COMPLIMENTS LEAVE ME FEELING SHITTY SOMETIMES, AM I THE ONLY ONE?
By Anna Tingley
10 • 24 • 2018
It was just a few weeks ago that a co-worker of mine told me how radiant and beautiful I looked with a full face of makeup on. He told me that I should wear it more often, that I’m beautiful with or without of course but that foundation and lipstick enhanced my features.
This came after a few months of an extreme bout of confidence for me. I had just begun dating a new guy, I was taking exciting leaps in my career path, all my relationships were going quite smoothly. And in retrospect, these facets of my life going so well resulted in a boost in self-esteem that left me bidding farewell to cosmetic rituals I had been used to doing for years. I left my hair in naturally curly ponytails rather than straightening it smooth like I had done everyday since I bought my first hair straightener in middle school. I was leaving the house without a full face of makeup not caring, for the first time in forever, if my eyebrows were “filled-in” or my eyelashes were painted in mascara. I was beginning to wear clothing that I had never dared even try on in fear it would look bad, and felt more “me” in my clothing than ever before. And I felt more beautiful than ever.
So when my co-worker – the sweetest older man who worked as a busser at the same restaurant as me – told me that he preferred me with a full face of makeup, I was taken aback. And quite honestly, stumped for a way to respond.
Of course, he meant it as a compliment. He was calling me beautiful! But it was hard for me to see it as such when the comment left me feeling confused about my own personal revelations surrounding beauty, and admittedly, a little hurt.
In his seemingly harmless and kind statement were the implications that I (and women as a whole) are more beautiful with makeup, that external beauty holds relative importance in the world, and that his opinion on the matter, as a man, demanded to be heard and responded to. On a smaller scale, it implied to me that he thought I was uglier without it.
Now, before people start rolling their eyes: I’m not saying all compliments about “looks” are bad or should be criticized vigorously at every turn! I’m not saying you should constantly hold your tongue in caution of saying something problematic or politically-incorrect! I’m just openly examining why compliments sometimes make me feel worse rather than better, and dissecting the problem to see if there’s a way to compliment people free of harmful side-effects.
For me, what made my coworker’s comment so problematic was that, because it was framed as a compliment, I had to respond graciously despite my confused feelings. Especially knowing him and the kind intentions he harbored, I couldn’t respond in any other way other than saying something along the lines of “Really? Well thank you!” and then hopefully steering the conversation towards something more comfortable.
Harling Ross said it best within a public conversation Man Repeller posted on the matter. “It thrusts the other person’s perception of you ONTO you in an unwanted way,” she wrote. “It’s in line with the ‘smile more’ thing. It’s an assumption about how women are supposed to act.”
Letting his comment successfully pass by as a “compliment,” made me feel forced to ascribe to the problematic mentality it advertised. I didn’t think I looked better with makeup on. I don’t think makeup should be seen as something that “beautifies” but rather something used as creative expression. And I honestly couldn’t care less what my older male coworker had to say about my looks. But there I was, saying “thank you” to a comment that left me feeling far worse than better.
Harling attributed this to the idea of entitlement. "A compliment is bothersome when it elicits a conversation that the compliment giver feels entitled to have and the compliment receiver does not,” she wrote.
And I couldn’t agree more. In its most critical light, compliments inherently put the compliment-giver on a pedestal, wherein their comments are many times given unjustified value and ear-time. It’s why we feel so ashamed, icky, and overall intruded when random men on the streets cat-call “compliments” to us: their seemingly-harmless comments assume that our appearance is meant for their judging. How we feel about our appearance is no longer up to us, but apparently up to random men on the street.
Aside from more crude cat-calling though, even casual compliments given between friends often ascribe to a very outdated definition of beauty. “You’re looking so skinny!” is one that’s become considerably less popular within the last few years amidst a progressive movement of body inclusivity and representation but is still one I hear being said and see floating within social media comments far too often.
Just like the makeup comment, the framing of skinniness as a compliment implies that curviness is uglier, and on a more personal level, that said person should stay that skinny to be continued being deemed beautiful – something especially problematic for those struggling with body image issues.
In the end, I don’t think there’s any one way to define a '“compliment,” which is exactly why I feel compelled to cap the word with quotes every time I write it down. If a compliment is distinguished by its intentions to make its receiver feel better about themselves, then what could be considered a compliment for one person could be the exact opposite for someone else. Just like every other social norm we’ve grown accustomed to throughout our lives, compliments should be free to vary with the diverse people we interact with, accounting for the broader message and implications our words may carry.
Looking back, I may have responded to my co-worker I bit differently than the way I’d decided to just a few weeks ago. I’d probably still say “thank you,” but also add that I think I look just as beautiful without my makeup on.
Because if beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, I should probably get the last word. Right?
Photo by Justin Capone
Anna Tingley is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Tough to Tame, and an advocate for all things feminist, politics, or ramen-related. Her writing can be found at Teen Vogue, Billboard Magazine, Her Agenda, The Daily Bruin, and The Richmond Pulse. But for all the dirt, check her out on Instagram @annatationz and Twitter @annatingley.