When you greet a friend, family member, or even a stranger, it might feel normal to compliment their appearance. Compliments are usually well-intended: we want the other person to feel good about themselves.
However, commenting on someone’s appearance can also have more harmful effects. Whether positive or negative, commenting on someone’s appearance encourages the other person to value themselves on the way they look rather than their character or other aspects of themselves. It suggests that appearance is important and that ‘looking good’ is an ideal we might aim to achieve.
Comments on weight should always be avoided. Through body positivity, we understand that there is no ideal weight or body shape and we are all equally valuable, regardless of the way our bodies look. Commenting on weight – even positive comments – suggests that weight matters.
For many young people, ideas about the importance of appearance and weight can develop into overvaluation of shape and weight, preoccupation with unrealistic body ideals, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating behaviours.
This blog explores the links between appearance commentary and self-objectification, body surveillance, body dissatisfaction, and young people’s mental health. It also suggests some other ways to greet and compliment people that don’t involve their appearance.
Understanding Self-Objectification: How Do Comments About Appearance Affect the Way Young People See Themselves?
Many parts of our society encourage young people – especially young women – to value themselves on their physical appearance and being. Media and social norms can teach them that it’s what they look like that matters, disregarding other parts of their identity.
Some young people start to see themselves as objects, valuable only in so far as their appearance is valued. This is known as self-objectification, the internalisation of social and cultural norms that objectify.
Self-objectification is also linked to body self-surveillance. Self-surveillance happens when someone monitors and is preoccupied with checking parts of their body and appearance and making a judgement about them.
It might mean frequently looking in the mirror or shop windows, scrutinizing photographs, or simply looking at their body throughout the day.
Young people who spend a lot of their time thinking about and evaluating their appearance are more likely to feel dissatisfied with their bodies, comparing them to culturally prescribed beauty ‘ideals’. And because people who self-objectify value their whole person on their physical attributes, body dissatisfaction becomes body shame.
Young people may feel like they lack worth as a person because of the way their body looks. These thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming, triggered and sustained by every instance of self-surveillance.
Research shows that self-objectification (and self-surveillance) can have many harmful consequences for young people’s mental health and well-being. It promotes body shame and appearance anxiety while disrupting attention and mental performance.
So what happens when we give and receive compliments about someone’s appearance? When someone receives a compliment about their appearance, it can reinforce self-objectifying traits, leading ultimately to body shame and anxiety. This effect is not only experienced by the person receiving the compliment but also by other people who see the compliment being given.
Research has found that women who felt good about receiving compliments also reported higher levels of body dissatisfaction and body surveillance, underlining the harmful, long-term effects of seemingly innocuous appearance-related compliments.
Body Dissatisfaction, Body Shame, and Eating Disorders
In a society built upon norms and practices that value appearance, body dissatisfaction and body shame are common. These thoughts and feelings are not only harmful in themselves but can form the basis of disordered eating behaviours and eating disorders.
Young people, feeling dissatisfied or ashamed of their bodies, may take (sometimes extreme) measures to try and change their bodies or weight. They may experience intense emotional distress when they perceive their bodies as different from what they consider an ‘ideal’ body.
These ‘ideals’ are often unhealthy and unrealistic, and young people’s perception of themselves is often distorted (this is known as body dysphoria).
The relationship between body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviours is well-established by scientific studies. Research also shows that body surveillance and disordered eating pathology are linked across different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that are common in young people across the globe and have the highest mortality of any mental health condition.
Recent studies suggest that 1 in 5 children worldwide may show signs of disordered eating. In this context, changing our social practices to challenge perceptions that appearance matters is a pressing and urgent need.
Compliments During Eating Disorder Recovery
When someone is recovering from an eating disorder, people often say things like, “You look so much healthier” or “You look so much better”. However, these comments, although well-intended, can harm a young person and their recovery.
As well as contributing to self-objectification and body dissatisfaction, someone recovering from an eating disorder may understand that having reached a certain point in recovery, they no longer deserve the support they are receiving. This can affect the way they engage in treatment and their relationships with therapists and others around them.
Equally, the process of physical recovery and weight gain is often difficult for someone recovering from an eating disorder. When people comment on changes in their appearance, it may make them feel anxious that these changes are somehow important to other people.
It can also be triggering for a young person, causing experiences of emotional distress about their body or weight which take psychological energy and sometimes support to recover from.
Replacing Appearance-Related Comments With Something Better
So, if we don’t compliment someone’s appearance, what can we say instead? It’s okay to still give compliments, but about other parts of a person’s identity that are really valuable. That might be the way they treat other people or how they make you feel. For example, you could:
- Tell them how it makes you feel to see or spend time with them
- Tell them that you appreciate their character traits, such as listening, understanding, or being ready to offer support
- Thank them for actions they have taken that support you or other people
- Compliment them on their skills, whether it’s playing music, sport, writing, cooking, or something else
When you’re greeting someone, instead of complimenting their appearance, you could:
- Let them know that you are happy to see them
- Tell them something that you have missed about them
- Talk about something you’re excited to do with them in the time you’ll spend together
These greetings help a person understand that it’s them that you value – not what they look like. It helps them know that they are cared for and appreciated for who they are and the time you spend together.
The Wave Clinic: Transformative Recovery Programs for Young People
The Wave Clinic offers specialist mental health support for teenagers, adolescents, and young people.
Our expert-led programs take a whole-person approach to recovery, combining clinical care with education, community work, and a gap year experience as young people develop the skills they need to follow their dreams.
Our programs are rooted in our values of fairness and inclusivity, helping young people to grow in self-confidence, build close friendships with others, and explore new life paths and passions. We believe in accessible treatment for every young person, regardless of the background and presenting issues.
If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, contact us today. We’re here to support you.