you are more than what you look like

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come off a platform – after preaching, singing or leading – and the first comment to me has been something about my appearance.

Sometimes it’s almost comical the people who will make a determined effort; interrupt a conversation, come from across the room, or wait patiently to get the chance to make a comment on my dress, my shoes or how I’ve styled my hair.

After a recent preaching engagement, at the end of a very detailed and authoritative review of my outfit (the colour, the suitability of the style to my figure and the context, the appropriate choice of sleeve and hem length, my choice of accessories, and even my fingernail colour) someone said “Oh, and what you said was good too.” I replied “I’m glad to hear that because I spent many hours working on my sermon and far less than that on my outfit selection!”

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate others’ appreciation of my appearance. I do put a fair amount of thought into it. Presenting from the platform requires a bit of thought for females. Not being over or underdressed while being mindful of potential distractions – ribbons coming untied, frills flapping, earrings clinking on headsets, necklaces reflecting light, bracelets that jingle, hair that moves … all of the things. Not to mention tech related issues like having a collar for a lapel mic to clip to or a waist band to hold the wireless pack. And of course, the general goal is to look “good” when we’re out in public, so no one is above the affirmation that she’s succeeded.

In my experience and observation it’s only women who do this to women. Men will very rarely comment like that to a woman. And I’ve not heard many stories of men receiving comments like that at all. In fact, in a recent gathering of leaders, the females were sharing some of these experiences and the men in the group were incredulous to discover this was even a thing.

Ladies!! Why do we do this to each other?

Can I suggest something of a self-audit and some further thinking before we’re tempted to perpetuate the narrative that our appearance ought to be what draws greatest attention and reflection?

  • Before (or instead of) commenting on a person’s appearance – offer meaningful encouragement for the function they performed or the presentation they offered. Pause to purposefully reflect on what you observed, received or appreciated in what they shared or did and tell them that! We’re all fighting fears and self doubts to get up before a group of people to speak (or present) and we can be one another’s greatest advocates in standing up in the face of them.
  • If you do want to comment on something aesthetic – make sure you emphasise the insignificance of it in comparison to what they’ve given of themselves in presentation or preparation. Add it as your “by the way” rather than making it the headline news.
  • This used to be a point of comic reflection for me. I’d roll my eyes as I recounted another story of smiling graciously as someone gushed over how well my shoes coordinated with my dress after I’d poured myself out in a sermon or worship time. But the more I speak with women who are struggling to find their place of comfort and authority in upfront roles, the more I see this as a tool to sow doubt and to cause us to take our eye off the ball.
  • Let’s get intentional about our peer support and advocacy by keeping the main things the main thing.
  • (Suggested replacements for “you looked great” include – you looked comfortable, confident, radiant, joyful, expressive, strong, or welcoming or you were articulate, dynamic, compelling, knowledgeable, gracious, or convicting or thank you for what you brought, how you prepared, your vulnerability, or your authenticity or good job you for overcoming everything that presented itself as an obstacle to you getting on the platform!)
  • comparison is not a compliment

    “You are so much better than my other hairdresser.” “I like your sermons much more than my previous Pastor’s.” “This chicken tastes better than what I make.”

    These comments, and others like it, represent one way we try to compliment others that is sometimes not that complimentary at all. Comparison.

    Comparison – by definition – is putting two things side by side and assessing them in relation to one another.

    We do it when we’re shopping for apples, cars or schools. We do it when we are determining best value for money on insurance policies and home loans. This one is bigger, faster, fresher, or cheaper. This one has more included or provides greater flexibility. Based on what we value most we make a choice between the two (or several).

    There are a number of reasons comparison as a means of encouragement can be deficient.

    1. The thing you’re comparing to might be rubbish and so it may not be complimentary at all. “Your choc chip cookies are so much better than my mum’s (… which are so rock hard I’ve chipped three teeth!)”. In this case, you’re essentially saying “Congratulations, your cookies are edible!” That’s a low bar to jump. Without a quantifiable measurement of the person or skill you’re being compared to, it lacks the substance to bring the encouragement we would hope. 
    2. You communicate that the focus of our striving ought to be on outdoing others rather than doing our own best. “You are such a great runner, you ran faster than Johnny …(who is 84 and has had 2 hip replacements).” Again, hardly a high bar to clear and probably not the goal an athlete has in mind when they hit the track. Our encouragement should never be to be better than anyone other than ourselves. Even comparison to the most elite in any field can become inadequate if our best would call us beyond that or to a different expression. 
    3. We call the recipient of our praise to pride. “Give yourself a pat on the back, you did better than the other guy!” Again, without any reference to how we’ve gone in relation to our own capacity, growth or expectations, we are drawn to consider our own performance in light of another and find significance in that difference. Developing any sense of superiority should never be the goal of encouragement. 

    Complimenting by comparison doesn’t edify the person being complimented or the person or thing they’re being compared to. Encouragement that builds up and feedback that empowers should stand alone. 

    These cookies are delicious – full stop. You did a great job – that’s all. Your efforts were amazing – the end.