Compliments from random women

<i></i>

I had been feeling really terrible. Actually, I’d been throwing up every day for three months, and I had long since forgotten why I’d thought it would be a good idea to get pregnant. But that evening, I had to put on a gown and go to a work event. An actual gown. It was twilight blue and clingy without losing elegance, with long sleeves and a cinch at the hip, where a sparkling faux diamond bangle nestled. I had gotten it on sale, during a miraculous day of minimal nausea. I felt ridiculous in it, riding the elevator down to the street to hail a cab. Everyone else was wearing normal clothing, and I was unsure of my thickening body—not obviously pregnant yet, but not my familiar shape.

A woman was looking at me. I looked away.

“What a wonderful dress!” she said.

“Thanks,” I said.

Advertisement

“You look beautiful,” she said.

I was smiling when I walked out the door. A twenty-something woman on the street paused as she passed me. “You look amazing!” she said.

“Oh, god, thanks,” I said, awkward and caught off-guard.

“Love the gown!” called another woman as I frantically waved at an approaching cab, running late as always. “Where are you going?”

“A work thing!”

“Enjoy!”

I was queasy in the cab, but I felt awesome. I looked beautiful! I sat up a little straighter. I felt sort of queenly, a little glamorous. I imagined myself for a moment as someone leading a fabulous, high-society life, rushing off to expensive benefits and romantic penthouse soirees. As far as anyone knew, I might be doing those things. A woman in a twilight blue gown might have a life like that.

It’s funny, what a compliment can do.

I wouldn’t describe myself as starved for attention, or particularly insecure. Most of the time, I’m not walking around hoping against hope that strangers will flatter me in passing. I can get through my day just fine without even a single kind remark from a person on the subway. But just a few consecutive compliments have the power to make me abruptly happy. And for some reason, they mean even more when they’re coming from other women.

I was thinking about this in the cab on my way to the work thing. I’m not sure what makes compliments from other women feel particularly meaningful. Maybe men are simply more likely to dish them out to the women they randomly encounter, so when women do it, it feels special. Maybe the compliments from men almost always have an ulterior motive-y whiff about them. Women’s compliments can feel more earnest. Maybe I just care what other women think in some quiet, deep-seated, socially ingrained way that I don’t know how to parse or unpack.

What I am sure of is that compliments, though often brief, insignificant-seeming moments, make a difference.

And I guess many of the things that influence the way we perceive ourselves as girls and women in the world are brief, which is part of why the components and origins of our body image struggles are often difficult to identify, or get dismissed as irrelevant.

We are constantly moving through environments that bombard us with millions of tiny ideas about what makes us good and worthy and what makes us bad and undesirable and uncool. For girls and women, physical appearance is often tied intrinsically to worth. We see image after fleeting image of “ideal” women, we overhear clips of conversation between guys; without really noticing, we notice people casually evaluating the appearance of our friends, of every girl and woman they encounter. We soak up headlines and ads that pimp dieting trends and trumpet the horrors of weight gain. It registers somewhere at the back of our heads that we don’t really resemble the majority of the girls and women who are chosen to represent the height of beauty in our society.

In so many tiny, constant ways, we learn to turn a critical eye on our bodies and faces, and even for those of us who end up really suffering, seething with self-hatred, starving ourselves or viciously blaming everything that isn’t working on the way we look, the explanation feels slippery and complicated. “The media,” we say. “Sexism.” “Biology.” But it’s hard to pinpoint.

How do you combat the media? Or biology? How do you address sexism, as a whole?

I guess, like with all things, you have to be willing to start small. And that’s just it: the small things matter, when it comes to our self-esteem.

So maybe one of the things women can do to empower other women, to make the world a little better, and to face down some of the accumulated pressures of all of the small, negative messages, is simply to compliment each other more often.

Not just about appearance, of course, but appearance is maybe the easiest, since it’s often the only information you have about strangers, and since it’s our appearances that the world seems to have the most incessantly damaging casual input about.

It’s not much, but it’s a tiny step in the right direction.

I tried it out immediately, on a woman leaving the building I was going into for the work event.

“Love your jacket! You look awesome!” I felt awkward saying it, of course.

She grinned. “Thank you! I never wear this one!”

“Well, you’re rocking it.” God, I’m a dork.

“Aww, thank you so much!”

We were both smiling as we went on our way. I put my shoulders back in the twilight blue gown and went inside. It was going to be an awesome evening. That is, if I could just manage not to barf.

18 comments

  • I agree, totally. It’s so nice to receive a compliment, and it makes you more inclined to give one too.

    However, I’m usually really conscious about what I say to someone, especially younger girls. Mainly because, when I was younger, I would be complimented on how nicely I was dressed and how ‘skinny’ I was. This turned out to be very damaging, cause I started to think that looking good meant that I HAD to be skinny. Which is completely wrong, of course.
    Complimenting someone on how their outfit is put together though, not only praises how they look, but their good choice in what they’re wearing.

    Commenter
    Zahra
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    April 15, 2013, 9:19AM
    • I think a compliment from a passing stranger (male or female) always feels special because of the lack of ulterior motive and the sponteneity. Funnily enough, I complimented someone for their appearance yesterday, and I could feel how chuffed the recipient was! I must add I also had a bounce in my step for the rest of the day. Win/win!!

      Commenter
      happy
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 9:20AM
      • I agree, a compliment from a stranger seems to be quite special. Last week, my mother and my best friend complimented me on what I was wearing and I was happy that I looked nice. It wasn't until a stranger gave me a compliment that I really took note and felt good about myself. I don't know why it was so different.
        I've gotten into the habit of complimenting other women on what they're wearing. It's so much more well received than saying 'you look so fit/skinny/etc'.

        Commenter
        Ash
        Date and time
        April 15, 2013, 10:29AM
      • But are dudes allowed to do it?

        I felt ok doing it when I was married, but now I’m single I just can’t bring myself to. I mean, I think people should compliment each other more, and I used to try to do it (I don’t really notice people much, so I make a conscious effort), but now I don’t want to look like I’m trying to pick up.

        Example: there’s someone who works near me, don’t know her name, she wears these yellow dresses. And they’re awesome! Who can wear a yellow dress? She can. And then one day she wore something different, so much so that I (who never even notices radical alterations to hairstyle –including colour) actually noticed that she looked GREAT, but also a little uncomfortable, like you do when you’re wearing something new. And I was going to say how great she looked, but then I’d have to mention that the yellow dresses were also awesome – I’m not dissing the yellow dresses – and then I’d look like a stalker and / or a desperate office drone trying to pick up, and that would be super awkward. So I just smiled vaguely and ran away.

        Phew.

        So, if you’re not getting a compliment, please consider the above sequence of thoughts as a possible reason…

        Commenter
        Magpie
        Date and time
        April 15, 2013, 11:09AM
      • I think dudes can do it Magpie... just don't go on about it too much, and not all the time, especially if you work together.
        If any stranger of the opposite sex makes a passing compliment and doesn't linger, they obviously expect nothing in return, which is very generous and appreciated (by me anyway).
        Agreed Ash, I comment of peoples' clothing or the look they've put together rather than physical attributes.

        Commenter
        happy
        Date and time
        April 15, 2013, 12:51PM
      • That's actually really helpful, Happy. Compliment and run!

        Commenter
        Magpie
        Date and time
        April 15, 2013, 1:37PM
    • I've been reading Daily Life almost from the get go, huge fan.

      I have to say though I find it interesting how Kate's articles always seem to deal with some aspect of 'attractiveness' and mostly in relation to herself. There is something strange in the way references to her own prettiness are worked into each article which makes the articles appear like a series around narcicism without a smidge of irony. The boyfriends who have called her beautiful, attractive, pretty (pick your adjective for the day), the colleagues she referred to as being really attractive to a friend when attempting to explain why she liked the new people she worked with so much and of course this latest offering when she dons a blue dress over a body 'with a thickening body' that wasn't her familiar one. Egads! But on the bright side people still thought she was beautiful and the validation by strangers I've now learnt is important.

      I tend to read Kate's articles now anticipating these random segues into some observation which is tied into the way she looks, or the way other people see her eg. 'how dare you tell me I'm prettier than my friends'. Theres something weirdly retro about these inklings. If I'm browsing articles at random and not paying attention to the writer before I start reading the article I can always spot when the article is written by Kate. As a young ethic woman who enjoys and supports the feminist perspective in Daily Life I always find Kate's offerings somewhat off-step with the other articles I read and enjoy.

      Commenter
      Teine
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 11:02AM
      • She thinks about it, she’s self-aware. I think she does good articles on the theme.

        Brains are such weird and dopey things – there are a million things that go wrong between perception and cognition. It was a real eye-opener to me (and I think should be part of every school science program) to see the many examples of how terrible the human brain is at perceiving reality.

        These self-perception articles are interesting to me, because I like to think about thinking, and about how there’s a reality that’s much truer than what you have in your head. Self-perception is one of the best and most interesting examples. We just don’t seem to be able to “see” ourselves. It’s downright weird. And we all, to some degree, rely on others to tell us what we look like. And those others, in turn, are told in a million different ways to notice some things, not to notice others, and to make certain judgements.

        No wonder it’s such an excellent source of insecurity!

        Kate’s stuff is (to me, anyway) about wrestling with that interface between one single human brain, and the big social megamind that the collective “we” have somehow put together to think big, slow thoughts, and make big, slow decisions. One way to look (a little bit) at how that works is to examine perception, and wonder why certain things make us feel certain ways (why does *that* input produce *that* response?), and work out how we can use what we know.

        Put it another way: working out how to be happy is one of the great philosophical questions of all time, and seems very relevant to everyone.

        It’s interesting, and cool. That’s what I think, anyway.

        Commenter
        Magpie
        Date and time
        April 15, 2013, 1:35PM
    • Seems a bit sad if you enjoy affirmation. Especially from strangers.

      Commenter
      Alix
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 11:34AM
      • I'm not too sure how it's 'sad'? it just means someone who doesn't know you has noticed something they like about you! everyone was once a stranger to somebody. It's just a free, selfless, act of kindness that could brighten someone's day. We need more positivity like that going around.

        Commenter
        hippydippy
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        April 15, 2013, 1:41PM

    More comments

    Comments are now closed