You Can Keep Your Compliment: Body Positivity for Beginners

As a feminist who believes in intersectionality and a young woman learning to be body positive, one of the most important parts of my journey is paying attention to the way people give compliments. 

I developed body dysmorphia when I was 18 years old and a freshman in college. I have always been skinny, but a lifetime of “you need to eat more” and “at least you can eat whatever you want” starts to do a number on you. During my second semester of college, I became increasingly unhappy with the way I looked and decided that I would try to gain weight. I became obsessed with weighing myself, with forcing myself to eat until I felt sick, and lifting weights until I was sore for days at a time. By the end of the semester I had gained 10 pounds that I had never had before. When I moved back home where there was no all-access gym, no dining hall serving food from every food group, I lost all that weight at a rapid pace and it broke me. I began to abuse my body in ways that scared me. I couldn’t sleep, I wouldn’t eat. The only thing I did consistently was stand in my underwear in front of the mirror and cry. And for what? What had made me feel this way? Who had said that I should feel ugly? 

To tell you the truth, I didn’t have an answer. For all the people that had made fun of my long arms or my lack of hips, I had just as many loved ones reassure me and tell me that my body was just fine. So, why was I so torn up about the way I looked? It wasn’t until I was at a family event and was given a backhanded compliment by a woman I barely knew that I realized what the problem was.

For the first time in almost 2 years, I had felt like a star. I loved my jaw-length dark hair, I loved the way my cobalt heels made my legs look long, and I loved how pretty my Glossier cloud paint made me feel. It was only a small family gathering, but I felt the best I had in awhile and was so excited to get a chance to show people that. While greeting family members, family friends, and friends of friends of friends, a woman who I barely remembered came up to me with a counterfeit smile and said to me:

“Oh my god! You’re going to disappear. How are you sweetie?” 

Um, what? 

What did that mean? Was that a compliment? This woman, whose name I truthfully couldn’t tell you, had just told me that I looked like I was going to disappear while she was smiling at me. The warm light I was radiating turned cold as I felt my years of self-hatred rush over me. I turned to my sister with a shocked expression and whispered, “Did you hear what she just said?” Once I explained, my sister innocently responded, “It’s probably because she wishes she looked like you.” And that’s when it hit me. 

In their own objective ways, both of these women meant to compliment me. The first woman completely backhanded me, but ultimately meant that I was just skinny. That’s a fact, not a crime. And my sister, although at the expense of someone else, had tried to tell me that I was beautiful the way I was. It dawned on me in that moment that the war on women and their bodies is not only forged through hateful comments but also through compliments. If I think about the compliments that I have received, or have heard other people recieve, many of them follow these templates:

“_____ is ACTUALLY really pretty.” 

“This outfit looks good on you. People with _____ bodies would never be able to wear it.” 

“You’re way prettier than ______.” 

Upon realizing this, I questioned whether or not I had the right to be offended. This entire time, there have been subliminal messages about my body in the hidden compliments I've received from other people. Ultimately, the answer that I came up with is yes. We absolutely have the right to be offended instead of flattered when someone puts us down in the form of praise, or tears down other people to hype us up. We also have the right to be aware of how we compliment other people. If you think someone is attractive, or like their outfit, you can just say that. You don’t have to add the other stuff that might risk accidentally putting other people or yourself down. Standing up for yourself and for others does wonders for you self-esteem, for your body-positive journey, for your personal growth, and for your complexion! 

I’ve learned to not be afraid of not taking the compliment. As confident, body-positive people, we should no longer spend time deciphering compliments. Instead, others should learn how to give them. And if they don’t want to, that’s fine. We don’t need compliments from them to feel good anyway. Of course, this is one of many small steps to becoming happy with your body and who you are, and we are all still learning. But you’ll start to see how different you feel about yourself and about other people when you start to pay attention to the way compliments can affect you. 

By Elysa Rivera

No comments

Post a Comment