How do you compliment people while staying body-neutral?

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“You Look Purrrfect, Cat Print” from Etsy seller BentonParkPrints
My mum loves to compliment me. She does it to help me feel loved, affirmed and beautiful. However, her absolute favourite “compliment” is “You’ve lost weight!”

The fact is, I haven’t lost weight and I have no intention to. In fact, I’m working hard to disassociate my happiness and self-esteem from my appearance completely: I don’t want my mood to depend on how I look.

The problem is, I really want to be able to affirm my friends and family in the way I want to be affirmed — in ways that recognize their inner awesomeness, and are completely disconnected from how they happen to look like on the outside that day. Usually I’m not stuck for words, but with this I’m stumped. Our culture has conditioned us to always focus on the outside, and the first thing I want to say when I want to compliment people is, “You look great!”

So my question is, how do you go about affirming people in ways that don’t reference their physical appearance? -Loubelou

Great question, and I think it’s one for which our Homies will have a lot to great insights. We’ve already talked about preventing body shaming, and the discussion was AWESOME. Now let’s talk about how to compliment someone without referencing their physical appearance.

Right off the bat, a great go-to for people you’re close to is to hug them and then compliment their hugging skills. “Dude, you’re such a good hugger!”

Or for people you haven’t seen in while — and this is where it’s hard NOT to mention something about their looks, because if you haven’t seen their physical form in a long time, you may be taking in all their new and different appearance data — is to just say, “I’ve really missed you!”

Perhaps think of something they accomplished recently and compliment them on that — that’s one of the few times Facebook can be your friend. “Congrats on that awesome sculpture you just made. I heard it sold in no-time-at-all. Damn, you’re creative.”

Now let’s talk about more ways to compliment people that don’t have anything to do with their physical appearance.

Comments on How do you compliment people while staying body-neutral?

  1. This is a great list of things to say! I always have a hard time paying people compliments. It’s not because I don’t notice how nice they or anything, it’s just that it doesn’t occur to me most of the time. I know, it sucks. Getting a good compliment usually makes me all warm and fuzzy for hours, so I get how important it is to dish out my own. I try to make an effort, but I’m usually very shy about it. Just as I find it hard to accept compliments. These days, I usually go with “thank you” and leave it at that, but I remember some pretty awkward replies I’ve made.
    *sigh* Growing up isn’t easy people.

  2. One thing I find very helpful is the ‘validation without compliment.’ It’s not that I have something against compliments – I give them all the time – but since I am a personnel manager, I find it valuable to have ways of speaking and reinforcing positive behavior that don’t come down to compliments – as a woman, too much complimenting of staff can still carry the unfortunate subtext that you’re a lightweight, you’re fluffy, you want your workers to like you.

    For me, validation comes down to actually describing the situation at hand, the good behavior or ideas that motivated you to want to speak in the first place. “Your article on opposition to the power plant was the top hit-generator on the website last week – people really responded to the nuanced way you presented both sides of the issue” is a far more useful and information rich statement than “You’re a great writer!” and in my experience, people actually feel better about themselves when they hear some variation of the former than the latter, not least because it doesn’t trigger that immediate ‘oh stop, you’re just saying that’ that even the most well-intentioned complimenting sometimes does.

  3. What a great conversation!

    I have to agree with the tall people who don’t understand why people comment on it. I have rather large breasts, and for some reason people think that’s something to point out. Yeah, I know. I’m the one who has to go running with them after all.

    I think a good thing to say to little kids especially on first meeting them is, “you seem like someone with a great imagination!” This opens the door for all kinds of conversations later.

    For teens and tweens just don’t bullslhit them, don’t compliment them until you have something specific to say or they just think you’re a phoney. “Nice to meet you”. “I look forward to hearing your opinion on….” should work just fine.

    Same kind of goes for adults. You don’t have to evaluate someone. A truly warm greeting and smile say a lot more than a compliment. If it’s someone you know, then you know what to say. If the person compliments you, you know what they’re comfortable with.

    There used to be this homeless man in Washington D.C. who was known as the compliment man. He would never really ask for money, but he would walk up to people and compliment them. He mostly hung out in Adams Morgan where all the bars were and he was really a nice polite guy. I heard him give all kinds of compliments to people, but every time I saw him he always said, “I like your shoes.” It totally gave me a complex! I was like, geez, the guy who does nothing but compliment people everyday has nothing to say about me except for my apparently exceptional footwear choices. I was in college, I was easily traumatized. I hope the compliment man is well. But the moral of the story is that you have no idea how your words are going to affect people. Just be sincere. And if someone who you know has no intention of hurting you says something to you that you take in a negative way, gently let them know.

    My favourite compliment ever came from a huge burly man at the gym who almost timidly approached me at the water fountain and said in a thick Russian accent, “Excuse me, my brother and I, we are Russian and we notice that you have BEAUTIFUL EYES!” (At this point he held his hand up as if hoisting a goblet aloft.) “You have eyes………LIKE HUSKY!”

    • I’m pretty sure I met the DC compliment guy…my sister went to college there and we were visiting her. I was maybe 12 or 13 at the time, walking around with my family, and some guy ran up to us and asked if I was from New Jersey (what?) and said I should be a model. Thanks, dude.

  4. Hey everyone, original question-asker here. I can’t believe how many awesome ideas there are here. I had no idea that so many other people wonder about this kind of thing, too. Thanks so much for all the input. I’ve set myself the challenge of giving a warm, Body-neutral compliment at least once every day this week.

    I received a great compliment a couple of days ago that I want to share! We live in Uganda but are from Europe. For the first time, we didn’t go home for Christmas, but instead invited a whole bunch of people who also weren’t able to spend it with family. We made a huge effort with the dinner, and one of our guests told me 10 days later, “I’m still thinking about that dinner!”

    Serious warm fuzziness! Something I’d done was still on her mind days later, and see told me. I’m going to start telling people “I’m still thinking about *that cool thing about you*”.

  5. I usually take the route of talking about something that’s new with them first and using that for the compliment. Even with little kids, having them tell you about something they care about and being invested in the conversation, then saying something like, “I really like how passionate you are” or “that sounds really cool. I didn’t know about (x)! You’re so caring/nice for telling me about it.” Goes a lot further than one might expected.

    Even with people you may not know, getting them to talk about something and then complimenting them on that thing allows you to know you’re on the right track, even if they are talking about their diet/exercise regime and its results. You know it’s something they are actively involved in and, since they’re talking about it, are taking pride in accomplishing/having involvement in.

  6. As I have a hard time not feeling critized by the normative standards of beauty, I LOVE getting compliments on my looks. Especially when they’re not related to these standards. For example “you look beautiful” rather than “you look thin”.

  7. I think this is a great question, but also necessarily a subjective one.

    For me, if I know a friend has been working her ass off to lose some weight, you can be darn sure I’m going to mention it. That’s just being supportive. HOWEVER, that requires knowing something about her. If I know a friend has been nervous about chopping her hair off and she finally took the plunge, I’m going to say something. Appearance isn’t all bad, but it requires a level of filtration and knowledge.

    The best compliment I think I’ve ever received was from a random baritone in my college choir (huge ensemble, by the way, so it was difficult to know everyone). He stopped me as I was collecting sheet music, pointed to my shirt, and said, “That green just makes you glow. It just works.” He immediately looked embarrassed about insinuating that I was experiencing some Hulk-like radiation poisoning, but the genuine admiration, regardless of delivery, made me so happy. I think my point is that compliments are great if you really mean them. Obviously you want to be sensitive to your individual, but don’t be scared of giving them out. Even if they fall flat from time to time, they can still hit their mark if the receiver can see your intent.

  8. I just wanted to say that all of these ideas are super great to use for queer folks who may totally upset the gender norms.

  9. I say friend a lot. I live in the south where “sweetie” “sugar” etc is pretty standard behind “ma’am” and “sir”. I interact with a lot of people on a daily basis with my job and I always try to compliment 3 things to each customer during their visit. Working in a tattoo shop, obviously complimenting their new jewelry, piercing or tattoo is a no brainer but I compliment shoes, accessories and phone cases a lot. It seems to instill some pride in their purchase choices. If they frequent out studio often, I like to compliment changes to hair color or new haircuts, or if they nail that perfect eyeliner wing. If we follow them on social media outlets I will say how yummy the meal they cooked looked or how beautifully they captured the sunset the other day or congratulate them on their most recent hiking trip. Again, anything to make them feel good about choices they have made rather than physical appearance

  10. I find compliments offensive unless they are genuine. If someone tells me I look great when I know I look like crap I find it annoying. It is not hard for me to avoid complimenting people on their appearance because their appearance doesn’t matter to me.

  11. As others have said, I try to find a piece of clothing or accessory to comment on, and I always add, “It really suits you.” To me that changes a compliment on their appearance to a compliment on their taste. I’m remarking on something they’ve done, not something they are or have on.

    With kids below about age 10, it’s almost always their shoes. Kids, in my experience, are really proud of their shoes and like to show them off.

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