“You’re still pretty. We all think so.”

Compliments can be tricky, especially in a second language and sometimes they come out a little different than intended.  (Okay, sometimes in our first language too. Like the time I told a Harvard alum I used to be impressed when I met people from Harvard…until I met him. It had sounded so different in my head.) But I’m frequently amused by compliments I receive from students.

There was when my students followed me out of class to comment on how beautiful I looked last week in class. When I said, “But not this week?” The girl (who to be fair may have not understood my question) replied, “No.”

I got a good laugh a few days ago when a student responded to a joking comment I made about being a bad teacher by saying, “You are a good teacher, excellent. We all like you. Sometimes you are cute.”

But the conversation that stands out is one that happened as I ate dinner with a couple students, and my age came up. This of course led to the inevitable topic of my singleness—and of course their concern about my age and my singleness as I’m pretty close to the bar for spinster status in China.

That’s when my student made this priceless comment: “Don’t worry. You’re still pretty. We all think so.”

“Still pretty.” Embedded into that comment is the slightly ominous warning—“but someday you won’t be pretty anymore, and that’s when you really need to worry.”

This idea was further reinforced a few days later in a conversation with a colleague who commented her sister was going to have a hard time finding a husband now because her beauty was beginning to fade. As I once again reflect on beauty, I’m reminded of the words of Proverbs that charm is deceptive, and beauty (at least the outward kind) is indeed fleeting.

And yet, if I’m honest, the way I live is often not that different from these words. Although I often decry a culture that puts outer appearance above a woman’s intelligence, skills and abilities, if I’m honest I can be part of the continuing trend. We compliment each other on clothing, on our bodies, on outward things far more often than we compliment each other for our spirit, our courage, our hearts, our minds.

This week I read this post from Allison Vesterfelt which talks about how women tend to be less confident than men. And I wondered how often it is not men, but women who steal this confidence from each other. We allow our insecurities to cause us to strike out at each other and often the first thing people lash out against is a woman’s appearance—shaming her and further emphasizing that her appearance (or lack thereof) is what defines her.  (Read some comments to women on blogs, news sites, social media and you quickly see the trend.)

As I wrote this (and it changed into something quite different than when I began) I also read this great piece from the Washington Post this week “The Best Way to Compliment Little Girls” and I was struck by this line: “I want my daughters to feel beautiful, but I don’t want them to tie their worth to the way they look. I believe that paying a genuine compliment is a gracious way to connect with another person, but I don’t want them to place more importance on flattery than it deserves. I want them to learn to say “thank you” when they receive a compliment, but I don’t want them to feel slighted if they don’t.”

As I’ve said before I certainly don’t think we can’t compliment one another’s appearances or care about our appearances. It’s okay that we notice cute clothes or shoes. But it’s about where we place our value—what we tell others they are valued for.

A challenge to myself and to those around me to think about our words and compliments. As you compliment your friend on her new haircut, are you also mentioning her courage in changing career paths? As you compliment your friend on her weight loss, have you also noticed that she has grown significantly in compassion and grace? As you compliment your friend on her stylish outfits, are you also complimenting her on the wisdom she brings to your daily life?  Our words have the ability to take away courage, strength, hope and confidence—but they also have the ability to give it. There are small ways every day can we encourage a woman that she is still pretty…in the ways that truly count.

You are Beautiful

I was at the supermarket earlier this week when suddenly I was surrounded by about 5 children (approximately age 12). They were working hard to communicate with me (one child whispered to the other, “what…is…your…name?) After our short conversation in Chinglish, one child proclaimed, “You are beautiful!” The other children all echoed, “Beautiful, beautiful!” And then we went our separate ways, but I saw them several other times and they would shout, “Beautiful!” and keep going.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the word beautiful. Maybe it’s because I’ve been called beautiful more in the last two years than I’ve been called beautiful in my whole life combined. Really it probably only took 2 weeks in China to be called beautiful more than in my whole life combined.

My friend (another blond-haired foreigner) and I were discussing whether the word beautiful means as much to us anymore when we hear it so often. Sometimes I would say it doesn’t. It lacks sincerity. But other times, it’s still touching, like when my student pulls out her phone and points to a picture of us together and says, “I show everyone this picture, so they can see my beautiful English teacher.” Or when I’m at the supermarket looking about my absolute worst and those cute little kids shout out “beautiful.”

I read an article a few years ago (that I was going to link to, but couldn’t find at the moment) about not calling little girls pretty..  It was thought-provoking.  It talked about how often we define girls by their looks. But as I was thinking about it, I wondered if the bigger problem is not about defining girls by their looks, but rather how we define beauty.

Do we truly see beauty as we look around us? By beauty, I don’t just mean the perfect symmetry that our mind thinks as beautiful—but beauty in the mundane, in the ordinary, even in the seemingly unlovable. Do we look at the world around us and do we see beauty, or do we only see ashes?

This year as I reflected upon a word I wanted to emphasize, I could not shake the word beautiful. What would it look like for me to look at the world around me and truly see beauty? How would it look for me to look around me and see the faces I interact with, the crowded masses on the street—and sincerely say—“you are beautiful?”   Can I say this not because of what they have to offer, or what they look like, but because I believe that each person is created in image of the one who declared it is good?  Do I sincerely believe He can bring beauty from ashes, light from darkness and in the words of Gungor, He “is making beautiful things out of us?”