Avoiding Appearance Evaluations: There's Plenty Else to Talk About
Most people have inadvertently judged someone's appearance, including me. A few folks have probably done it intentionally or in jest - I wince to recall times I have across my lifetime. Many people experience body dysmorphia during their lifetimes, or a distressing preoccupation with perceived flaws in their appearance. A common treatment for body dysmorphia is the cognitive behavioral therapy technique of thought challenging - identifying and disputing inaccurate thoughts that contribute to distress. It is a thousand times more difficult to challenge such a thought when it has been reinforced by the thoughtless comments of others.
As a counselor, I often see clients after major appearance changes and I will point out, as neutrally as possible that I witness the change ("I see you have cut your hair"), and ask them to share their feelings about it. My opinion of their appearance isn't relevant to our work together - their mental wellbeing matters most to me, so I only examine appearance as it relates to mental health. If I detect someone is happy about their appearance, I will generally celebrate their happiness with them. If someone is exploring their identity, I celebrate their journey with them. I'm not perfect about curbing evaluative appearance talk and every day provides opportunity to sharpen this skill of focusing on everything but appearance in conversation. This is a skill I think everyone could use more of, inside and outside the counseling room.
I recently experienced a major appearance change as I faced life-threatening health struggles last year. I was the recipient of a many unsolicited negative opinions from folks commenting on the changes they saw, while oblivious to the health causes. The comments were not intentionally unkind, yet they were totally unnecessary. I was acutely aware that my hair was falling out, that my belly was distended from what was happening inside, and that reduced mobility was contributing to rapid changes. But dozens of people, who had no idea I was sick, made thoughtless comments about how they disliked my new hair, how big my under eye bags had gotten, and even pointing out how I was putting on weight.
I'm not telling you this to inspire pity for me, and I am not upset at these people for doing what people generally do. The purpose here isn't to shame anyone. My purpose is simply to point out that anyone can do better at resisting the habit of discussing physical appearance, which may have innocent intent but painful impact. I'm using myself as an example to encourage dear readers to think twice before sharing unsolicited opinions about someone else's appearance. If more people had known about my illness, they might not have said those things; but should a person need to share their health status with everyone to be safe from unsolicited evaluations?
Its human nature to have opinions; but before sharing one, please consider whether it has been invited and what its impact might be. You never know who is struggling internally with their body, eating, health, resources, identity, or perception of their appearance. I'm lucky that these unsolicited opinions didn't harm my opinion of myself and that my health has generally returned since my surgery. But I can only imagine how devastating these remarks might have been for someone who struggles with a highly critical inner voice or body dysmorphia.
Consider challenging the norm that making evaluative remarks about appearance is "just how people talk" - it doesn't have to be. Consider if there is a non-appearance based way to make conversation, such as connecting about events, emotions, or literally anything else. This conversation skill can feel natural after a little practice, and can facilitate more authentic and mindful connection. Go easy on yourself if you slip into judging someone's physical appearance, this social habit is pervasive; but renew your willingness to find safer ways to connect - like asking questions about their opinions and experiences.
It can be challenging to turn off the habit of commenting on something as vulnerable as appearance, but you will be making the world an emotionally safer place for others to inhabit. And if you are the recipient of unsolicited evaluations of your appearance, especially if it is from someone you know well, consider setting boundaries. What you allow is what will continue. Its one thing to ask for someone's feedback, and another thing entirely to impose an evaluation of a person's appearance.