practicing feminism: compliments

I can’t remember the very first experience. All I know is that it took a couple of times to get it right, to conform to what is the culturally acceptable response for a girl who had just been complimented. What I can remember is the first time I understood that I was doing something wrong.

Second grade, I was wearing a flow-y white dress. It was a big deal for me, because we only went shopping about once a year, picked up a couple of jeans and a sweater, and I was allowed one pretty thing each year. I ran across the playground and spun in a circle.

“Your dress is so pretty!” exclaimed one of the girls.

“Thank you.” I smiled.

There was a moment of stunned silence. Then a burst of cruel laughter. “She’s so stuck-up!”

I stopped spinning to turn to them, wide-eyed. The first girl glared at me. “You’re not supposed to say ‘thank you‘!”

Back in the classroom, I was handed back an assignment. “You’ve done beautiful work, Nahida.”

“Oh… it’s nothing,” I said.

That was the right answer.

And for the next few years, I struggled to come up with more right answers. “You write amazing poetry. This is a great poem.” “No it’s not.” “How do you work that fast and get all the problems right? You’re so smart!” “I’m really not.” “You’re such an interesting person!” “Not really.” “Those earrings look so good!” “I got them at _____.”

Damn straight they look good–I have fantastic taste. And while I genuinely think this poem sucks, yeah it’s better than most. Because I’m smart, and that’s quite an accomplishment considering math requires no imagination and too much concentration. (For algebra that is. I like geometry.)

But we’re girls, you see, and we don’t take credit for our work.

We are not allowed to accept compliments. I have a tentative theory that this is why we go fishing for them.

They are powerful things, compliments. And pressuring women to deny them to ourselves is a socially enforced way of making sure we put ourselves down at every opportunity. Stay marginalized. You don’t deserve credit. You have to be modest or–

Or what? It’s unladylike and unattractive. You’ll have no friends.

I think I’ve always been allergic to bullshit, but it took extra exposure on this one for me to react–which goes to show how deeply ingrained and dangerous it is. Luckily, after a while, my natural impatience began to kick in. (Contrary to what a lot of my friends believe, I am not a patient person.) It started to actually kind of annoy me that my friends weren’t taking my compliments, putting themselves down whenever I gave them one, and expecting me to gush over them disingenuously to compensate for the self-esteem they’d just crushed. I realize this makes me a terrible person, but in my defense, it got shit done. Especially since I began to sincerely take offense.

“You don’t believe me?” I asked one of them. “Do you have any idea how invalidating that is? I’m telling you that you’re a brilliant, profound person and you’re just shoving me aside.”

Because refusing compliments does more than deny to the receiver. It takes away something deep from the giver. It’s a form of rejection.

And that contributes to compliments becoming deceitful tools rather than loving gifts. They are powerful things, after all.

“You have beautiful eyes,” I told a girl in high school.

She smirked. “I’ll thank you when you get some sense and wear a tighter skirt.”

“That’s fine. My compliments aren’t conditional, unlike your thanks. I give them because I mean them.”

She looked both shocked and infuriated at once. As I walked away I reminded myself she was more likely a victim of the system, and probably not a horrible person. I was right. She was suddenly kinder after that.

By 16 I had returned to accepting compliments, even from schoolmates I didn’t know very well who gave them with a sense of rivalry. I accepted them graciously, without excuses or the obligation to give one in return. And every time there was a flutter of surprise across their faces, followed by a discerning expression. She’s thinks she’s so entitled. And then, miraculously, but I like her.

16 thoughts on “practicing feminism: compliments

  1. almostclever

    I have felt the compliment as competition from other women, which is such an odd thing – mostly when I was in my early 20's. I had a friend who called herself fat consistently just so she could hear people say she wasn't. All her worth was bound up in other people's opinions. She was always my measuring stick as a teenager, the girl I didn't want to end up like. I was always taught from my mother that accepting compliments graciously is a sign of confidence and maturity. That is one thing I am very thankful she taught me.

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  2. This is such a true and important post, and something I've struggled with myself (I can really relate to being considered stuck-up because I'd just say "thank you" when someone complimented my dress). I then had many years where I'd give the "correct" answers, but I'm really trying to kick that habit and am getting a lot better these days.

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  3. Brilliant post. I've struggled with accepting compliments for years, especially in recent years after a substantial weight loss.I may have to expand on this, it's really made me think. I've seen you post on Feministe before, you may have a new follower here. :-)

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  4. I, like almostclever, have a mother who taught me that the polite and gracious thing to do when complimented is to say, "Thank you". It is the mature way to be.The other day my husband (we are newly wed) complimented me on how beautiful I am. So I said, "Thank you." He started laughing and said that I must be quite confident in myself. I responded, "Of course I am (confident in myself)," and explained my mother's rule of thumb for accepting compliments. I also pointed out that if I had rejected his statement I would have been insinuating that he was stupid and/or a liar.I can't wait to share this article with him.

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  5. Great post, Nahida! Like Yandie, I've enjoyed your comments at Feministe and your blog looks really good. I've managed to accept compliments by saying thank you for a few years and I guess since I'm (luckily) surrounded by really awesome like-minded people I've been pretty shielded from any negative reactions. But, I work with a woman who complimented me the other day and when I thanked her she was aghast at first and then chalked it up to "Alex being quirky again". I'm going to forward this along to her because, really, what's the point of a compliment if you/they can't enjoy it?

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  6. Thank you! It makes me happy to see people from Feministe here. =) And reading everyone's anecdotes is a pleasure. It's encouraging that we're all accepting compliments.

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  7. I've always just said "thank you!" to compliments, because I was raised to think of this as the polite way to respond. None of my friends have responded negatively to this (to my knowledge), but we compliment each other all the time and generally think that we're all smart, beautiful, and generally badass! My peers haven't responded negatively either, but that could just be my perception of their responses I suppose.But my Nai Nai, that was another matter! She would constantly tell my sister and I that we were beautiful, had nice smiles, had pretty hair, etc, and upon hearing "thank you!" in response give us a strange look. We never thought much about it, but when my sister began taking a Mandarin class at college her professor told her that it was rude to accept a compliment without self deprecation, particularly among older generations. Suddenly we realized that Nai Nai thought that we were responding in a way that was uppity and rude! We still didn't do the self deprecation thing though. It just seemed unfair that we were expected to insult ourselves all of the time.

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  8. It still takes me some work to take a compliment. Self-esteem stuff can make it tough to believe in my own strengths, even with external affirmation. It's striking how this give-a-compliment-then-comment-on-person's-ego polices someone into not feeling they have strengths (even aesthetic). I love how a simple, pleased "thank you" can stop some in their tracks. Let's hope it can change some minds that we can be proud of our strengths without hubris, and can recognize others' strengths without judgment. Oh! Semi-related, a good article about the cultural habit of adults complimenting young girls on how cute they look instead of talking about something they might be interested in: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html It's a smile-inducing story! :)

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  9. Holding Fast

    I really appreciate this as someone who learned to downplay my own abilities, often believing my own words. On the other hand, I just spent a few minutes writing in my journal about the one compliment I hate getting. I hate being called “pretty”. I hate those kinds of compliments that people presume you want to hear as if their opinion of your looks matters and makes you a validated genuine human being. And then when I get mad, they assume it’s because I’m just downplaying myself because I’m insecure.

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  10. Unfortunately, some women do give compliments as a means of patronising other women. You can tell the difference between genuine compliments (which I usually like) and the patronising sort in the facial expression. In the patronising sort, there’s no instantaneous lighting up of the face, but at most a carefully arranged-looking smile, often a condescending nod – certainly no smiling from the eyes. They’re not doing it because they were spontaneously moved to through real appreciation, and they’re the most likely to respond negatively to an agreeing acceptance of the compliment!
    [Which makes said acceptance fun ;-) Have you ever tried saying ‘Yes, true’? Tends to knock further patronising comments on the head!]

    That kind of competitiveness is sad.

    I don’t feel any social obligation to respond in any particular way to compliments which suggest I’m supposed to be really grateful for such gratuitous offerings of others’ opinions on my appearance. [Especially when it comes from a man who hasn’t any reason to believe I care how he thinks I look, and isn’t known for sartorial splendour himself, as men don’t tend to be.]

    Although the polite norm is that we should accept compliments graciously, the reality is that this isn’t a norm that developed independently of sexism, but is part of it and the idea that women’s self-worth should depend on social approval of how well she meets the standards set out for women. So the fact is hidden that so many gratuitous compliments offered to women are due to the arrogant assumption that the complimenter’s opinion is worthy …

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  11. Aussieprincessa

    LOL, i found the perfect post to say this:
    I just wanted to say i like your blog. I find it insightful, intelligent and well-crafted.

    As for this post in particular, I still find it hard to just say “Thankyou”, so much so that it has now become a self-imposed rule, as well as making only genuine compliments at the time. The hardest one is compliments on my sewing or cooking, “Pfft..just lots of practice”, as i don’t see them as skills that standout, but something i thought everyone knew or had the opportunity to know.

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