The Insulting Compliment

We Compliment "Wrong" Regularly . . . But We Can Do Better

My brother, bless his soul, was poised for hardship from the moment that he entered the world. He was immediately consumed by the natural disaster that was my sister and I — her the eye of the storm, curl-covered and gentle, overwhelmed by me, who gravitated towards the spotlight of Mom’s video camera every time its red light was blinking. We welcomed him immediately, eager to shove him into our plastic shopping carts along with our American Girl dolls and stuffed animals.

As he grew, our affections for him did too. On many occasions prior to his arrival, I had crossed my sticky fingers and wished for a little brother just like him. Ironically, I was unaware of the insurmountable joy his addition would actually bring. We played “spy,” “house,” “school,” and a multitude of other games in which my siblings were my unwilling participants. Somehow, the rules always seemed to be in my favor.

We were simultaneously each other’s worst nightmares and fiercest defenders. Nevertheless, our trio was complete.

I submit the above facts as proof that I love my brother deeply… because yet again, he has become my unwilling participant.

Only this time, in this story.

The argument was minor — one of those buckled-in, summertime, errand-running arguments that siblings have in the back of Mom’s mini-van while covered in crumbs. He was small, a recent initiate into the world of speech, but not yet initiated into the “What Not to Say to Your Sister” club. It was one little word, easy to say and likely why he chose it…

“You’re FAT!”

Knowing tears would be my aid in Mom’s prosecution of him, I mustered up as many wet ones as I could. Yet at the end of the day, a foolish part of me worried that his words held some truth. After all, my worst nightmare was entering the four cologne-polluted walls of Abercrombie and trying to stretch the air-thin fabric over my changing body.

Though I knew that “fat” was simply one of the only words he could pronounce rather than a reflection of who I was, it was a moment that I would not soon forget.

Fast forward 15 years and crumb-covered, mini-van Katie would totally be high-fiving law-school Katie. For making it to this moment — this dream of going to law school that little-Katie held onto so dearly.

For those of you reading this, little-You would be high-fiving current-You for a goal you’ve accomplished, a hard time you’ve persevered through, the good friends you’ve found, the things you’ve learned, the places you’ve traveled…

All of those feel-good things — or maybe those things that didn’t feel so good — that transformed little-You into current-You.

Today, we celebrate International Women’s Day.

On days like today, it’s easy to celebrate the hard work that women have put in in order to reach what dreams they held as little girls.

The long hours, the naysayers, the failures, the successes, the creativity, the bravery, the kindnesses, the champions, the encouragements, the learning.

Yet, in a world filled with these remarkable women, who have led remarkable lives filled with (yes!) remarkable accomplishments, we still often find ourselves handing out shallow praise.

Shallow praise that does not adequately express the depth of our admiration.

Words have the unmatched ability to give life and charisma, encouragement and praise.

Yet, I have found that shallow words — the “you look skinny!” “so tiny!” or worse, “that body!” typed carelessly on social media — have the opposite effect of what a compliment should.

The moment that our encouragements become superficial is the moment that an absence of those encouragements will sting.

Yet it’s more than sting — it’s a unfair identity-shaper.

Fast-forward to the day that a friend posts a picture and no one compliments “Skinny!

Although we hate to admit it, the ugly lie will flash in our brain:

You aren’t good enough anymore.

If we encourage like this, we miss the opportunity to give that life and that charisma, that encouragement and that praise.

As women, our compliments are telling each other that this is what we value, when in reality, both little-Us and current-Us value so much more.

Want so much more.

Have achieved so much.

Are so much more.

I’ll be the first to admit it — with a world consumed by appearances, vanity, shapes, and sizes, we often think that a shallow compliment is what another woman would like to hear.

Let’s face it, who doesn’t like to be told that they look pretty?

But then I think about little-Katie.

Little Katie who wondered if a meaningless insult actually did mean something more about who she was as a girl.

That little Katie that wanted more than anything to become a lawyer.

Here I am, 23 and knees-deep in law school, living little-Katie’s dream.

I should not have to worry about getting a “Skinny!” on an Instagram post because I’m doing what I’m happy doing.

What I value doing.

What I want to be doing.

And yet, I do think about the “Skinny!

Perhaps our compliments should be more meaningful.

More truthful.

More aligned with what us women want to be praised for, celebrated for, and valued by.

We can do more than my three-year old brother could that day in the back of Mom’s mini-van.

Unknowing yet about the power of words.

Unknowing yet about the English language, frankly.

If our compliments demonstrate what we value — and what we believe others should value — then why would we ever let those compliments be shallow and flimsy?

So, let’s celebrate International Women’s Day and let’s celebrate all that women truly are.

Because little-Katie and little-You would be disappointed if we let ourselves be defined by the meaningless, skinny (yes! pun definitely intended) compliments that we so carelessly throw around.

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