Why I’ve Stopped Telling People They Look Good

There are more meaningful ways to compliment the people you admire

Photo: Nina Sinitskaya/Getty Images

“She’s pretty, but only when you look at her closely.”

The year was 1988, the place was the school changing room, and the person speaking those words was Lisa, an indisputably pretty classmate.

Lisa was talking about me.

Strange as this may sound, she was actually trying to be nice. Her group of friends, the “in crowd,” so to speak, were standing in a giggling huddle, skinny and flawless in their grown-up satin underwear as the rest of us struggled with our towels, trying not to show too much of our bodies.

“Michelle’s quite pretty. Not stunning, but okay,” one of them said loudly, as her eyes scanned the room for prey. “And Sarah needs to wear more make-up.”

Then her sneering gaze landed on me, silently getting dressed in the corner of the stale, deodorant-scented room and wishing I was somewhere else.

“Nina’s so ugly that even makeup can’t save her.”

That’s when Lisa had spoken up. And as much as she meant well, I suppose, her defense of my looks meant that, for the rest of the day, I became the unwilling center of attention. My classmates, along with a few other people I’d never really spoken to, made a special effort to stare ostentatiously at me, trying to see what Lisa had apparently seen in me. They inspected me, looking for evidence that I was pretty if they just looked close enough.

I realized that people only ever commented on my looks if they had something critical to say.

“Nah, you’re pig-ugly and that’s it,” one boy said, after he’d cornered me in the school canteen. One other girl had followed me in there, muttering a fascinated: “It’s so weird… You really do get prettier the more I look at you! But you know, most people won’t bother. They’ll just look once and think you’re ugly.”

As I wandered home from school in a daze, I realized that people only ever commented on my looks if they had something critical to say. My dad hated the fact that I had typical teenage acne (something he had never suffered from), my nan was always telling me to make more of an effort with myself, and my mum thought I was getting fat.

I felt as though the whole world was judging me and I’d had enough. I was ready to fit in.

I bought stacks of beauty magazines to learn about how to put on makeup and what products to buy. I started getting up at 5 a.m. so I would have time to make my face look as perfect as it could before school started.

I wanted to make sure that if anyone did bother to look closely at me, they wouldn’t see any flaws.

First I would cleanse, tone, and moisturize, then I’d cover my face with foundation and use a liquid concealer to hide the dark circles under my eyes. Then I would apply a heavier concealer and a tiny little blush, just to cover every last blemish on my face.

Of course, I didn’t get it right at first because I hadn’t matched my foundation with my skin tone (and the thing about applying makeup at 5 a.m. is that you do it in artificial light, which is very different from daylight). I remember looking at my face in the mirror at school one day and wanting to cry; instead of looking acceptable, my face was patchy and orange in the morning sunlight.

But I persevered, continuing to wake up early and apply layers of makeup until I had completely nailed the routine. So what if it took an hour and a half to finish? It wasn’t about looking pretty, it was about nobody noticing that I wasn’t pretty. It was vanity as acceptance. It was facial armor.

I kept that routine up (which eventually also included a daily bout of vigorous exercise) even as I left school and headed into the workplace. I had always primed myself for hurtful comments but now my looks were starting to get positive comments. My workmates complimented me on the way I dressed, how slim I was, and how flawless I looked when I came into the office. A couple of people even called me beautiful.

That heady feeling of being noticed for my looks in a good way was addictive. I started playing up to it, taking even longer to get ready in the morning, using more expensive makeup, and maxing out my credit card on a dazzling array of clothes and shoes.

The lovely words flowed from home, too. Every time I saw my nan, she’d tell me how beautiful I looked, and how proud she was of me. I always made extra effort whenever I was going to see her.

Actually, I always made an extra effort even when I was just popping out to the shops for some errands.

I craved compliments; so much so that it got to the point where, if I didn’t receive one, I’d spend the day feeling ugly and useless all over again. I attached my need to look good to just about everything I did and said. If I didn’t look my best, how could I expect my thoughts and opinions to carry any weight?

I was also wildly jealous of my “naturally pretty” friends; the ones who didn’t seem to have to make any effort to look good, and who seemed completely at ease with themselves. Shamefully, I actually stopped seeing some of them for a while.

But, the problem with focusing on your looks over your personality is that one day you’ll look in the mirror and realize that you don’t recognize the person staring back, no matter how much makeup they might be wearing.

I was starting to tire of those early mornings and the effort it took to create a face I was happy to show the rest of the world. I was tired of the effort it took to judge other people for the way they looked. It all felt empty and pointless.

By then I’d also met my now ex-husband’s family, who — gasp! — didn’t seem to care about the way I looked. At all.

They never told me I looked good, even when I tried my hardest to dazzle them. At first, I wondered why compliments from them were few and far between. (Could they tell I was naturally ugly, under it all?) But then I realized they had actually given me a gift.

It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders: I felt comfortable around them. They had given me permission to just be myself, regardless of my looks, and being myself was enough.

Getting older is a great equalizer because as you get older, you start to realize that you’ve got two choices: You can carry on with desperately painting over the cracks, anxiously waiting for the day when all the compliments stop. Or you can relax and grow into the person you naturally are, and let others deal with that however they’d like to.

We’re always being told how beautiful everybody is. That pesky mantra: “You are beautiful!” is everywhere, from motivational posters and websites, to TV makeover shows.

But in a well-researched article for Psychology Today, the psychology professor Renee Engeln advises against using that phrase, writing:

“There’s another more important reason to question the efficacy of the “You are beautiful” message. Those three words immediately draw your attention to how you look. You might have been having a perfectly lovely day, thinking about things that have nothing to do with your appearance. But you can’t encounter “You are beautiful” without taking a moment to wonder, “Wait, am I?”

That’s why I’ve stopped telling other people they look good, even when they do.

I want other people to feel as though they can be completely themselves in my company. I don’t want anybody to think that, because I’d paid them a glowing compliment the last time we met, I must think they look worse today.

I still pay people compliments but I try to make them more about who they are as a person. Like my little sister, who has a will and determination to succeed like nobody else. Like my best friend, who is so calming to be around but who also has the amazing ability to make me laugh like a drain.

Not paying people looks-based compliments can take effort. It’s almost unthinking, the way we’ve been programmed to throw around variations of, “Hey, you look great!” every time we see the people we care about.

But I’ve realized that the very best compliment you can ever pay another person is to just let them be who they are, warts and all.

Southendian freelance writer and caffeine enthusiast, author of a few books you’ve never heard of

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