“You are beautiful”. We see it and hear it so often nowadays that it doesn’t bear much meaning anymore. It’s used so liberally in advertising that we’ve become numb to it. 

The relatively recent focus on cultivating self-confidence surfaced as an alternative to popular culture and media’s obsession with attaining “perfection”. We’re constantly surrounded by digitally enhanced images depicting one specific definition of beauty. Because of this, we need movements like body positivity to remind us that there’s nothing wrong with our appearance. One of the ways we carry out this reminder, of course, is by telling others how beautiful they are. 

piece of paper saying "you are beautiful"
Image via Dorseyrossministries

As Renee Engeln, Ph.D., thoughtfully describes in a recent piece for Psychology Today, the world is now inundated with the phrase “you are beautiful.” It shows up on billboards, in graffiti, on inspirational stickers, social media, and anywhere else you might think to look.

The problem, however, as Engeln suggests, is that this phrase might actually do more harm than good. It likely comes from good intentions, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a positive thing.

For starters, this phrase reiterates that beauty is, in fact, a marker of success and a standard we should strive for. We attempt to comfort people with low self-confidence by telling them they adhere to the unhealthy standards we are trying to move beyond as a culture. In a sense, calling people beautiful is like perpetuating a vicious cycle. It’s sending the message that looks do matter, and that a person’s looks are more important than their other characteristics. 

There’s also the fact that telling someone who doesn’t feel good about themselves that they are beautiful generally doesn’t make them feel much better. According to Engeln, there is no evidence that someone with negative self-image will be swayed by hearing that they’re beautiful. In fact, it may even make them feel worse about themselves because they’ll start to think about all the reasons they don’t consider themselves beautiful. We need to learn that sometimes beauty is irrelevant. 

What to say instead of “you are beautiful”

Engeln ends the piece with a call to value people based on more than their appearance. Instead of telling someone they’re beautiful, demonstrate they don’t have to be beautiful by complimenting them as a person instead. Something they’re good at that has nothing to do with how they look. Habits like that play a small part in helping to build a society with better self-esteem and a healthier sense of self.

Here are a few examples: 

“I love your energy”

“Your enthusiasm is contagious”

“You’re such a good parent”

“You look so confident”

“You’re really good at ________”

“I love how you _________”

“You’re so much fun to be around!”

Any of these are likely to engage the person more than an over-used, superficial phrase would. But if you do find it appropriate to tell someone they’re beautiful, try to give an example as to why. This will dispell the tendency for them to second-guess your compliment since it came bundled with facts.

So let’s focus on positive messages that highlight a person’s qualities instead of their looks. Give it a try today, and tell us in the comments how they reacted.