Compliments: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Dear Pope Francis,

In the three months since Lauren and I started writing this blog, we’ve had a lot to say about faith and our own journeys, but with a couple of exceptions we haven’t really said much about what it means to be female or our experiences with (un)changing ideas of femininity.

Welcome to May. It’s one of two Marian months in the church calendar, so there’s no better time to deliberately talk about “girl stuff” rather than our usual “girls talking about stuff.” We’re even planning a special Week of Women from May 18-24 where we’ll have something up every day.

As I mentioned in a post about a month ago, the man I dated for the last year and a half and I broke up. As is often the case when my Facebook status changes from “in a relationship” to “single” I started receiving texts and messages from a handful of guys on my friends list.

At the time, it was frustrating enough to warrant a briefly posted passive-aggressive public service announcement asking people to back off. What I didn’t say was why the flood of compliments was irritating.

In my experience, when a guy wants to give me a compliment, the majority of the time the content is mildly-completely sexual. It’s about how good I look in the skirt I’m wearing or how much they appreciate the view of a specific body part when I’m walking around. There’s no indication they see anything more to appreciate than my looks, and no invitation to have the kind of conversation which would give them the opportunity to learn more about me and vice-versa.

The problem I have with these compliments is they’re based entirely on my looks and what I choose to wear. They have nothing to do with the things that actually make me me. It’s good to know I look good in the dresses, skirts and shoes I choose to wear, but believe me I know. I’m not thinking about what some random guy on the street or at Tim Horton’s or at church is going to think when I get dressed. I’m choosing clothes I feel feminine, comfortable, and pretty in which represent who I am as a church-going feminist comfortable with her sexuality and interested in being seen as both feminine and intelligent.

how to give a good compliment end of the yearOn the other side of the spectrum are compliments which focus on what should be positive attributes like intelligence and initiative and while complimenting those traits say something negative about me for having them in conjunction with traits they do not value.

For example, I’ve been told on more than one occasion by different women how they “just don’t understand how someone so smart could be serious about faith” or variations thereof implying my involvement with the church or my support of some teachings somehow detracts from my intelligence.

One I got from men sometimes at school was comments about how great it was I chose to be involved in (choir, students’ union, newspaper, attend university) but it didn’t make any sense for me to do those things since I want to get married and have kids – as though wanting to be a mother eventually negates the validity of wanting an education and having different desires now as an unmarried woman.

To date, the best compliment I’ve ever received was from a good friend after we’d been talking about some of the changes I was trying to make in my life and things I was struggling with. He said: “One of the things I really respect about you is that you’re serious about becoming a better person. Not many people are really concerned with it.”

chi bird compliments acceptingAnother I really appreciated was being told someone thought I was brave for sharing something deeply personal to prove a point.

The difference between this sort of compliment, the backhanded insults, and comments focused purely on my looks and sexuality is these two statements both responded to things important to me without diminishing their value or equating me with just those traits. They respected where I was at and recognized the difficulty of speaking up at that moment.

Occasionally, I’ve complained about getting so much attention for my looks. While I can understand not everyone relates to the frustration of unwanted attention and people frequently think I should enjoy it now because eventually my looks will fade, I feel like that attitude is missing the larger  point.

better words than looksI’m not annoyed people think I’m pretty. I’m annoyed they choose to start the interactions with that sort of compliment rather than just talking to me about something they find interesting or would like to know what I think about.

I think it’s important for us to let people know when they look especially good, but as a society we need to learn how to express physical appreciation in a respectful way. And finally, (because I know some of you are thinking this) it’s not just the secular guys who need to work on respectful comments, because some of the most disrespectful compliments I’ve received have come from people I knew at church.

But more on that another time.

Meredith

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