A few years ago, much like the rest of everyone ever on the Internet, I fell in love with this Huffington Post piece by Lisa Bloom, “How to Talk to Little Girls”. In it, Bloom recounts a recent interaction she had with a little girl named Maya in which she engaged the five-year-old about books instead of outfits. Arguing for readers to ask girls about their minds rather than comment on their appearance, she made a compelling case. Here’s an excerpt…
“Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.”
Hollering, “PREACH Lisa, preach!!!” the whole way, I ran to my nearest public library and plowed through Bloom’s book Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World. I was armed with all sorts of advice about using my mind for the betterment of the future. I devoured Bloom’s analysis and added all her favorite books to my reading list. But it was her initial advice about talking to girls that really impacted me. At this point in my life, I had recently made the career switch from a job that required constant brain-power and creativity and problem solving to one in retail, which…well, didn’t. However, I WAS constantly interacting with customers, meeting new people, and engaging with employees. I thought, what a perfect opportunity to challenge myself based on Bloom’s advice! But limiting her “conversation how-to” JUST to little girls didn’t seem like enough of a challenge. So I decided to go ALL in. I vowed that for the foreseeable future all small-talk with females, ANY females, would center around subjects OTHER than appearance; meaning no compliments or comments on their clothes, hair, face, body, shoes, makeup or anything I deemed appearance-oriented.
Here’s what happened…
Introverts beware! The biggest initial hurdle, you may have guessed by now, was finding things to talk about. I’m not the most outgoing person in the world, especially with strangers, so cutting out an easy conversation starter forced me to be a bit braver than normal and get creative. With little ones it was easy to ask things like, “Did you do anything fun in school today?” or “What’s that book about?” Real adult LADIES were another story. More often than not, if I was meeting them for the first time, I would panic and end up saying nothing at all. With acquaintances and friends I tried to lead by example. I would talk about books I was reading or local events I wanted to check out in the hopes they’d follow suit. Sometimes this tactic worked and sometimes it didn’t. When it didn’t, I ended up talking about myself a bit more than I was comfortable with. One sided convos about ME weren’t helping ANYONE…so I had to go back to the drawing board again and again to figure out new ways of talking to other women-folk.
Little girls LOVE a conversation outlet. So, it wasn’t just MY end of the conversation that proved especially easy with the young’uns…they were super about their side of things too! I quickly remembered how awesome I felt as a little kid when older people would REALLY talk to me. Giving others that feeling and opportunity was such an easy way to brighten even my most shitty days. Little girls will happily tell you about who they sat with at lunch, their favorite field trip, a ballet recital, the name of the horse they rode last week, a multitude of reasons why they hate broccoli, classroom pets like hamsters and snakes, why their baby brother is shy, what their imaginary friend is up to at this VERY moment, that they’ve already read THIS BOOK five times but they just love it so much they’re reading it again…and on and on and on. Parents were usually happy for the break or happy to join in. Little girls are awesome and they have a LOT to say. Even those little loves who were too shy to jump into conversation with me were easy to compliment on things other than appearance. Not ONCE did a parent have to chime in and thank me for a compliment that their kid had ignored. I find they often do when you tell a little girl something like, “Nice hair bow!”
Are compliments currency? Never have I found receiving a compliment so daunting as I did when I wasn’t paying them. Notice this turn of phrase. We call it “paying” someone a compliment. As I mentioned before, around the time I decided to go on a compliment fast, I was in a new job. New co-workers would serve up a “I love your shoes!” or “Your hair is so nice!” or “Those glasses are awesome!” and I would fill up with dread. How do I RECEIVE a compliment on my appearance if I can’t PAY one in return? Never too great at taking compliments in stride in the first place, I became even worse. I got caught up in the reciprocation aspect, or lack there of. Which is why I move that we give compliments instead of pay them! No matter what kind of compliment they are. Hand them out and expect nothing in return. And don’t worry about paying anyone back when you’re given one either! This was a hard lesson to learn but one I’m grateful for–ain’t nobody got time for calculating compliment exchange rates.
Female acquaintances vs. Female friends Because I was actively avoiding superficial conversations it was easy to steer clear of superficial friendships. I quickly developed camaraderie’s with ladies who shared similar interests to me…even if that was just talking shit about annoying co-workers or Netflix binges. If the conversation flowed easily without talk of appearance, she would move from acquaintance to friend. If it didn’t, I would still enjoy some small talk here and there but that was enough. I didn’t try and push anything. It became much easier than ever before to tell the difference. Initially, I felt terrible for making this distinction with one particular female acquaintance. She constantly complimented me, we had similar backgrounds and current positions, and everyone around me just LOVED HER. But something didn’t click when we talked to each other. I think if I had tried each day to offer her mindless compliments, I wouldn’t have been able to admit that it was better for us to remain acquaintances than forced friends.
In which I give myself a caveat. Pretty early on in the challenge I decided to give ladies of a certain age (Think: Grandmas) a pass and lift my compliment fast for a few moments just for them. This gave me the opportunity to offer really genuine, thought-out praise. I think because the compliments felt so real to me, they felt that real to those I was complimenting too. I can only describe their responses as delighted. Reserving these little moments of appreciation for a beautifully tailored suit or a colorful brooch or a gorgeous pair of soft leather gloves was definitely worth their surprised and humbled replies. Usually their thanks was coupled with a beautiful (and sometimes beautifully sad) story, circling back to the type of conversation I was after in the first place.
So, you may be wondering, where do I stand on all of this now? In the end, I lifted my ban on complimenting women’s appearance. As long as they’re adults I figure it’s fair game, and even then I sometimes slip and tell a kid I like her shoes. Mostly the challenge taught me to be mindful with my compliments and not to toss them around as a conversation crutch. Girls don’t need to evaluate their self-worth based on looks just because I can’t think of anything clever to say. I also learned that for some of my sisters out there compliments are an important part of female communication. Choosing not to engage with them on that level can be damaging. The last thing I want is to shut out a fellow lady-friend! I realize now that some of the compliments I give (and some that I receive, too) are rocking this as their subtext…
Subtext: I know there’s more to what makes you awesome than your ability to select and wear that t-shirt but I haven’t quite put my finger on what it is so for now I’m gonna tell you “your shirt is soooo cute!” and maybe, through that banal quip, the lines of communication between us will open just a wee bit more and I’ll get to the bottom of why you’re so darn cool and I can compliment your mind and your heart and your soul without feeling shy and embarrassed and weird.”
…and that’s ok. Sometimes, you just REALLY like the shirt. And that’s ok, too. But it doesn’t have to be ALL you talk about.
As for little girls, I’d still rather find out what they’re reading.