There is so much chatter about Renée Zellweger’s new look. But perhaps it’s time to turn our gaze to an underlying issue that I don’t hear the media addressing in this conversation—how do women talk to each other? For that matter, how do men talk to women? And what does it say about who we are and what we value?
Human beings have this incredible, deep need to be in relationships with other people. We want to engage with each other, but what are we choosing to talk about? I’d like to explore the idea that our conversations affect how we see ourselves, and perhaps even the values we subconsciously espouse.
I’ve been pregnant three times—the last with twins. Each time, I was struck by the outpouring of friendly conversation lavished upon me by strangers and friends alike. People talk to pregnant women because they know the rules for what to talk about with a mommy-to-be. You can ask about the due-date, the name of the baby, chat about food cravings, or the discomfort of pregnancy. Now, when I am out and about with the twins, I experience the same excitement from strangers. They approach me abuzz with questions about what it’s like to raise multiples. I’ve found when traveling alone for work, just sitting on an airplane next to someone invites familiar chatter. When it feels welcome and easy, strangers engage with each other. But it’s not always so welcome and easy, which is why we play on our phones and ignore each other much of the time.
In my work, I have the privilege of teaching thousands of people around the globe how to build relationships and get results through dialogue. I am essentially teaching the rules for holding effective crucial conversations. People are so grateful for these rules. When we know the rules for engagement, we feel more confident and less vulnerable stepping up to these difficult conversations. However, no one teaches us the rules for casual conversations.
I suspect when we greet our friends or turn to strangers to make small talk, we are not consciously connecting to our deeper values in those moments. I fear our friendly and well-intentioned chitchat could very well be contributing to the reasons that beautiful women like, Renée Zellweger, find themselves in search of a new mid-life look.
Here are the kinds of things I hear us saying:
“I can’t believe you just had a baby. You look amazing!”
“Where did you get those shoes?”
“I love your hair.”
“How do you stay so thin? Do you work out?”
If these are the comments a woman hears day in and day out, what does she come to believe society values most about her? The social justice work she does? Her commitment to lifelong learning? The kindness she extends as a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, a wife? The discipline she demonstrates in her work, her studies, and her parenting? No. She learns that she is valued for her body, her clothes, and her image. Perhaps she comes to believe that her vitality is tied to the fleeting physical beauty of youth.
And if one day she stops receiving a steady stream of these comments (or if the comments she hears are of the more disparaging, critical kind to begin with), she is left wondering how valued she really is.
She might be tempted to believe that society will value her more if she could just “get a little work done” or drop a few pounds or cover the gray.
It seems to me that people are hungry, maybe even desperate for human connection and face-to-face conversation. Delightful, spontaneous, kind words from strangers, friends, and acquaintances can be some of the best kind.
What if, for just this week, we all tried to refrain from commenting on each other’s looks and just celebrated each other’s gorgeous spirits and beautiful ideas instead?
To the mom juggling four young children with grace and humor in a crowded restaurant, “You make it look easy.”
To the young girl reading, “I love books, don’t you? What’s your favorite?”
To the woman in the work meeting who’s holding back her contributions, “We haven’t heard from you today. I always love what you have to say. Is there anything you’d like to share?”
To the older woman holding hands with her husband walking through the mall, “You guys are the sweetest. What an inspiration you are!”
It’s been said that our sense of self stems from the narrative we tell about our lives. That narrative is nothing but a collection of memories. Perhaps each of us could change that collective narrative by changing what we see, what we talk about, and what we find beautiful about each other. And maybe even in ourselves.
Crucial Skills Readers: What are your thoughts? How could we better prioritize the importance we place on physical beauty?