While I was driving to work recently, I saw a woman standing on the side of the road at the bus stop. She was wearing a colorful dress and head scarf. She had a muscular body. My first thought when I saw her was, “She seems like a powerful and strong woman!” Defining what I saw in those terms caught my attention. Normally, when we see women and girls, we evaluate them based on their outward appearance. We use terms such as beautiful, pretty, ugly, thin, fat, etc. Realizing that my response to the woman waiting for the bus was based on something more than just how she looked, I made a pledge to myself to be more mindful about how I perceive women and girls when I meet, see or compliment them.
Girls in our culture grow up hearing more about their appearance than just about anything else. How many times have you caught yourself saying, “Aren’t you pretty!” or “Don’t you look nice today?” Artist and writer Elizabeth Patch has some great ways to avoid falling into this common trap when complimenting females. In her blog post, “10 Ways to Compliment a Woman, without mentioning her looks,” she suggests complimenting women (and girls, too) on things like their ability to do something well and asking them how they did it. She also suggests letting them know how they make you feel.
Journalist Sarah Powers suggests more thoughtful ways to compliment girls in her Washington Post article, “The best way to compliment little girls.” For example, instead of telling a girl you haven’t seen in a while that she’s “getting so big,” say something like, “You’re tall enough to ride the roller coaster now — how fun!”
At Girls on the Run, we strive to help girls understand that they are more than how they look or what they wear. Helping to develop a positive and clear sense of self is one of our primary goals. To support this, we train our coaches to use specific feedback when complimenting the girls on their teams. Instead of saying, “You did a good job today,” we encourage them to specify what the girl did that was beneficial, such as “You really helped me today by picking up the extra markers! Thank you!” Simple changes in the way we offer well-meaning compliments can go a long way to helping girls better understand what we truly value in them as individuals.
While telling your best friends that their haircut or outfit is cute isn’t a bad thing, it shouldn’t be the only thing you compliment. It’s important to remind women and young girls that their thoughts, actions and words matter even more and that their uniqueness as an individual makes them valuable. It’s important to tell them why you appreciate what they have to say or what they’re able to do. These are the things that help shape a person.
It’s a good thing we have a special lesson about Real Beauty in the Girls on the Run curriculum, because it will help to remind me that beauty can be defined in many more ways than how someone looks or dresses.