Janna Payne wants to know what often well-meaning compliments from men say about the politics of body image.
Midway through a mediocre domestic beer at a local bar, a stranger approached me to ask how tall I am. Having been asked about my height almost every day for the last 20-odd years, I responded, nonchalantly saying, “I’m 6’3.” Without missing a beat, he shrugged, leaned in and whispered, “Aww—well—it doesn’t bother me one bit.”
Later, stumbling across my friend Tim’s poem online, I was just delighted to see him empowering women like me. In his poem, “Listen Women,” he wrote, “You are loved / no matter your body shape, the sound of your voice or / the manner of how you’ve been treated in the past. / There is a place for you and / for your dreams / in the world. / You are not alone or weird, / you are wanted and accepted and…”
It was as if my whole body moaned with the profound realization that there are some men, like Tim and the stranger at the bar, who don’t think women are pathetic. There are some men who don’t find bodies like mine off-putting. There are some men willing to go out on a limb for gangly limbs, fat asses, and pudgy stomachs. For the bodies, selves, tits, and thighs of poor, pitiful women.
With a critical yet comical eye, I’ve started noticing this behavior everywhere. I’ve become attuned to men taking responsibility for the well-being of women, wishing that women could embrace their bodies, and offering lyrics, poems, and compliments at the altar of women. I’ve become attuned to men coddling, comforting, and championing the body image of women, who they perceive as having low self-esteem.
While gentlemen like James Blunt are declaring, “You’re beautiful, it’s true,” I have started to question if the innocent, well-meaning, and charming one-liners we take for granted reflect embedded power dynamics, underlying assumptions, and unquestioned social constructs. When it comes to compliments being hurled from men to women, I ask, what power interest is being served? What’s left unsaid?
To take a stab at it—I think somewhere along the way, we have come to the understanding that self-esteem is a gendered issue. We have bought into the myth that women automatically have a lower self-esteem than men, and that men automatically have a lot to teach women about having a healthy body image and self-esteem.
We have overlooked how this myth maintains a system of power that sees men sweeping in, rescuing women from a place of privilege, endowing women with self-esteem, keeping women in their place, and teaching women to rely on male approval.
We have overlooked that women, by and large, do not sing songs to cheer men up, herald the voices of men, take ownership of male bodies, or strive to ensure men feel loved, wanted, and adored. We have disregarded the fact that women don’t launch lines like: “You are loved / no matter your body shape, the sound of your voice…” at men just as subordinates don’t usually appraise or empower their CEOs.
And, we have all been happy to play along. Women have been happy to field compliments from men, and men have been happy to maintain power and control.
Maybe it isn’t the end of the world, but maybe—just maybe—the underlying assumptions and power divides we take for granted should be called into question. Maybe it’s worth moving away from women being the exclusive property of male body image experts, and moving toward open and honest dialogue grounded in a deeper understanding of systemic injustice.
Oh, and, maybe I’m not totally against fielding compliments about my legs, shoulders, or wrists—just as long as those compliments also come with the invitation to share in power, authority, and body image expertise.
Janna Payne is a Canadian, currently writing from Cork, Ireland. Visit www.facebook.com/jannaspeaks to find out more.