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.