A couple of years ago, I had to wear a branded t-shirt for a work event and my choice was limited to an extra-small or an extra-large.
Since I’m neither of these sizes, I tried them both on. I planned to choose the shirt that looked least terrible and, more importantly, the one that was easiest to move in – since it would be a busy, running-around kind of day.
That turned out to be the extra-small one.
It was a bit snug, but not lung-crushingly so, and seeing as it was a very pragmatic polo shirt – not some cute, stretchy tee – I didn’t think the slight figure-huggingness would be much of an issue.
But around lunchtime, a guy from another department who had a bit of thing for me came past.
“The shirt’s working,” he said.
“The shirt’s working. It makes you look slimmer.”
I was appalled. I puffed myself up to full furiousness like some fearsome force of nature – a cobra, perhaps.
Or an elephant seal.
Then I said in my most outraged voice –
Unfortunately, my outraged voice is a bit strangled and mouse-squeaky. Also, someone who is truly fierce probably never has to declare it, because they can demonstrate it with a single withering glance.
The instant it came out, I knew how ridiculous I sounded – even before my friends fell about laughing. So I stalked off in the most dignified manner I could, until I was out of sight. Then I scurried to someplace private and buried my scalding red face in my hands.
I’ve told this story a few times over the years, in the context of joking about how ineffective I can be at asserting myself. But now I look back on it, I also wonder what the bloke who made the comment thought of it all, because he wasn’t a sleazy sort of guy. He wasn’t being lewd; he was genuinely trying to compliment me.
And I knew that, even at the time. But it still rubbed me up the wrong way for reasons that were probably too subtle for him to grasp.
You see, my body does all sorts of cool stuff, like seeing and hearing, tasting and feeling amazing and complex things.
It is fit and strong – it shakes off sickness with relative ease and can travel great distances in the water, as well as on land (though it does this somewhat more grudgingly). It has even made children – and fed them.
For all of these reasons, I know that my body is far and away the most magical thing I will ever own. So for an almost-stranger to talk about it in narrow physical terms under the guise of a compliment felt like an ignorant miscalculation of its actual value.
It might have been different if he were a complete stranger. Then I probably would have shrugged or smiled – but I still would have walked away. The fact that he was someone I sort of knew, and he’d been trying to impress me for some time, made me feel like I needed to clarify: unless a person has worked really hard to lose buckets of weight, “slimmer” is not a compliment.
This is not only because looks are a shallow measure of a person you’ve made a long-term investment in wooing, but because it implies an improvement via optical illusion – as if I should be pleased to look somehow other than I am.
Another guy I work with once tentatively commented that he wanted to tell me he liked my dress, but he was never sure if a comment like that would come out the wrong way.
Never, I assured him – partly because of the kind of person he is (earnest, thoughtful, married) and partly because if you’re wearing something that is not-at-all revealing, it’s difficult for a sartorial compliment to miss the mark.
For instance, I have a colourful party dress that often draws comments. In the grocery store recently, a bloke stopped me to tell me what a great dress it was, and the exchange made me grin like crazy. It’s a happy kind of dress, and it makes me feel good to think that seeing it brings a smile to other people’s faces as well as mine.
The critical difference between the second two situations and the first was that neither of these guys were talking about my body or my looks – they were complimenting my taste. This is nearly always a good thing – unless you just gave the most evocative speech in history, or collected an award for your world-changing research.
Then a comment on your clothing might be construed as diminishing the more important stuff you’re up to.
Yet my girlfriends and I make intimate comments about each other’s appearance all the time: anything from “Gees you’ve got good legs,” to “You look smoking hot today,” or “Your boobs look great in that dress!” Understated and professional don’t get a look in.
So why the double standard?
A lot of it is about context.
My girlfriends and I know each other really well. These are warm, smart, funny, generous women who continually uplift and support each other in our personal and professional lives.
So when my former editor compliments me on my legs, I know that all of the other stuff about being a good friend and a fun person to be around is assumed knowledge. And in our particular lexicon “Looking fine today”, is just a vaudevillian way of saying “Great to see you!”
The over-the-topness of our banter is partly what guarantees a smile.
Similarly, if my family compliment me on my appearance, it feels wonderful – especially if I’ve made an effort.
But the one compliment that will always hit the mark would have to be one about my brains.
I know – this is both idiosyncratic and inconsistent of me. Afterall, I’m forever telling my kids that intelligence is just a genetic quirk – no more valuable than good looks unless you team it with hard work. Being a good person is what counts.
Yet ever since my first year in uni, when a friend described another woman we knew as “cerebral”, that has been the accolade I’ve most coveted.
I’m not even sure he intended it as a compliment. Possibly it was a judgement-neutral description. But from the moment that word penetrated my eardrums, it has been the compliment I’d most like to acquire.
Unfortunately, I haven’t pursued the type of profession or hobbies that might encourage that kind of impression of me.
Instead, I cling stubbornly to the hope that the zombie apocalypse will happen in my lifetime. And when the day comes, I will elbow myself to the centre of the action, where the last words I hear might feasibly be…
Be still my beating heart!