickening body—not obviously pregnant yet, but not my familiar shape.
A woman was looking at me. I looked away.
“What a wonderful dress!” she said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“You look beautiful,” she said.
I was smiling when I walked out the door. A twenty-something woman on the street paused as she passed me. “You look amazing!” she said.
“Oh, god, thanks,” I said, awkward and caught off-guard.
“Love the gown!” called another woman as I frantically waved at an approaching cab, running late as always. “Where are you going?”
“A work thing!”
I was queasy in the cab, but I felt awesome. I looked beautiful! I sat up a little straighter. I felt sort of queenly, a little glamorous. I imagined myself for a moment as someone leading a fabulous, high-society life, rushing off to expensive benefits and romantic penthouse soirees. As far as anyone knew, I might be doing those things. A woman in a twilight blue gown might have a life like that.
It’s funny, what a compliment can do.
I wouldn’t describe myself as starved for attention, or particularly insecure. Most of the time, I’m not walking around hoping against hope that strangers will flatter me in passing. I can get through my day just fine without even a single kind remark from a person on the subway. But just a few consecutive compliments have the power to make me abruptly happy. And for some reason, they mean even more when they’re coming from other women.
I was thinking about this in the cab on my way to the work thing. I’m not sure what makes compliments from other women feel particularly meaningful. Maybe men are simply more likely to dish them out to the women they randomly encounter, so when women do it, it feels special. Maybe the compliments from men almost always have an ulterior motive-y whiff about them. Women’s compliments can feel more earnest. Maybe I just care what other women think in some quiet, deep-seated, socially ingrained way that I don’t know how to parse or unpack.
What I am sure of is that compliments, though often brief, insignificant-seeming moments, make a difference.
And I guess many of the things that influence the way we perceive ourselves as girls and women in the world are brief, which is part of why the components and origins of our body image struggles are often difficult to identify, or get dismissed as irrelevant.
We are constantly moving through environments that bombard us with millions of tiny ideas about what makes us good and worthy and what makes us bad and undesirable and uncool. For girls and women, physical appearance is often tied intrinsically to worth. We see image after fleeting image of “ideal” women, we overhear clips of conversation between guys; without really noticing, we notice people casually evaluating the appearance of our friends, of every girl and woman they encounter. We soak up headlines and ads that pimp dieting trends and trumpet the horrors of weight gain. It registers somewhere at the back of our heads that we don’t really resemble the majority of the girls and women who are chosen to represent the height of beauty in our society.
In so many tiny, constant ways, we learn to turn a critical eye on our bodies and faces, and even for those of us who end up really suffering, seething with self-hatred, starving ourselves or viciously blaming everything that isn’t working on the way we look, the explanation feels slippery and complicated. “The media,” we say. “Sexism.” “Biology.” But it’s hard to pinpoint.
How do you combat the media? Or biology? How do you address sexism, as a whole?
I guess, like with all things, you have to be willing to start small. And that’s just it: the small things matter, when it comes to our self-esteem.
So maybe one of the things women can do to empower other women, to make the world a little better, and to face down some of the accumulated pressures of all of the small, negative messages, is simply to compliment each other more often.
Not just about appearance, of course, but appearance is maybe the easiest, since it’s often the only information you have about strangers, and since it’s our appearances that the world seems to have the most incessantly damaging casual input about.
It’s not much, but it’s a tiny step in the right direction.
I tried it out immediately, on a woman leaving the building I was going into for the work event.
“Love your jacket! You look awesome!” I felt awkward saying it, of course.
She grinned. “Thank you! I never wear this one!”
“Well, you’re rocking it.” God, I’m a dork.
“Aww, thank you so much!”
We were both smiling as we went on our way. I put my shoulders back in the twilight blue gown and went inside. It was going to be an awesome evening. That is, if I could just manage not to barf.