I was recently at an event with my parents, not knowing many other guests there, surrounded by pretty young things wearing gorgeous dresses. I glammed up for the occasion too – my pink Cinderella skirt from St Frock, and my silver jacket and floral top that I wore to the AusBlogCon (though I always seem to feel really overdressed due to the amount of layers I need to wear!).
While I was talking in hushed tones with my Mum about how beautifully dressed some of the girls were, it turned out some of those beautifully dressed girls were talking in hushed tones about me too.
Later on in the night, after a few wines, I went to the toilet and got talking to a girl I met on the way. We talked through the toilet walls, small talk – that we liked the food, that the event was a great one, that our shoes were killing us.
Then, out under the fluorescent lights as we washed our hands, the girl turned to me, looked closely, and said,”So what happened?”. What happened to my face, she meant. “I was born this way,” I told her. “And what happened?” she asked again. Drunk people can be hard to reason with. “I was born like this, that’s what happened,” I told her. Again.
She asked me if it was a skin condition, I said yes, and I told her the name. Drunk people are also quite honest. “I thought it was a skin condition,” she said. And then she added, “The people I am with were arguing about whether it was a burn or sunburn all day”.
Right. So while I was probably complimenting some of those girls, they were discussing my appearance.
I know this happens. People ask me all the time. People stare. People ask friends or family or colleagues what is “wrong” with me. It’s curiosity. But I didn’t even think people would be spending more than a few seconds thinking or commenting about my appearance or discussing appearance in general in a negative way. Certainly not when there’s so much beauty and fabulous personalities and wonderful acts of kindness to compliment. And I thought about the shallowness of being so image focused.
I went back into the room happily laughing with the girl I met in the toilet. We went on to discuss the cute boys in the room, arms linked like old friends. She wasn’t meaning harm. But our toilet discussion left me feeling a little self conscious, and got me thinking.
Is it ever appropriate to negatively comment on someone’s appearance (how they look or dress, or their race or disability)?
When I think about my own behaviour, I can guiltily admit that there have been times when I’ve said quietly to a friend, “What is she wearing??” or even made a comment about someone’s weight. I know. I shouldn’t. But it is rare. And the comments never turn into a conversation. It’s an instant reaction, and I wouldn’t then give their appearance a second thought. And I’d certainly never make judgment about someone’s face, disability or race. Never.
Glossy mags thrive on the way celebrities look. They criticise, point out ‘flaws’ and persuade readers to aspire to an ideal. Too thin, too fat, too much cellulite, acne scars, best diets, beauty treatments are the secret to happiness. Hell, even my appearance was (positively) highlighted in a women’s mag. Image sells.
I was thinking about the way we encourage positive body image in the media. The National Body Image Advisory Group (chaired by Mia) was an Australian Government initiative, “committed to tackling negative body image from a national perspective, by helping young Australians to build confidence and resilience against the body image pressures that they face.” The group recently launched new initiatives to promote healthy body image in Australia. These initiatives include the establishment of a voluntary code of conduct for the fashion, media and advertising industries.
The discussion of my appearance at this event made me wonder how far the media has come with portraying a diverse range of people realistically. And wondered whether the media is still giving the public permission to discuss and criticise peoples’ flaws. Like the colour of my skin.
It’s never ok to negatively comment on the way someone looks. Even telling someone they look tired may be taken as criticism. If you are going to comment on someone’s appearance, tell them they look beautiful. Compliments are far nicer to give people. And I think it’s about time the media started paying more compliments to celebrities’ appearances, instead of criticising them. Perhaps this act by the media will mean every day people will be less critical of those who look different.
Have you ever overheard people discussing your appearance? Do you routinely gossip about the way others look?
Carly Findlay is a 20 something Melbourne woman working full time as an events planner/writer and a freelance writer on the side. She studies part time and volunteers at the Royal Children’s Hospital for a program called ChIPS. You can follow her on twitter here or read her blog here.