Most days, someone tells me I look great. Usually, it is someone I haven’t seen in a week or two, sometimes longer. After many years of rarely being told this, it felt really good at first. Then it began to make me uncomfortable. My internal pendulum keeps swinging, from delight to chagrin at the number and level of compliments. Mostly, I try to acknowledge the compliment and move on to other topics, knowing that the compliment-givers are expressing care and support, wanting to celebrate my successes with me.
Lately, though, I have begun to think about this surplus of compliments and a new discomfort is surfacing: I wonder what I will feel when they stop coming? Inevitably, I will come to the end of this seemingly endless weight loss marathon (hopefully by reaching my goals). I will stop looking different to those who haven’t seen me for a few weeks or months, my “new” self will become my “old” self.
How much have I come to enjoy these favorable comments on my physical appearance? How much have I been relying on them to feel good about myself and my slow progress? How much energy have I been focusing on my outward appearance? Too much? Am I more vain than I used to be?
Having spent most of my life being unhappy in my own skin, feeling dowdy or fat or just plain unattractive, I’ve taken refuge in thinking I’m above all that superficial stuff. “Looks don’t matter, its what’s inside that counts.” “I’d rather be smart than pretty.” I might be fat, I’ve sometimes thought, but at least I’m not shallow. (No, never shallow!)
One day, not too long ago, I wore new clothes to work. I thought I looked pretty good, as I conducted that last quick check in the mirror on my way out the door. But no one commented on my new outfit, or how I looked in it. By 11 a.m., I was wondering if I was wrong. Maybe the new clothes weren’t as flattering as I thought. Perhaps they were in bad taste. Maybe I actually looked hideous, and people were kindly refraining from telling me so. I hurried to the restroom, the closest mirror that would show me more than whether lipstick had gotten on my teeth, to see. And there I was, looking the same as I had in the mirror at home. Was that good or bad?
As I’ve grappled with this concern – am I becoming more superficial and vain – I’ve come to a realization. Even though I went decades without feeling good about my own physical appearance, I was always focused on it to a degree. I live in and am part of a culture where this matters. We all do: Spanx, padded bra manufacturers, and Ulta stores are banking on that, for sure. Accepting that, the issue then becomes one of degree. To what degree will I allow my physical appearance, and the comments of others about it, to determine my sense of self-worth and satisfaction?
It feels good to feel good about how I look. I don’t need to look perfect, nor do I allow how I look on any given day to determine my agenda anymore – no more skipping things I want to do because I don’t want people to see me a certain way. (Maybe even if the event involves bathing suits.) And when it comes to compliments, I’ve been paying closer attention to my emotional response and I’ve discovered that my response mirrors the depth of the compliment. So, perhaps, my ego is taking things in stride, after all (as opposed to becoming a voracious compliment-hungry monster). I’ve also noticed that I am more likely now to compliment others on a wide range of things – from kindnesses I witness, to their successes, and yes, their appearance. Everyone appreciates being recognized and congratulated for things they’ve taken pains with.
The other day, a colleague came up to me in the dining room at work. She said, “I don’t know if I’ve had a chance to tell you this, but you look amazing…just so happy and so healthy! It is wonderful to see you like this.” This particular comment really touched me, because happy and healthy are what I’ve been striving for and working so hard to achieve. Looking better, though also nice, is just a side benefit!