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how to give a body-free compliment

Posted in body image, psychology on Tuesday, March 20th, 2012 at 9:29 pm
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I recently ran into a friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in about a year and a half. Cooing hellos and exchanging hugs, my mind began grasping for something more to say that would convey how happy I was to see her, how awesome I think she is, how I value her being in my life still. And I wanted something that would make her feel all warm and fuzzy inside, too.

In haste, I came up with the painfully unoriginal, instantly regrettable, “You look so great!”

Inside, I cringed at the words — not because I didn’t mean them, but because my means of communicating the serendipitous delight, the rush of sweet nostalgia I felt at suddenly reuniting with my friend hinged on her physical appearance.

Complimenting someone’s appearance is the knee-jerk approach. Acknowledging what’s right before our eyes — a person’s exterior — doesn’t require leaving autopilot, nor does it require we even know a person well, which is why I (and why I suspect many of us) lean on the appearance-based compliment quite often. The effortlessness of complimenting someone’s looks opens the floodgates for us to heap compliments on anyone in eyeshot, and giving compliments feels good, and so on.

But I want to give better compliments. I don’t want to express admiration, gratitude, love on autopilot. I crave alternatives not so much for myself, but because I believe we, however unconsciously, learn to value about ourselves what others indicate we should. If I am noticed or praised most often because of some aspect of how I look, I could naturally translate that to mean that what meets the eye is the most important part of me — my strongest suit, my wisest investment, who I am. And as the ladies of Beauty Redefined so perfectly put it: “There is so much more to be than eye candy.”

So I asked myself: What am I trying to say that I’m glossing over by mentioning something physical? What if I didn’t sidestep that thought?

Uncloaked, the compliment I want to give is the simple yet powerful, “I’m so happy to see you.” It’s precisely what I intend to say via my appearance-based compliment a good 90 percent of the time, so why not just go with it? Variations on the expression are many and flexible, and, although I’m not attaching my words to anything concrete, something about this compliment feels much more rooted, real.

My hunt for body-free accolades met a remarkable ally in blogger Elizabeth Patch, who has assembled an invigorating list of 10 ways to compliment a woman without mentioning her looks.

And I plan to keep pursuing even more alternatives. Sure, sometimes someone really is just wearing an awesome pair of boots or has a gorgeous new haircut. But being more mindful of the messages I send via compliments feels empowering, because sometimes even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant moments — brief reunions, water cooler banter, passing in the hallway — count a lot toward the big picture.

food and facebook: you are what you post

Posted in eating disorders, popular culture, psychology on Sunday, September 19th, 2010 at 9:16 pm
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A former housemate of mine loves to bake and frequently posts photos on Facebook of her elaborate culinary creations: decadent, meticulously crafted cakes, pies, tarts and countless other confections, each shot from multiple angles, as though being photographed for a spread in a gourmet food magazine.

I have another Facebook friend who chronicles most of his meals in his status updates, and another who uses her profile to record her diet progress pound-by-pound and showcase photos of the new, thinner her.

Probably none of this seems out of the ordinary, let alone troubling. Of all the oversharing that happens on Facebook, food- and diet-related photos and status updates seem duly insignificant.

But are they?

Psychology Today blogger Susan Albers recently wrote about the psychological motivation for posting food photos on Facebook. Albers, a psychologist who specializes in body image and eating issues, lists 10 reasons we may feel compelled to make food a part of our online social experience. She points out that we may be seeking to alleviate guilt or regret over our food choices — akin to the person who announces “I’m so fat” in a group of friends, knowing the statement will be swiftly shot down by an adamant chorus of no-you’re-not.

More seriously, Albers says posting food photos on Facebook may signal an unhealthy relationship with food and eating.

My former housemate fits with this proposition. What isn’t obvious about her based just on her Facebook divulgences — and what I know only from living with her for two years — is that she doesn’t eat a morsel of any of the food she bakes. She subsists entirely on fruits and vegetables. She exercises obsessively. She is very, very thin.

The Mayo Clinic identifies cooking elaborate meals for others but refusing to eat them oneself as one of the signs of an eating disorder. Perhaps soon we’ll find “persistent posting of food and diet Facebook fodder” on such lists.

One of the great luxuries of Facebook is that it allows us to show only the aspects of ourselves that we want others to see. Yet what Albers’ analysis indicates is that, unconsciously, we may be revealing more through Facebook than we think we are.

What is my relationship with food and with my body if I want to reveal to my online social circle (which, for many of us, includes more acquaintances than true “friends”) what I’m eating, how much I’m eating, how much I weigh?

Food for thought.