On Compliments

I won’t have been the first person to write this, nor will I likely be the last. I, like so many others, am just one of the many who – in shedding some of the (perhaps unintentional) burdens laid upon my psyche by the patriarchal system that dominates our society – has come to regard the “compliment” with unease.

More plain English?

Some compliments by some people make me feel uncomfortable.

Now, in a world unencumbered by the patriarchal system I’ve already alluded to, I wouldn’t need to say more than that. I should be able to say “X makes me feel Y” and “Y” should be accepted, respected, and boom.

And if, for example, someone were concerned about their “X” making me feel “Y” they might be driven to ask “but, why?”

And… you know what? That’s a valid question. It’s a question that does not dismiss my feeling of “Y”, but seeks to understand it. It may also be an attempt to validate it; but it certainly does not come from the position of denying its existence.

But that’s not what we get when we say things like “Your doing of X makes me feel Y,” where “Y” is not a positive thing.

What we get is “No, you’re wrong.” Or “Jeez, take a compliment.” Or “Fuckin’ feminists….”

What we get, frequently, is an invalidation of our feelings. So you know what we do?

We say nothing. A lot. We say nothing so many times.

We say plenty to the people who are willing to listen. We say plenty to the people who say “Oh, I know,” or even those who ask “But, why?” but until we know you’re one of those people, we just say nothing.

So, I’m going to publicly answer the ‘why’ for me. Why it sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable.

This is a society that has placed a high value on the way women look and act and behave, but predominantly it’s about how we look.

I can say “I feel like shit today, I’m so tired….” and someone’s response might easily be, “But you look beautiful.”

Like that’s going to make the shit-and-tired feeling go away, or make it feel less shitty or tired. Every time Erin Andrews, the host on Dancing With the Stars talks about how beautiful one of the female contestants looks I cringe. So often it was “Well, the judges didn’t score you very well, but you look HOT.”

When I was ten years old I started begging my mom to let me wear makeup. She told me I couldn’t – not until I was thirteen. On my thirteenth birthday, I asked if I could wear makeup. She said not until I’m sixteen. I said, “But wait! You said I could wear it when I’m thirteen!” She responded, “I didn’t think thirteen would come so soon!”

For years I wore makeup every day. All of it – the foundation and the powder and the gloss and mascara and the liner. And then, it was an uncle actually who asked me “why?” And I said it was so I could look pretty, and he said “you are beautiful without it. It doesn’t make you prettier. You don’t need it every day. Save it for the days you want people to say ‘wow!'”

It took me a little while, because at this point I was pretty darned pimpley and I really felt like I needed it.

But over time, I did lay off all the heavy makeup. I started really getting used to seeing my face without it. And you know what started to happen?

My mom started telling me to go put on some makeup.

Because it made me prettier.

And that was really important. Hell, just the other day she kept harping on how I had to do my makeup “really nice, like you used to do it – i know you know how” for my job interview. She even asked me for a photo as proof that I did it right.

Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot of work overcoming my addiction to validation. So many of us have this addiction – and it’s no wonder. We’re infused with doses of it from day one of our existence, and it only gets more prominent as we start to blossom. We crave that validation.

And it’s like, in order to wean ourselves off of it, we feel like we have to go in totally the opposite direction. Like, we purposely try to dress unsexy and let our armpit hair grow and behave in the most unladylike fashion we can. Quitting validation sometimes felt like quitting femininity.

But then something else happened. I realized that trying to hide my beauty in response to the patriarchy’s unwelcome valuation of it still gives my control over it to someone other than myself.

I started to see the power and in owning my own looks. Now, here’s the thing. I value them. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that being pretty isn’t something I am aware of or something I’m not appreciative of – but what I resent is that it makes a difference in how others perceive me. I like looking like me. I like that my partner likes the way I look.

But I hate that it has any bearing on whether I am qualified for a job or my family’s love or a stranger’s respect. I don’t look at other people and “rate” their looks or treat them differently to how I treat other people….

….unless I’m flirting with them.

Which brings me back to those compliments.

When someone who is not sexually interested in me (any gender) tells me that I am beautiful, it feels like a compliment.

When someone who is sexually interested in me (any gender) tells me that I am beautiful, it feels like a down payment.

Maybe it’s not intended that way. Holy shit it probably isn’t intended that way! But that’s the system we live in. That’s how it works, and that’s how I interpret it.

I get that there are people with crushes out there on people who do not reciprocate those crushes. I get that it can feel awkward and weird to have a crush on someone who doesn’t crush back on you. I’m not saying don’t talk to them, or don’t compliment them…

…I’m saying that when it comes to me, anyway, understand that a compliment on my level of attractiveness to you can make me feel uncomfortable. I might say “thank you,” if I don’t think there’s any ulterior motive…but if I feel like a response might be leading you to think that I’ve accepted the down payment and we’re now negotiating terms?

I’ll probably just say nothing.

One final thought: If you think this is about you or something you’ve said to me in the past, don’t worry about trying to apologize or explain that your motives are not disingenuous. I’m not holding any grudges and I’m not angry with anybody. Just let this message percolate and keep it in mind the next time we have an interaction.

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