“What a pretty sweater on a crummy day. The color looks great on you!” I said to the sweet school secretary wearing a sunny yellow sweater on the first day of snow.
“This old thing?” she replied, waving my compliment away. “It was the only thing I had clean.”
I laughed politely, but it wasn’t really funny. This lovely woman shrugged off a well-deserved compliment – why? Did she think it would be cocky and rude to admit that her sweater was pretty? Was she self-conscious about the attention? Was she afraid that accepting a compliment would make me think less of her?
Maybe she was just doing what our community taught her to do.
In case you are a man, or in case you are a woman who recently escaped a convent, let me fill you in on how this works. As a female in America, you are taught from a very young age that you are supposed to be beautiful. Our moms and dads call us “princess” and dress us up in frilly outfits with ruffles on our butts and maybe some real earrings in our tender baby ears. We are spoon-fed mashed bananas and princess sagas, and we dress our Barbies up in tiaras and ball gowns. We subscribe to magazines that teach us how to create the perfect smokey eye and dress for our body type. We grow up with people telling us that “beauty is more than skin-deep” while we watch nothing but beautiful people on television, in movies and on billboards. We’re supposed to embrace the new trends, slap on some skinny jeans and spend half an hour applying make-up to look “natural.” If the make-up doesn’t work, there are magic formulas to make our eyelashes grow and erase our wrinkles.
We’re supposed to look flawless. We just aren’t supposed to ever hint, even a tiny little bit, that we think we look pretty. Doing so is rude and unladylike. It’s unbecoming of a polite, well-mannered person.
When someone gives us a compliment, we dodge it. We wave it away. “Oh, this old thing?” we say. We don’t want to make anyone feel bad, you see. We don’t want them to think less of us. We want them to think we’re pretty, sure! But we don’t want them to think that we think we are pretty.
And in doing so, each time we wave away a well-meaning compliment, we dim the lights of our spirits just a little bit. We make ourselves smaller. We self-efface, and it doesn’t make us stronger. It makes us start to disappear.
I recently read an amazing little book by the incredibly talented Shonda Rhimes, “Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person.” Among many revelations in the book, Shonda tried doing something unheard of during her Year of Yes. She started accepting compliments. It was ridiculously simple – she just told herself to say, “Thank you!” when someone said something nice to her. Then, she was supposed to smile and shut up.
It was hard for her. But it was worth it. As Shonda put it:
”Badassery, I’m discovering, is a new level of confidence – in both yourself and those around you. I now feel like I can see so many amazing things about myself and the people around me. It’s as if before, by hiding and worrying and being unhappy, I was not looking at the people around me and seeing how truly gifted and amazing they are. There was certainly nothing in me that could have been positive and uplifting or inspiring to them. Not when I was so busy hiding and trying to be smaller and a nothing.”
Badassery is a fantastic word. Badassery sounds amazing.
Shonda started to accept that there were things about her that were amazing, and in doing so, she started to see more amazing things in the people around her. That sounds fabulous! I want that! I want the freedom to accept the good things about my own little self, so I can also see more beauty and light and love and awesomeness in the people around me.
Could appreciation for those around me really come from something as simple as accepting a compliment?
When I look in the mirror, I’m not apt to spend any amount of time appreciating my physical beauty. I get hyper focused on my flaws instead. I stress about the red splotches, facial hair, under-eye circles and puffiness on my face. When I get dressed, I don’t marvel at the strong arms that can cuddle, cook and carry the heavy burdens of my life. Nope, I don’t do that. I shove those arms into the sleeves of my shirt and worry about how much of my saggy stomach will be visible. There’s little time for appreciating myself when I’m so busy beating myself up.
I’m not Shonda Rhimes. I do not run a television empire that is named after me. I do not impact millions of people’s lives with the storylines I create. I do not even have an Emmy.
What I do have is worth.
My complexion lights up when I wear cobalt blue. I run and do yoga and therefore my legs don’t look terrible in shorts. I’ve pruned my wardrobe and kept only the things I like – things with lace and silk and sequins – and some of them ARE cute, thankyouverymuch. I wouldn’t have purchased them if I didn’t think they were cute. If I wear my sequined sweatshirt and you say you like it, I can agree. I don’t have to brush the compliment away. At the very least, I don’t have to argue with you. I don’t have to insist that I look terrible and that the sweatshirt is a piece of crap.
Just for fun, I’m going to try saying, “thank you,” if someone compliments me. What’s the worst that could happen? They could think I’m stuck up? That’s their problem. I don’t have the will in me to try to control someone’s opinion of me. I can only work on loving myself. Today, that means that I’m going to say, “Thank you.”
Like Shonda, I’d like to have a little more badassery in my life.