25 September 2011

If you can't say anything nice...

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 it 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 has 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.

My Twitter friends gave me their opinion about the appropriateness of commenting on appearance (and their opinions made me proud):
@mscurlypops: my motto is that if you can't say something nice then say nothing at all!

@KITsDad: No. Unless they're a hipster, then go for it.

@keepcatebusy: don't undrstd why any1 would ever want 2 say something nasty abt some1 else. Ppl only do that 2 make themselves feel superior
@_jaime_: when they're wearing socks and thongs -yes. :)

@: No. Have your opinion, but don't voice it - if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all!

@: Never. It seems a lot of people lack basic manners. x

@: If their fly is undone or tag hanging out = yes. If you don't like their shoes or think they look slutty = no.

@: never appropriate. Ever. "if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all is old maxim" So hope not 2 u

I tweeted to Sydney Shop Girl "Seriously, when did negatively discussing someone's appearance outside of gossip mags become a valid topic of conversation??"

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 Freedman, is 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 fare nicer to give people. And I think it's about time the media starts 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.


  1. First off I am sure you looked awesome!

    As I tweeted in response, just from a common courtesy point of view you just don't say something like that to somebody & drunkenness is no excuse.

    I am trying to raise kids who look beyond the superficial and are well mannered enough to not be so rude.

    Also, as someone who is ALWAYS tired I hate the 'You look so tired' comments. It is confirming that as well as feeling like crap I also look it.

  2. I personally find it very strange when people comment on others appearance in a negative way. I never think that is a good thing to do. Having said that, I guess I can think of some times when I have laughed with my friends about something we may find a little odd - I mean extreme things like someone with crazy clothes or something, and maybe we're just being silly. It doesn't mean it's ok though. It reflects badly on the person making the comment. I can SO picture that conversation with you and that girl in the bathroom, drunk people are so forward and slow, which must make it so frustrating in those situations (I'm guessing this isn't the first time it's happened? drinking makes people less inhibited & more curious...) Great post!
    Heidi xo

  3. Hey Carly - great post, lady!

    It got me thinking.

    I agree that it is never ok to get negative on another person's appearance. I'm a firm believer that if you don't have any constructive comments to make, don't make them at all.

    With respect to body image, I think that there is a fine line between celebrating what is great about each of our bodies and the gushing "OMG HE/SHE LOOKS SO GREAT, I WANNA LOOK LIKE/BE WITH HIM/HER".

    And magazines sensationalise extremes of looking great/not-so-great because that's what they reckon, sells. And I know that I'm guilty of appreciating what's easy on the eye as much as I question what looks different. And I hate that.

    But people question what is different, I just wish that people would have as much tact as you have eloquence in explaining ichthyosis. So yes tactless and negative comments suck, but the intelligence, wit and humour that you use to deal with each situation is what is going to start changing things. It's a battle but you are a freakin awesome trooper, Carly and you're gonna win the war. x

  4. I love this post (as always). I definitely agree that it's never okay to comment negatively on someone's appearance. I personally try to subscribe to the "if you can't something nice, don't say anything at all," motto, because it just seems like common sense.

    However, I am guilty of commenting negatively on what people are wearing (to friends, never to the person themselves), although this is usually about people on TV etc, haha. I think there's a difference between commenting on clothes or shoes than commenting on physical appearance in terms of discussing things between friends. Not that either are appropriate, but I would be less upset to overhear people saying they don't like my skirt than wondering what happened to my face or whether I'm anorexic. The clothes you wear are generally a choice, while race/disabilities/deformities/skin conditions/weight (to an extent) are not.

    I get told I look tired on all the time when I'm not wearing makeup, because my lack of cheekbones means I have permanent dark circles under my eyes. I find it really rude and inappropriate too. To me, it's akin to saying I look like crap and no one wants to be told that!

  5. I just last night read a reader's digest article Aug 2011 about a man so shunned by society he had the first full face transplant. It wasn't necessary from a medical point of view. He was disfigured by the genetic disease Neurofibromatosis 1 . I was stunned till I saw his face, and thought yes his life was HELL and thought not worth living as he was.. I have the same genetic disease and it shocks me that people would do what they did to him. I agree don't say anything at all except nice words.

  6. You are right, it is NEVER ok. Never ever. We all have interesting/beautiful/striking parts to us, inside and out, so why not take the time to even just think something pleasant about someone. I am in no way claiming that I never think "gee she shouldn't wear that", I do, but I keep it to myself.

    As lots of the tweets said, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

    Great post Carly :) xx

  7. I am not going to lie and pretend I'm some morally superior being... I have talked about other people and will likely continue to do so. I think anyone who claims to have never done it is either talking shit or delusional. BUT (there is always a but) I would never talk critically of someone based on their disability. Bitching about uperficial things like clothing choice when having a few wines with my girlfriends? You betcha.

  8. When comparing themselves to the rest of the world, everyone likes to use the yardstick where they think that they will personally measure up best. Where that yardstick happens to be "society's idea of beauty", it speaks volumes about what that person actually thinks of themselves and their perceived lack of other merits...

  9. I agree with the "if you can't say anything nice" motto absolutely. Keep it to yourself, or at least select who you say it to carefully - not the subject of your judgement!

    In saying that, it doesn't sound as though anyone in this story was being malicious, just ignorant. Unfortunately most people are, particularly with a skin condition that is rare like yours. I guess that's where you come in. You can educate them about what's ok to say and about your condition. Humans are curious creatures... and you are within your rights to make them aware that they also have big mouths!

  10. Oh god- Sorry to hear about this!

    This is a great example of what society has become!

    Babe you're gorgeous inside and out.. I totally agree if you cant say anything nice dont say anything at all.. People who gossip, backstab and bully are often those who are the most insecure in their own skin.

  11. I don't know about other people, but I think I was almost conditioned by high school to judge on appearance. The pecking order at my school was based on who was the prettiest and richest (elite private school mentality). I distinctly remember being in assembly once when one of the girls behind me asked me to turn around. She turned to her friend and said "see I told you she had good eyebrows" and they continued chatting while I sat there looking at them. Seriously, they were discussing people's eyebrows in assembly! It is no wonder eating disorders were rife at that shcool.

    Fast forward 10 or so years and I hope I've lost that. Ok, I'm no saint, I do see people and wonder what they were thinking when they put that outfit on, or how on earth someone could get that fat? At a ball I couldn't help but comment to my friend on the woman with the massive boobs wearing the all in one sliver sequinned jumpsuit, but if I had spoken to her I would have told her she looked outstanding and just where would you get such a jumpsuit?

    It is so much nicer when you focus on positive things like how good people are looking. The other day I was totally entranced by a woman's amazing shoe that it took me a second to realise she only had one, her other leg was missing. I'm still in awe of someone who can wear a 4 inch stilleto and use crutches but I wonder if she saw me looking if she would have thought I was looking at her missing leg not her gorgeous shoe.

    One thing is for sure, if I have kids, I will be teaching them to look for the good things, not be negative and make hurtful comments.

  12. bitches be loco. for shizz.
    It's ok, lots of people ask me what's wrong with my skin during summer (when my skin is exposed), I just say "WHATS WRONG WITH YOUR FACE?"
    For some reason it makes people shuttup and go away. *thumbs up*

  13. I think is human nature to comment on other people's clothing, appearance etc. especially if they are strangers. I have done it with friends (who hasn't?)People watching in a bar or cafe: "love her dress", "hate his hat", "cute but with bad shoes", "Are they a couple or family?"

    I don't see any difference between this and commenting on people in a magazine. Very different to bullying

  14. so here's the thing, i hate tattoos … men, women, young and old, can't stand 'em. as a designer i can admire their beauty in an abstract way, as someone who strives for understanding i can recognise their significance for certain cultures. but it doesn't stop me hating them.

    so i don't have any, but i don't criticise either — i either just don't comment, or find something about the tattoo to admire if asked.

    i could put any number of other words in place of tattoo … 'jeggings' for example, or 'muffin tops' or 'rats tails' … the temptation to lift ourselves up by putting others down is nigh on irresistible, isn't it? "I might not be perfect, but at least i don't … *fill in pet hate* " next time i find myself sliding down that slippery slope (and sadly, i will), i will try to remember your words. good words … xt


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