OK, Lamp! : A lesson from Bella Hadid about compliments

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This week on Endless Thread, host Ben Brock Johnson and producer Grace Tatter look at a meme inspired by supermodel Bella Hadid's call to compliment each other on attributes other than physical appearance, and ask what really makes for an authentic compliment.

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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Ben: Grace Tatter.

Grace: Ben Brock Johnson.

Ben: This is gonna be a quickie. You've got one for me.

Grace: I do.

Ben: What do you have for me this week?

Grace: What I have for you this week is from a very Grace Tatter corner of the internet, which is to say, a pretty basic corner of Instagram.

Ben: That's okay.  I like basic Instagram. I'm good with it, you know, as long as I just don't get too deep into basic Instagram.

Grace: That's what I'm here for. I'm here to go deep so you don't have to.

Ben: Thank God.

Grace: So you know how Instagram has a Discover page?

Ben: I do.

Grace: Okay. So I don't know what's on yours. Mine has a lot from therapy accounts. The Instagram algorithm is very, very concerned about my mental wellbeing.

Ben: Oh no.

Grace: Yeah, like recently, it showed me a slide deck titled, “What Informs Your Resistance to Pleasure.” I don't usually click on these because, I don't really need my therapy from Instagram.

Ben: Can I ask a dumb question?

Grace: Yes.

Ben: What does inform your resistance to pleasure? No, I'm just kidding. My question is, to get to the discover part, is it the search thing?

Grace: Yeah. If you go down and it's like a magnifying glass.

Ben: Yeah. The magnifying glass

Grace: Yeah. What's on yours?

Ben: Ugh, it's not good. It's very strong dudes doing things in the woods.

Grace: That doesn't sound so bad. That sounds kind of interesting. You like doing things in the woods.

Ben: Yeah. And I'm, you know, at least according to my six-year-old children, I'm a very strong dude. There's something about the Olsen twins. I'm not sure why. Oh God, that's — don't like that. And then there is, I don't know why, but there is a video of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk standing in Midtown Manhattan. Ugh. And then I don't, not interested in that content. There's some Seinfeld content, there's some Sylvester Stallone content cuz I find his terrible Instagram work pretty hilarious. I’m going to leave it there.

Grace: It sounds like Instagram thinks you're a little bit healthier than maybe Instagram thinks I am.

Ben: It could be, but you know, it's also, maybe Instagram is like sexist and misogynist too.

Grace: Maybe the algorithms are a little bit sexist.

Ben: Just maybe.

Grace: Possibly.

Ben: I'm, I would be shocked to learn. Just kidding. All right, so Discover wants you to go to therapy so you can access pleasure.

Grace: Yeah, so like Instagram claims to want me to feel better about myself despite many other signals to the contrary. And I must not be the only one who the algorithm is feeding this stuff. Do you know who Bella Hadid is? I told you we were going on the basic corners of the internet.

Ben: No. Oh no. Um, oh God. So this is gonna be wrong, but this is what I'm gonna say. You know, a classically attractive pop star from the UK. That's it.

Grace: You're close. She's a supermodel. I think she's from California, although she seems very international.

Ben: Okay. Fair. Fair.

Grace: She's probably spent a lot of time in London.

Ben: Okay. No music? Doesn't have a fake music career?

Grace: Not so far as I know. Not yet. You were close in that she's very classically attractive and that's the main reason why she's famous. I'm going to send you a post that she recently posted on Insta.

Ben: Oh boy. Oh, oh, interesting that we, that we started this conversation with me saying that she was classically attractive, because this is a list of non-appearance compliments.

Grace: Exactly. Can you read some of them for me?

Ben: "I admire your passion and drive. You're such a great listener. It has been amazing to watch you grow. I feel so comfortable around you. Your confidence inspires me. You are kind and full of courage."

Grace: Why are you laughing?

Ben: I don't know. That one got me. I'm not sure why. It feels ridiculous. “You're kind and full of courage.” I don't know. Something about that feels like a fake. It feels fake. "I love how you can give me different perspectives. You have the best energy. You make me feel seen, heard and valued."

Grace: Well, that was a great reading.

Ben: That's a, see, that was a non-appearance compliment, Grace.

Grace: There you go. Yeah, I, I actually feel like, I think both of us are pretty good at non-appearance compliments. I have never once in my life been like, ah, crap, I can't think of a non-appearance compliment. I need to consult a list from Instagram. That's not something that has come up for me, despite –  this actually originally came from an account called Everyday Connection, that is exactly the type of thing that Instagram is always recommending to me. Just a lot of, you know, things that are very well-intentioned, but do perhaps seem a little bit surface-level. And I very, very much admire where these things are coming from, right? Like, I think that it is often problematic to comment on how people physically look because a lot of what we consider, or like the, a lot of beauty norms are really bound with these harmful systems, like the patriarchy, white supremacy…

Ben: Never never heard of it. Never heard of it.

Grace: So yeah, ultimately I'm all about de-emphasizing the importance of appearances and, um, complimenting people on other things that are maybe more in their control.

Ben: I also, you know, can I float to theory?

Grace: Yeah.

Ben: I do think you're good at non-appearance compliments, and I think you're probably better than me. This is just a theory, hopefully it's a non-problematic theory. Okay. I'm winding up. I'm winding up.

I think that women have to deal with appearance way more than men do. And so women recognize how messed up appearance compliments can feel and be, and so I, my guess would be that women on the whole are much better at giving non-appearance compliments because they know what it feels like to receive one that is unwanted and unappreciated.

Grace: Yeah, that resonates with me and I do think like why Bella Hadid posted this and she did get some pushback because obviously even though she's – in the caption, she's kind of saying that outward beauty doesn't matter, when obviously that's what made her really rich, right? So she’s –

Ben: Supermodel says, outward appearance doesn't matter. A person who makes all of their money based on an economy of appearances, uh, says that appearances don't matter. Is that what you're saying?

Grace:  Exactly. But I think in some ways both things can be true, right?

Ben: Of course.

Grace: She can be profiting off the system, and also resent being reduced to her looks or like that feeling of like constant surveillance that I think sometimes one might feel when someone comments on their appearance.

Ben: The male gaze.

Grace: Exactly. But still, I will admit when I saw her post, they kind of made me laugh, like you laughed at some of them. And they also kind of annoyed me because again, like who are these lists for, like the unwanted physical comments that I've gotten? I don't think that those people are following Bella Hadid on Instagram.

Ben: Yeah. Well, and also like they're probably not thinking –  like the whole problem with that, right? Is that like the person is delivering that compliment without thinking. Where it's like, I think those kinds of compliments are fundamentally, like they lack intentionality and care and you know what I mean? Does that make sense?

Grace: Yes. Usually compliments like that are coming kind of off the cuff, but like in general, there's something about like if you do get a compliment, you don't necessarily want to feel like someone like Googled the exact right thing to say to you.

Ben: Well, that's the problem with all these non-appearance compliments. They seem like the most basic, shallow, fake, generic compliments that you could come up with, right?

Grace: Yes, exactly. And I googled non-physical compliments and just like pages and pages of guides like this come up. One was posted about a year ago on a subreddit called coolguides which is all kind of infographics.

Ben: Love me some cool guides.

Grace: And this one was from, an Instagram account that I also get fed all the time - @Millennialtherapist. And a lot of them, I mean, again, so well-intentioned. “Your passion is contagious. I appreciate how authentically you show up” –  which feels kind of ironic because if you look at all the comments on it, of which there are many, most of them are saying kind of what we've just said.

Like someone said, “If someone started saying this shit to me, I would assume they were trying to get me to join a cult.” “Half of these could be considered passive aggressive if said with the wrong tone.” So ultimately, again, although these infographics are everywhere, there's not actually that much of an audience hoping to get these specific compliments, I would say.

But there is an audience…who has some creative alternatives to these lists. And we’ll get to that in a minute


So we’ve been talking about these lists of “non-appearance compliments” that have been making the rounds on Instagram for years on kind of inspirational, therapy-speak accounts. The post Bella Hadid shared wasn’t the first by a long-shot. The earliest list I found was from 2015, so kind of early days of Instagram in the scheme of things, on an account called the artidote. And with anything that ubiquitous – there’s also going to be posts kind of poking fun of it, right?  So fast forward to this past week and I had a few friends send me this meme.

Ben: All right. Very Harry Hill.

Grace: Classic meme account.

Ben: Yep. Non-appearance compliments.

Grace: Can you read some of these? You did so well last time.

Ben: “I haven't met anyone like you that recently. OK, lamp! You're glowing.”

Grace: That's my favorite one.

Ben: “Your aura is literally fuchsia. Not you being quietly luxurious. You remind me of my favorite professor. I need to be at Target with you right now. I could see you dating Jon Hamm. You def would've survived the Titanic. You're so good at shopping sales. I'm sure you have great boobs, but I wouldn't know because I'm not looking.”

Grace: That one, I'm gonna say, is an appearance-based compliment.

Ben: That is fully appearance-based. I would argue, also the lamp. “OK lamp, you're glowing,” is absolutely appearance-based.

Grace: You know, that's true. I, it could be talking about like a spiritual glow, if we're tying it to number three, “Your aura is literally fuchsia.”  But you're right. I think usually people are thinking about skincare.

Ben: Mm-hmm. “Your sneezes are so subtle and posh.” This shit is amazing. “Tech whizz! You kill it at the Genius Bar. I love that you just show up whenever.”

Grace: I thought of you a little bit with the last one.

Ben: Oh, I knew you were gonna say that, Grace.

Grace: It’s a compliment!

Ben: How dare you? Uh, how freaking dare you.

Grace: It's a compliment. As someone who has to send you a lot of meeting invites –

Ben: Oh my God. Okay. You're saying that not as in I show up late to all of my meetings, which is also maybe slightly true sometimes. But you're saying that as in, I'm down to clown whenever you want me to clown with you.

Grace: Well, I was saying the former, but also the latter.

Ben: Oh my God, this is brutal. This is a gotcha interview, Grace. I'm out. I'm out.

Grace: I appreciate when you show up. That's what I mean. I appreciate how you show up. Whenever. I'll turn it back into a compliment.

Ben: Oh my God. Okay.

Grace: Okay. Alright. Okay. So I think that like, these are so broad and even though some of them, because it's a silly meme, like do actually have to do with physical appearance, it shouldn't be that hard to make a non-physical comment because like most things are not about physical appearance, like you could say like, literally anything. So like, again, why do you need a list?

Ben: My step brother-in-law Will, I feel like, Will brings a lot of this kind of like language and energy, but in a way that's like very genuine. He will vocalize his appreciation for me in a way that like is inspiring to me that I would like to, that I would like to, to sort of put back into the world. And I feel like I do that to a certain degree. Like, I feel like I'm pretty good at appreciating people and like supporting them, I, I hope. But I – this is like inspiring me to, to just think and actually like, execute on complimenting people in like a genuine and custom way. Not like a, let me memorize this list of you're, you're such a great listener things, and, and like say them to them. You know what I mean?

Grace: Yeah. And maybe that's really like why a lot of these guides exist, not with the hope that people are reading them word-for-word or repeating them word-for-word

Ben: Sure. It's inspo.

Grace: Exactly. Like a launching off point.

Ben: Yeah. It's a mood board.

Ben: Should we practice some non-physical appearance-based compliments with each other?

Grace: Yes. Yeah. Not using a list. Authentic.

Ben: All right, I'll go. I'll go first. I love how you bring a positive attitude even amongst the fog of war.

Grace: Where did that come from?

Ben: You know, we're, we're in the, you and I are in the content mines, Grace. You know, it's tough out there when you're, when you're making content sometimes and you know, you bring the positive vibes, you're a can-do person even when we can't do it. You know what I mean?

Grace: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. Um, okay, let me think of one for you.

Ben: Oh, better be good. After you've insulted my meeting show up vibes.

Grace: Let's see.

Ben: All right. Give Grace about 20, give her about 25 minutes to think of one thing.

Ben: Grace furiously Googling non-appearance based compliments.

Grace: Oh shit. It turns out you do need a guide. I really like the joy that you show up to — you show up to every meeting with joy. You're often singing. Often your joy is contagious, Ben, even in the fog of war. Is that too similar to yours? Did I just copy yours?

Ben:  No, no, no. We did great. I feel like we did pretty good. Yeah. So is this our ask of the listeners?

Grace: Yeah. To think of –

Ben: non-appearance-based compliments.

Grace: For Endless Thread, for each other.

Ben: Oh, that's good. Folks, if you're listening and you enjoyed this episode, please go to Apple Podcasts and write a non-appearance based review. No, seriously, go, you know, go compliment somebody who needs it. I think we all need it. And it needs to not be creepily, um, you know, appearance based.

Grace: Great.

Ben: All right. Silence from grace.

Grace: No, definitely anti-creepy appearance-based compliments.

Ben: Cool. Thanks, Grace. We'll be back with  another episode next week. And in the meantime…

Grace: Keep glowing. Internally.

Ben: Spiritually.

Grace: Because we don’t care about your outward glow.

Grace: This episode was produced by me, Grace Tatter, co-hosted by Ben Brock Johnson and sound designed by Emily Jankowski. See you next week!

Grace Tatter Producer, The Great Wager
Grace Tatter is an independent journalist and audio producer.


Ben Brock Johnson Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.



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