How to say ‘you look pretty’ in the era of #metoo

#metoo compliments
Collage: Emily Wraith

Random compliments about our appearance are the loveliest thing, when they’re not creepy.

A few years ago and before #metoo became a hashtag, I found myself on a journey down an Internet rabbit hole (it started with Googling Sean Penn; it ended with buying light sabre chopsticks). It was then that I discovered Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto on How to Accept a Compliment. “Compliments are not sugar,” said the best-selling author of How to Build a Girl. (Her next fem-lit fictional novel comes out in June.) “They are not unhealthy, and they will not make you crazy. They are nutritious. If you can enjoy how delicious they are. If you can enjoy their fat and their marrow. They will build your skeleton strong.”

I wouldn’t go as far as to call it an epiphany, but it did give me pause. I had one daughter then, and I wanted her to be strong and ballsy and confident. I told her often about words’ power to hurt, but rarely mentioned their ability to strengthen and heal. I was hopeless at accepting compliments about my appearance—“I’m wearing a lot of makeup,” was a favourite fob-off —but what would that teach my girl about self-esteem? And I was stinting in giving others praise in case I looked like a weirdo, but did that mean I was missing opportunities to elevate other women?

Since then, I’ve tried to accept compliments with grace, and give them with abandon, and for the most part it’s worked. When a woman ran a block to tell me my new yellow shoes were fabulous, I said thanks and smiled, and now I feel those shoes are imbued with confidence-boosting superpowers. I tell my daughter at every opportunity how beautiful she is, or how nicely she’s paired that fleece and tulle skirt and hiking boots.

#Metoo has made us more conscious of the things we say and hear, and what words really mean

But in the last year, things have shifted. And compliments about the way we look are—necessarily—under the microscope. What kind of example am I setting for my daughters by accepting all compliments without question, when the strange guy at the pool tells me I look lovely, and I smile and feel absurdly flattered, but also somewhat afraid? And in telling them they’re pretty, am I making them believe their appearance is their only value?

Men complimenting women in the #metoo era can be particularly tricky. It may no longer be met with a self-effacing comment or a simple, ‘thank you’. “A man messaged my friend on Tinder and said, ‘You have nice lips,’ and she wrote back and said, ‘Thanks, I like them too,’ and he wrote back angrily, like, ‘Oh, you’re so full of yourself’,” recalls Juno Award-nominated comedian and writer Rebecca Kohler. “Men like that think compliments are currency and if we acknowledge our own good points we’re saying, ‘I already have currency and you have no power over me with your compliments.’”

In the last year, things have shifted. And compliments about the way we look are—necessarily—under the microscope.

Some men have taken #metoo to mean they’re no longer “allowed” to give women compliments about their appearance, but there are ways to do it. Kohler says: “You could ask, ‘May I compliment you?’ I’m kind of being tongue in cheek here – younger people do a thing now where someone will ask if they can kiss you. I would have found that horrifying. But at least you’re presenting something of a choice.” On her Guilty Feminist podcast, writer Deborah Frances-White suggests that if men wish to compliment the way women look without seeming to have an agenda, the best time to do it is just before getting off public transport, knowing you’ll never see the person again. It’s good advice for anyone who wants to compliment a stranger while avoiding the awkward aftermath. (So much for so many guys’ opening lines.)

Women complimenting each other should be more straightforward, yet it somehow isn’t

“Women are so often shown or thought of to be in competition with each other that compliments can feel insincere or as having ulterior motives,” says co-host of the Vancouver-based Fashion Hag Podcast Abby Shumka. “We also aren’t trained to think positively about ourselves, so when we hear a compliment from someone else, it can sound untrue or even strange.” So often, another woman can tell us we look well, and we hear that we are fat, or if she admires our relaxed attitude, we can become convinced she’s calling us lazy. Shumka thinks it comes off more sincere if you’re specific in your compliments, and stick to things the person has chosen for herself. “The cut of the clothing for example, not how it makes the body look,” she says.

If the future is to be female, perhaps encouraging compliments, rather than holding them in, can actually boost one another’s confidence and help pave the way.  So how should we talk to our girls when it comes to their appearance?  There’s a lot of opinions about how and why we should never call little girls pretty. “Shallow praise linked to looks can have a negative effect on a girl’s ability to deal with adversity,” wrote Sarah Newton in The Guardian. “We might think we’re building our daughters up by reassuring them that they are beautiful to us no matter what, but what we’re also doing is bringing the beauty pressure home to our littlest girls,” echoes writer-Mom Sharon Holbrook in the Washington Post.

To be sure, there are concerns: a woman recently asked my four-year-old, “Were you the prettiest girl at daycare?” and I cringed. But how we look is still a component of who we are, and surely we should help children to be as confident in their appearance as they are in everything else. Kohler recalls growing up with parents who didn’t compliment her on her looks. “It just wasn’t their focus. I was creative, quirky and sweet instead. I do think I developed a personality, but I wish I’d got a bit more of the, ‘you’re a beauty.’ Now I think I’m a relatively attractive person who has trouble accepting that.”

Withholding isn’t the answer

Shumka compliments her daughter freely. I imagine her getting ready to go somewhere and spending a lot of time and effort to look her best only to be met with crickets,” says Shumka“Imagine the closest, most important people in your life never saying anything positive about your appearance. How heartbreaking!”

In the end, it all goes back to Moranifesto. We adults have a responsibility to teach girls how to recognize real compliments, and take them, whether we’re praising their hockey skills, their fabulous T-shirt, or their PhD in astrophysics. And the same goes for our sons; let’s compliment them on their whole selves, including the way they look, not just tell them they’re smart, or tough, or knowledgeable about how the Apple TV works. All that starts with building our own self-esteem: talking with kindness to ourselves instead of judgment, receiving thoughtful compliments with acceptance, not doubt, and giving them with sincerity.

One night on a packed and silent Skytrain home from daycare with my daughter, I decided to practice what Deborah Frances-White preached. Just before we reached the station, I tapped a woman on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” I said. “I just wanted to say I really love your outfit.” I sat back down, a little embarrassed. Then I realised I’d mistimed the whole escapade. We were in fact five minutes from our stop. “What did you say to that lady? Who is that lady? Do we know that lady? Then why did you talk to that lady?” yelled my daughter, like a self-consciousness Jiminy Cricket, as the woman’s ears burned and the other passengers steadfastly looked at their shoes. It was excruciating. But maybe my daughter learned that if we have something nice to say, we should say it. And perhaps later that evening, the woman smiled to herself and felt a little buoyed by the compliment from the creepy, weird woman in the fabulous yellow shoes.

Aileen Lalor is a contributing beauty and lifestyle writer to Vitadaily and the Vancouver Sun.

Like this story? More not-so-random-thoughts on what it’s like to be a grown-ass woman today here.