The Compliment Trap

A little while ago, I wrote a couple of posts about my adventures on the favourite dating site of everyone who either can’t or won’t get Tinder – OK Cupid.

tinder

The closest I’ll ever get to having Tinder on my phone

I’ve recently activated my profile again (after a couple of false starts where I effectively went “I’m ready to start dating again NO I’M NOT NO I’M NOT AUGH”). This was originally going to be a light-hearted blog about how OKC’s algorithms seem to have either decided I’m a hopeless case or be actively trolling me, since I’ve been matched with guys who send messages like this one:

stan

Okay, Stan…

Or this one:

threesome

Protip: Have a little preamble before inviting someone to a threesome

But, while I could ramble on about how OKC seems to be pushing me towards a Threesome With The Enemy, something else struck me about the messages I was receiving. Here’s some examples:

gorgeous

ure

acutepi

That last one was actually quite sweet. “And then I went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like ‘acute pi’…”

All of these guys opened by complimenting my physical appearance. Not anything I’d said on my profile, no focus on my thoughts or interests – they were straight in there, telling me what they thought about how I looked, despite the fact that my profile gave them plenty of other information about me that they could have worked with.

Before any professional misogynists kick off about this – no, I am not saying that these men are terrible people for doing that. I think they probably meant well and had the best of intentions. But the fact they thought it was more important to focus on how I look rather than who I am says a lot, and it led me to think about compliments, and realise that my relationship with them is not at all straightforward.

Compliments on my appearance, from men, can make me really uncomfortable. For a long time, I thought this was just because I’m an immensely awkward person. But, if it was just my awkwardness, surely compliments from women and NB people would make me feel the same way?

In a sexist society, compliments on women’s appearance are part of a Catch-22. We’re told from birth that the most valuable thing about us is our appearance – but we’re also told that if we value our appearance, we’re bad, vain, horrible, shallow bitches. Essentially, we’re meant to look amazing and feel shitty – because that’s a great way to live. This Tumblr post sums it up incredibly well. (And yes, I know that men have pressures on their appearance too – but men are rarely valued solely for their appearance. Once again, you only need to look at mainstream media. An average-looking male character will still get a story – and you’ll probably see him dating a beautiful woman at the end of it. An average-looking female character? She gets a makeover, and that is, often, the entire story. And she only ends up dating a beautiful man if she’s become just as beautiful as him. Yes, there are exceptions, but they’re few and far between).

There’s a reason why stories so often hold up “beautiful woman who has no idea she’s beautiful” as an ideal. According to patriarchy, the perfect woman is one whose sense of self-worth is dependent on men telling her she’s pretty; so, her self-worth is something that those men get to control.

Once again, for the people at the back who weren’t listening – I know that this is absolutely a case of Not All Men. I’m talking concepts here, not stating that every single time a man has complimented a woman, it’s been a terrible thing that should never have happened. (I would kind of hope this goes without saying, but, this is the Internet).

I don’t think the men who sent those messages were being malicious. I think they’d thought no further than “women like being told they’re pretty, so if I tell her she’s pretty, she might like me”. And I’m sure that, in many cases, it’s a successful strategy, because women have a lifetime of being told that prettiness is A Really Important Thing.

The baggage around compliments and appearance is incredibly difficult to unpick (I know, I know, you can’t unpick baggage. Unless it’s a wicker basket or something. I like to mix my metaphors. Just roll with it. Roll like a wheeled suitcase made of wicker). My feelings around compliments, my appearance, and compliments on my appearance, are one of the most frequent causes of my feeling like a feminist failure – because, while I know that my appearance is literally the least important thing about me (far less important than my interests, my achievements, my imagination, my personality, or even my ability to make ridiculously contrived puns that no-one finds funny except me), being complimented on how I look still makes me feel validated. I’ve been in relationships where boyfriends have never given me a compliment on how I look – instead, they’ve complimented me on what I’ve achieved, how I am as a person, things that are actually important – and, despite being furious with myself for it, I’ve felt sad, and thought that they must think I’m ugly, and all right he likes my jokes but clearly he hates my face.

Compliments can also, often, make me scared. The dark side of compliments is that they can be weaponised. Remember what I said above? The archetypical situation, seen in romantic narratives time and again, where a beautiful woman feels worthy only because a man has told her she’s beautiful? This means that he’s also able to withhold that self-worth, or take it away. This becomes really apparent when women agree with compliments on their appearance. Some of the reactions there are more extreme than others, but the subtext is always the same – “Shit, she doesn’t need me to feel good about herself. I need to change that.” (This is also why we have things like negging, and why so many of my school bullies liked to give me fake compliments and then follow up with a laugh and a “Yeah, AS IF I’d ever think that about YOU!”)

On the flip side of the horrible coin: one of the first things I thought when I read about the ‘agree with compliments’ experiment was “Wow, that must have been really difficult.” Women are conditioned not to agree with compliments on our appearance, ever; there’s a real psychological barrier to doing so. Even while I was posting the images of those messages, I felt like I should also be adding a disclaimer: “I don’t actually agree with these guys, I don’t think I’m pretty, I look like the unholy spawn of Snape and Wormtail”.

snapewormtail

Ally Has Two Daddies, and both of them are awful.

Like I said before, I don’t have this same reaction to compliments from women or NB people, and I think this is because the power dynamic I’ve described isn’t there in those cases. (I’m aware that this is probably also in large part due to my white, straight, cis and able-bodied privileges, and that people who don’t have those privileges wouldn’t automatically feel the same way). But when it comes as an appraisal by men I don’t know? I like compliments and hate them, feel reassured by them and don’t trust them. The patriarchy is great at generating doublethink.

I feel like I should end this essay tome post with some useful insight into how all this can be fixed, but, honestly, I don’t know. I don’t even know how I’m going to challenge or dismantle my own Feminist Failure Feelings re my personal relationship to compliments and my appearance. I don’t know whether it would be better to go down the route of ‘love how I look’ or ‘completely ignore how I look’ or try and tread a path between the two, and I don’t know how I’d react to appraisals of my appearance no matter what approach I took. So, I’ll just finish up with a no-makeup selfie where I’m pulling a silly face.

2015-10-28 22.28.50

Why yes, I am chewing a wasp!
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About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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