Contrary to the stereotype, feminists can take a compliment, but only if it comes with no strings attached, says Emily Heist Moss.
After my piece on street harassment, “A Letter to the Guy Who Harassed Me Outside the Bar,” a number of commenters wondered if I was, in my plea for empathy and understanding, condemning all compliments from men to the fiery pits of feminist rage. We feminists have an ugly reputation, you see, of being unfunny, unattractive, judgmental harpies who rain on the fun parades of ladies everywhere. Allegedly (and incorrectly) we went after bras in the ’70s, and now we’re coming for your compliments! No compliments for you!
As with many of the stereotypes, this one has overestimated our vitriol by a long shot. I like a good compliment; who doesn’t? It’s nice to know that people find me attractive every now and again, or that the new thing I’m trying with my hair is working, or that these boots were a good purchase after all. Those are not the compliments against which I’m pushing back. I want to talk about stranger compliments, the guy on the train, the bus driver, a random dude at the bar. In these cases, how does a compliment on my appearance become a gift of good vibes and not a leering, objectifying tool in the creeper toolkit? Is that even possible?
When was the last time you were given a compliment on your appearance by a stranger? If you’re a lady in an urban area, chances are good that there has been a catcall or a “damn, girl” in your recent history; it’s just the way things go. Better question: When was the last time you enjoyed a compliment on your appearance by a stranger? It’s been a while, eh? Me too.
In preparation for this essay, I polled the internet to see what kinds of compliments women appreciate from strangers (very few, it turns out) and to see what strategies men have found successful. From the women, I heard a few emphatic, categorical statements that there is no reason a man you don’t know should be addressing your looks; it is always attached to expectations and it always feels objectifying and weird. Other women pointed out that there’s a difference between the kind of compliment that is designed for the receiver, and the kind of compliment designed to make the giver feel good. “You look nice,” is different from “I like the way you look in that dress.” The first acknowledges the autonomy of the individual and doesn’t try to involve the compliment-giver in her life. The second makes the compliment-giver the subject and implies that her appearance is for his benefit. The general rules of thumb were to be sincere, to not describe body parts, and to not, under any circumstances, linger and wait for attention.
A good compliment should be a gift, given out of kindness with no expectation of reciprocity, no demand for follow-up attention, no strings attached. I find that when I get compliments from strange men, they are virtually always tied up in knots of expectational twine. If you tell me I’m pretty, then I’m required to talk to you, or dance with you, or give you my phone number. At the very least, you expect attention or acknowledgment. That’s not a gift, that’s an agenda.
As for the men, one male friend wrote back and described his occasional approach as “It’s just ‘Have a nice day!’ version 2.0.” In a situation where he’ll never see the person again, he drops a compliment, “You’ve got gorgeous eyes” and walks away, no number dropping, no waiting around for a “thank you.” He points out that these kinds of compliments don’t “work” in any traditional sense, because he doesn’t get anything out of them. But isn’t that kind of the point of a true compliment? Other guys reiterated this emphasis on string-free compliments; if you want to talk to a woman, talk to her! Make a joke about the weather, ask about the book she’s reading, or discuss the crowdedness of the train. If you want to compliment a woman, compliment her, but don’t think that your compliment entitles you to her attention or gratitude. You can’t use the compliment as a way to “get in,” because that immediately undermines any sincerity you had wished to pass along.
Women are used to brushing off insincere “compliments” from strangers, the “Damn, look at those legs!” the whistles, and the “What a fine ass! Does that ass want a ride?” shouted from the passenger windows of cars idling at red lights. Those are not real compliments because they are not really for us at all. They are for the guy saying it, to earn him attention—even a look or an eye-roll counts—or to impress his friends with his brazenness. That’s the kind of behavior that makes the average woman give a real compliment the side-eye; we’re too used to the selfish, rude, attention-hungry variety.
What about compliments from women to men? We haven’t discussed that yet, and frankly, I’m a little at a loss. Our culture has made it acceptable to discuss female appearance, whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s makeup rituals, Sarah Palin’s running outfits, or Katie Couric’s legs. Consequently, the idea of discussing any woman’s looks doesn’t seem so strange, which is part of what normalizes catcalling and the like. There is no equivalent for men at this point, though unfortunately I see the obsessive coverage of male bodies starting to rise.
I’ll tell a co-worker that his jacket is sharp, or that his new glasses look great, but it has never occurred to me to send a physical compliment to a stranger. Ladies, do you do this? Men, how do you feel about this? Do you wish women paid you more compliments about how you look?
We can all agree, I think, that a good compliment can make your day, pull you out of a funk, remind you that the sun will shine again someday. These kinds of compliments—ones aimed to make the receiver feel good with no agenda and expectation—are what we should all be aiming to give and hoping that we are lucky enough to receive.
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.