The hidden cost of compliments

Bodies are awesome – but at some point there are better things to think and talk about

We think about our bodies a lot. This isn’t breaking news: of course we do. Our bodies are the homes that we can’t leave; they follow us when we go to work or go on holidays. They hijack our brain when they’re hurting, hungry, horny, or thirsty. They do awesome things like dance and hug and taste food and have sex.

We also talk about our bodies – a lot. We talk about other people’s bodies a lot, too.


We go about our lives very aware of other people looking at us, on the look-out – as Margaret Atwood has remarked – for “the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole.” We spend a lot of time thinking about who’s observing us and what they’re seeing. Atwood thinks that even if there isn’t someone actually watching us, the watcher is still there – just in our own heads. She writes: “You are your own voyeur.”

So we’re always watching the people who are watching us, and when they’re not there, we take their place and watch ourselves as well. For example:

“Go easy there,” said the friendly man at the swipe desk as I walked out of Forbes dining hall holding an ice cream cone. “You don’t want to get plump and ruin your figure.” I hadn’t been thinking about my figure. I had been thinking about sugar. I dropped the ice cream in the nearest trash can.

“Your earrings and your shirt match your eyes,” someone at the fall activities fair told me. I smiled and put my netid down for their listserv, and now when I wear blue I think about my eyes.

“Nice ass,” shouted a football player as I left a pregame last semester. I kept walking down the hall. Recently I walk differently when there are athletes around.


We are constantly showering our friends and family and crushes with compliments on their hair and clothes and face, hoping to boost their confidence and put a smile on their faces because we love them. At some point, everyone has gotten a compliment that has made their morning – or their day – or even their week. Compliments (and insults, for that matter) stick around in our minds long after we get them, and this is particularly true when the comment in question is about the way we look.

And that’s the problem.

At some point, thinking and talking about bodies is boring. More specifically, thinking and talking about how bodies look is boring. We’re all doing a crazy number of awesome things on campus, most of which have nothing to do with our physical appearance, but most of us still spend a lot of time thinking about our bodies. We care about how attractive or admired or physically talented we are. This is fine. These concerns are largely unavoidable, and it’s healthy to be comfortable in and connected to our bodies, since they have an undeniable impact on our personal wellbeing and to some extent our social status. There doesn’t have to be a problem there.


The problem comes when you add in all the body-comments that we hear daily, and the amount of space that those comments then take up in our brains. We aren’t left with a lot of time to live naturally or genuinely in the moment, living without replaying that moment through someone else’s eyes. We’re almost always living in the spotlight-eyes of a voyeur – real or imagined. When someone mentions how you look, they break into whatever you’re doing or thinking and insert a new thought and a new way of acting. They bring your body to your attention and make you aware of its visibility to others. Like I said before, this isn’t a bad thing in itself.

But you might want to ask yourself: how much of my life am I watching as a voyeur?


Bodies are important. We’re always going to be thinking about how we look, and how others look, and how much we want to touch their bodies, and whether they want to touch or look at our bodies and so on. Just – next time your friend is laughing or slurping her cereal or reading a book, don’t compliment her on the weight she’s lost or the shirt she’s wearing. Don’t break the spell of the moment for her. Don’t open the voyeur’s window in her head.

Princeton University