“Oh wow, you were bigger the last time we met,” an acquaintance once told me when we met for the first time in a while. “What, fatter?” I asked him, in slight disbelief. “Oh, women!” he said, looking around for confirmation. “You can’t even compliment them, they’re so frail they get insulted straight away.”
Many women are used to these kinds of compliments, and these ‘benevolent’ remarks often extend to themes beyond a women’s weight: What, so gorgeous but no husband and kids? You’re pretty hot for your age (a compliment that is often paid to me, strangely, by men my own age). You know quite a lot about politics, for a woman. This last one is a compliment I often hear even after I’ve mentioned several times that I have a degree in political science. And then there’s my all-time favourite: You’re pretty okay for a feminist. And so on, in the same fashion.
What’s the problem?
In a world suffering from war, hunger, and global warming, one might think: is there really nothing better to do than to grumble about compliments? After all, the person clearly meant well, it just ended up sounding wrong. But just because this sort of well-meaning sexism is widespread and its initial impulse benign, this doesn’t mean that its negative effects are any less real. This is because, ultimately, we are socialised through compliments. Through them, it is signaled to us what is right and wrong, and we are given our values and norms. Compliments are an instrument of soft power.
In the examples above, a certain required standard for women emerges: be slim, pretty, and multiply. The first two, being slim and beautiful, are the means to achieve the third, namely multiplication. Not even mentioning here that getting older is a thing to be ashamed of, and that the same standards don’t apply for men. By the way, sexist compliments certainly aren’t limited to men; women often pay them just as enthusiastically. Given that women are confronted with these sexist double standards from early on, it is very difficult not to take them to heart and internalise the sexism.
So what can we do better? How can we pay empowering compliments? Because there isn’t actually anything wrong with positive feedback. One very elementary option is to praise people for their actions and achievements. In other words, not to talk about what they are, but what they do—something that is perfectly common for men, no less.
If there’s still a great craving to compliment someone for their looks, then it’s entirely possible to do so without having to resort to sexism. For example, by concentrating on something more unique, like someone’s cool frizzy hair, great chin, or nice smile lines. If someone still seems incredibly hot, then that can also be said—without any other additions. And if you’re adding “for a woman,” it is relatively safe to assume that things are heading in the wrong direction.1