There’s all this chatter about Renee 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 we women talk to each other (and for that matter, how do men talk to us) and what does it say about who we are and what we value?
We human beings have this incredible, deep need to be in relationship 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 or the name of the baby or chat about food cravings or the discomfort of pregnancy. When I am out and about with the twins now, I experience the same excitement from strangers who 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 too. When it feels welcome and easy, strangers engage with each other. But it is not always so welcome and easy, and that is why we play on our phones and ignore each other much of the time.
In my work, I have had 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 crucial conversations effectively. And people are so grateful for these rules. When we know the rules for engagement, we feel more confident and less vulnerable stepping up to the job. But 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 chit-chat could very well be contributing to the reasons that beautiful women like Renee Zellweger find themselves in search of a new mid-life look.
Here are the kinds of things I tend to 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, day out, what does she come to believe society values most about her? The social justice work she does? Her commitment to life-long 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 grey.
It seems to me that people are hungry, desperate for human connection. Face-to-face conversation. And 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. 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 we could all, each of us, change that collective narrative by changing what we see, changing what we talk about, changing what we find beautiful about each other. And maybe even in ourselves.