Over the past 24 hours, I have been conducting an unintentional experiment in the “you look great” debate between Sisterhood contributors Elana Maryles Sztokman and Elissa Strauss.
Elana’s post begins with the declaration:
You look great” is one of the conversation starters that I most despise. When someone says that to me, it always feels like what they are saying is that the last time they saw me I looked terrible. Or is it that they are surprised to see me not bed-ridden or comatose? Or, maybe, they simply have nothing interesting to talk about other than our superficial appearances.
Elissa, in her response, begs to differ, viewing the compliment as “a real sign of confidence and camaraderie.”
My gut response was to agree with Elissa. This is mostly because I am someone who hands out the “you look great” compliment quite often. My philosophy is that if you are genuinely thinking something positive about someone, whether it involves their appearance, their intelligence or their accomplishments — why not tell them and make them feel good rather than keep it to myself? My “you look greats” are never mindless flattery.
But how do I feel about receiving the compliment? It just so happens that shortly after reading Elana’s column, I had an appointment to get my hair cut and highlighted, and happily, my hairdresser did a wonderful job.
So out I went into the street, and — voila — almost every single friend or acquaintance I have encountered since has given me a big “you look great.” Some even upped the ante, and said I “look fabulous!”
With Elana’s views so fresh in my mind, I carefully weighed my reaction to the cavalcade of compliments.
My conclusion: I feel great that they think I look great. Indeed, you can count me on Team Elissa.
It could be that I groove on the compliments because I don’t look so great that often. I am not at all into fashion, manicures or make-up, I have a pretty standard suburban mom wardrobe. I work from home so I don’t dress for the office. I’ve been slightly, moderately or significantly overweight my whole life. So receiving positive reinforcement for my appearance isn’t something that I’m particularly used to, is particularly important to me, and a lack of “you look great” in my life doesn’t particularly upset me. My husband, bless (or curse) him, isn’t incredibly tuned into looks. I think he’s the only one who didn’t notice the new hairdo.
Besides, he is a university professor surrounded daily by eternally young and fetching students with whom I couldn’t compete if I led a Kardashian-esque life of full-time grooming.
Everyone has their individual ego issues and insecurities. I very much care — too much — whether others believe I am nice and intelligent and witty. If someone tells me I’m an idiot, the remark will sting for the rest of the day. But honestly, I don’t particularly care if men or women think I “look great” or that I’m not particularly attractive or don’t think that I “take care of myself.” And it’s a good thing, too. Israelis are notoriously honest. If people think you gained weight or it’s time to get your hair done, they will tell you so. And if they tell you look great, you really do look great.
At this stage of life, I view my lack of looks-centeredness as an advantage. I confess that when I was younger, I deeply envied exceptionally beautiful women. Now, as I watch them these women move through their 40s towards 50, I see that they face a painful loss every day. It is very hard on many of them. Obviously, I’m not thrilled with each wrinkle, but for me, they are no big deal.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t think everyone is solely focused on assessing each other’s appearance and sizing everyone up. Elana is sure that that, particularly among women, “this is what’s happening all the time, at almost every social event, and it shapes our entire culture.”
If she is right, and our world is that “looks-centric,” then yes, we do have something to worry about. But I’ll keep on hoping she is wrong — mostly so I can keep on enjoying myself when I hear that I look great.