The Context of Compliments
I feel safe in saying that all women have experienced some type of sexism or sexual harassment. And, as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown more sensitive to it. Or, I’ve been better at identifying it.
When I was working my first high school job, I thought I just had to accept that “older than me cook” talked about how he liked me, that I was cute, etc. And, the other adults in the room didn’t do much to help me understand that it wasn’t acceptable. ‘Ya know; he was just teasing. That wasn’t very helpful adult guidance because I was at an age where I was already starting to believe that my worth depended on boys and their interest in me.
At somewhere in my mid-20s, when a couple guys drove up next to me as I walked to work and invited me to a party (which isn’t the best way to extend an invitation, in mg opinion), I pretended to be thankful. ‘Ya know, to make sure they didn’t get mad that I didn’t appreciate their advances and hurt me. Now, I had a clue that what was happening was unacceptable, but I was pretending not to understand to protect the feelings of men I’d never met and to avoid any possibility of my being hurt.
At 38, I had experienced so much sexism (mostly subtle and mostly in work environments), that any compliment on my appearance by a man that wasn’t in my close circle made me feel downright angry. Although, I still feigned appreciation which made me feel even worse.
So, today, when a man working the drive-thru at a local juicery/good food place handed me my unsweetened latte with unsweetened, house-made almond milk and said, “Have a nice day, beautiful,” and I drove away with the biggest smile on my face, I was utterly confused at my reaction.
At first, I thought it was odd that I valued his words when I would have hated those words in other contexts. I laughed out loud when I thought it was just another one of my “hypocrite” moments. Like, if you yell, “Hey, beautiful,” at me from a car window, you must see me as an object and be sexualizing me. But, if you say, “Have a nice day, beautiful,” from the drive thru window at a juicery/good food place, you just made my day.
But, here’s the thing…. context around compliments is actually important. I will never stop thinking that it’s weird when a man with whom I’m talking for a professional reason says, “Your hair really looks nice that way.” Yeah, don’t do that, men. You wouldn’t go to a lunch meeting with another male colleague or contemporary and say, “Thanks for discussing this important topic with me, and also, your hair looks nice longer.”
And, when the two men whom I’ve never met or seen before in my life drive by in their car and invite me to a party while I’m walking alone to work, I get scared. So, also, don’t do that, men. I literally worry about being assaulted and killed in almost every environment, so compliments don’t feel super good when they scare me.
But, when the guy from the drive thru window at the juicery/good food place said “beautiful” to me, intuition suggested that he didn’t mean it like, “You’ve got a hot face and nice hair, beautiful.” He meant it like he probably actually believes that we’re all beautiful at our core, and it wouldn’t hurt to be reminded of that. And, because I know I need that reminder, I smiled.
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