How do I respond when people insult themselves while complimenting me?
June 27, 2012 9:34 AM   Subscribe

How do I respond when people insult themselves while complimenting me? Especially, when those insults are race related.

I'm not sure how to word this question in ways that aren't offensive, so please be patient with me while I try to form my thoughts.

I'm a white woman in her late 20s who is attractive by mainstream heteronormative standards. My skin is very pale, with pink undertones. I have large wideset blue eyes with relatively long eyelashes. I'm also pretty good at doing make up and can often recreate what make up artists would do for fancy occasions. Small button nose with average sized lips and straight teeth. I dye my hair very blonde and I often use extensions, and like my make up, I'm pretty good at styling hair. I'm slender, but have curvy hips/butt and I eat well and workout to maintain my figure, some of it, of course, comes from genetics. I often get told that I look like celebrities like Kate Hudson or a young Heather Locklear. As long as I can remember, I've had people stop me on the street to tell me I look like various celebrities. People seem fascinated that I look like a porcelain doll at times too.

Anyway, I'm constantly getting complimented on these features, and while I find it flattering, I often find it more uncomfortable because people will simultaneously insult themselves. For instance, people often compliment my body for it's fitness and say how they wish they could have that same physique. I'm torn between saying, ... 'well, you can, you just have to eat right and exercise' and 'you're beautiful too!' I don't know if it's appropriate to be truthful and say I get it through being healthy or if I should try to boost their ego. I eat fairly clean small portioned meals, workout 3-6 times a week, and drink a lot of water.

These situations are uncomfortable enough, but the ones that really make me uncomfortable are the ones based on race. I realize I'm full of white privilege and in terms of physical appearance goes, I'm definitely at an advantage because of our systemic forms of racism. But, how do I respond to someone when they compliment my eyes or eyelashes or my skintone and how they wish they had the same? Over the past few months alone I've had two Asian women tell me how they had ugly features in comparison to me. Yesterday, a beautiful woman who has impeccable taste in clothing and is the cutest woman you've ever seen told me how she hates her 'Chinese eyes' and would much prefer to have mine. She also said she hated her stubby little eyelashes. It breaks my heart for women to believe that they are ugly or to long for my features when I think they're beautiful. I responded by saying that I thought her eyes were beautiful and when she tried to argue with me I just went on about how she was truly gorgeous. She smiled and said that talking to me always makes her feel pretty. I left the interaction feeling awful and wondering what I should be saying in these situations?

I've had other friends and acquaintances of varying backgrounds do similar things and it just makes me uncomfortable. I'm generally not very good at taking compliments and have an urge to say the opposite, but that's something I know I can deal with, but I'm uncomfortable when others insult themselves in the same sentence. I truthfully can be just as insecure a good proportion of the time, but I'm pretty good at faking confidence during the times I don't have it.

I also don't want to 'dress down'. I love fashion and I love doing my hair and make up. Those around me generally don't put the same time or effort into their appearance, which is fine by me, I just truly have fun doing it, but I hate that my appearance makes others sad or dislike theirs.

I guess, my question is, how do I respond in these situations? I know that most people don't have my background in feminist studies to know that it's a history of racism and sexism that leads women to dislike certain aspects of their appearance so I don't generally feel like it's appropriate for me to try to give people a lesson... or is it?
posted by DorothySmith to Human Relations (52 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Just graciously say thank you.
You can't fix generations of cultural bigotry in a moment's meeting.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:42 AM on June 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

When people compliment you, the polite thing to say is "thank you."

You are under no obligation to make other people feel pretty, to feel guilty about your own attributes or grooming habits, or to otherwise take the bait when people say something about you when what they really are doing is talking about themselves. That's passive-aggressive bs and it's not your job to make other people feel better about themselves.

I would suggest responding to people who disparage themselves in a fishing-for-compliments or resentful way with "I'm sorry you feel that way," nothing more. Getting into an argument with someone to convince them you think they're beautiful is crazyland, and you don't have to go there.

I'm white, but that's about all you & I have in common. I'm a kind of frumpy middle-aged mom with imperfect skin and less than striking features, definitely not a beauty. And I would never in a million years expect my gorgeous friends or coworkers to prop me up, or even worse to feel badly about their beauty, regardless of whether they come by it via nature or nurture.
posted by headnsouth at 9:45 AM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Praising someone else's beauty and denigrating one's tiny perceived flaws is often just girl bonding smalltalk, it doesn't have to point to a deep seated self hatred or a request for a lesson in your wellness regimen.

The correct response to these complements is "thanks" or maybe "thanks" + complementing some other aspect of the person's appearance.
posted by phoenixy at 9:45 AM on June 27, 2012 [19 favorites]

It sounds like you're making an effort to make the most of your looks. That's awesome. You should never be ashamed of trying hard to be attractive. Especially if you enjoy the process and health benefits.

When complimented, you should thank the person and that's about it. If they put themselves down, don't buy into it. Some cultures believe that lighter skin or a different eye shape are more beautiful. That's not really your problem. If you like a feature of someone who has just put themselves down, find something to compliment them on. "I wish I could have your thick hair" or "you look so beautiful in your suit" are perfectly acceptable ways to return a compliment.

For someone who admires your figure and then says, "I'm such a cow," or "I wish I could look like you". "Don't be silly, you're awesome just the way you are!" And they are! They are awesome for being them.

As fivesavagepalms said, you aren't responsible for the cultural bigotry of the world. You are responsible for being a nice person. So accept compliments graciously, find things to compliment others on and be happy that you're pleased with your appearance.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:47 AM on June 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

"Thanks! I like your hair!"

Insert whatever thing about them you can honestly compliment in place of hair.

If they try to argue that they hate the way they look, disengage. "Well that's very kind of you. Have a lovely day!"
posted by J. Wilson at 9:48 AM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm torn between saying, ... 'well, you can, you just have to eat right and exercise' and 'you're beautiful too!'

You're wrong; eating right and exercising results in a wide variety of healthy figures. It does not always result in your body type.

I think you need to examine your own attitudes about the superiority of your own appearance, before you can make other people feel better about theirs. You spent most of this post talking about how hot you are, and implying both that 1) you were born that way, and 2) that you earned it by performing appearance rituals better than other women.

You also assume that you're more informed than these Asian women about the origins of their own insecurities, and that's another layer on your cake of grandiosity. It could also be that those women just bond with other women by saying, "Oh, you look great and I don't!" It may have nothing to do with your appearance being better than theirs. They're just engaging in social rituals that help them make friends.

I love fashion and make-up, too, and people often compliment me on my appearance. I just say thank you. If someone tells me they look bad, I tell them, sincerely, that they look great. It's not that hard.

You seem like you mean well, but you need to grow up more than a little.
posted by Coatlicue at 9:52 AM on June 27, 2012 [104 favorites]

1. I've always responded really directly (not that I am beautiful! But I certainly am a white person who has had people deprecate their Asian features when discussing my white ones.) by saying "I think [feature] is really attractive, actually." Depending on the situation, I might follow up with [Celebrity who has feature] is beautiful" or "I always wished I could have [feature]" or "When I was little I always thought [person/feature] was the most beautiful [person/feature] in the world" or even "I think white features like [button noses, etc] are nice but sometimes I think people don't realize how beautiful other features are".

I have been known to follow up with "why do you say that?" but that can get kind of patronizing/pedagogical - it's not my place to "educate" a person of color about racism that they experience and I benefit from.

I assume there's some cultural element of politeness in the whole "Asian features" thing, as I definitely received outsized and obviously culturally-mandated compliments/self-putdowns when living in China - situations where the person obviously did not really believe that they were homely/incompetent/etc compared to me and it was just socially appropriate to say so.

But then there's also all that racist crap.

So much depends on the tenor of the conversation - sometimes you just can't get into a meaningful conversation about this stuff because you don't know the person.

2. Don't tell people they can look like you if they eat right and exercise. I implore you. It's just not true. Even if you assume that everyone is a blank slate, without a social or health history written on their bodies, most of us just are not genetically able to have perfect, fine-pored skin, large eyes, perfect straight hair, delicate bones. I, for example, have small eyes, wide shoulders, short legs and a deep ribcage, plus very delicate skin that bruises and scars like crazy. None of that is going away, no matter how I eat. I will never be a tall, etherially feminine person, and indeed it's frustrating and insulting to be told by people who get a lot of beauty privilege that somehow my squat, short-legged body could be socially cherished like theirs if I were a better person. And consider what we know about diet, exercise, eating disorders, depression, all that shit. No one who is old enough compliment you and put themselves down at the same time is without health and emotional history; many of those people (judging by the low self esteem implied) probably have a long history of struggling with their appearance and overvaluing. Telling people that they could look "pretty" if they ate right is...well, it's silly.

What to say instead? Well, people often compliment me on my smarts, something I also did comparatively little to deserve other than be born to two high-IQ people - like you, I can "dress up" what nature gave me by reading and learning, but basically I'm pretty smart even without that, just as you are pretty attractive even without makeup and hair dye. Anyway. Based on my experience, you might try complimenting them on something that you don't have - lots of folks have more emotional intelligence than I do, for example. Or you might mention the artifice that goes into your beauty - just as I mention that I know how to use a lot of academic bullshit and that gives the impression that I'm smarter than I am. Or you could tell them that they are wonderful people and you're sorry that our culture places too much weight on beauty, something which, though nice, is basically the luck of the draw.
posted by Frowner at 9:58 AM on June 27, 2012 [17 favorites]

If you're being complimented, just say "Thanks, it's very nice of you to say that."

In the case of more negative comments, definitely don't tell other women to eat right and exercise! But if they're saying how lucky you are to have your figure, you can say something like, "I do work pretty hard at it, hitting the gym every day and eating lightly." If they disparage themselves tell them you think they're beautiful too (if you honestly think so), or complimenting them on a nice feature.
posted by orange swan at 10:01 AM on June 27, 2012

Thanks everyone. I appreciate the feedback. I will learn to just say thank you and shut up! Or give a single compliment in return. :)

Also, Coatlicue, I wasn't implying that my entire physique was due to my eating/exercise habits. I did say it was genetic as well. I do know that when I don't eat well and don't exercise I do gain weight, get headaches, and get bad skin. I wasn't meaning to suggest if people did what I did then they'd get my body, I more meant they'd be healthy and probably like their bodies better.

Thanks again!
posted by DorothySmith at 10:01 AM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

'well, you can, you just have to eat right and exercise' and 'you're beautiful too!'

OK, don't say these, because re: the first one maybe they really can't, and the second is patronizing if they're not really beautiful. But I think it's totally fine to say, "Thanks, I work really hard at keeping in shape" or "Thanks, I was actually just thinking that your hair/skin/whatever" is beautiful also" - but only if that's true.

The racial angle is harder. I think all you can do is give one "Thanks, I think you look great too" response, and if they argue, don't get caught up in it. It's a much larger issue and you could get into a long discussion about it with a good friend, but with other people, I'd just leave it. There's no obligation to get into it any deeper than "thank you."
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:01 AM on June 27, 2012

And I do think it's appropriate to unpack when someone says something that's obviously the result of racist beauty crap. If someone tells me that they have "Chinese eyes" and that those are ugly, hey, I'm not comfortable accepting a compliment that comes at that price. I'm not okay with saying "you have a hang up about race and appearance, so not my problem", when I benefit from the very beauty system that inculcates those beliefs.

Honestly, I've had good results with saying "I think your eyes are pretty" or just saying that it makes me sad when people think that white folks are pretty just for being white. Because it does make me sad.

Here's the scoop - I don't think there's a "perfect" outcome to this conversation. Racial privilege and racial trauma are too big to wrap up neatly like that. I do think that being honest about what is going on in the conversation is helpful - the complex mixture of beliefs, assumptions, fears and guilt that's usually lurking when the conversation turns to race and beauty. I've found that trying to connect honestly and caringly with people is the only way to work through this stuff - even if you put your foot in your mouth or say something dumb, people can tell that you're being real with them and that carries the day.
posted by Frowner at 10:07 AM on June 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

You should read this post. When someone says they "wish" they could have something that you have, they're not asking for advice about how to actually do those things. They're saying, as one poster puts it in the thread, "She wishes she could play as beautifully as you, but without the years of study and practice."

All that being said, I find that kind of body comparison talk really toxic for my own self-esteem and tend to be pretty blunt when women try to engage me in it. "Oh, I hate all this negative body talk. Let's not do this--I think we're both beautiful, no matter what the media tells us" (or whatever). Then I change the subject.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:08 AM on June 27, 2012 [22 favorites]

So, exactly what lesson do you hope to give people? You spent so much time talking about your (dyed) blonde hair, common-in-white-people blue eyes, button nose, and curvy made-by-workout hips/butt that I'm not really inclined to think that you don't subscribe to thinking that those beauty standards are better. I seriously felt like I was reading a Sweet Valley High novel or an Aryan nation blog post or something. Many people have had these experiences and don't write long internet posts about how amazing their features are. I think that you need to get over yourself. Just graciously do your thing, thank people for their compliments, say "I think that your XXXXX is beautiful", and quit obsessing over yourself.
posted by 200burritos at 10:17 AM on June 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

Say thank you then lead the topic away from the compliment. For example, if they compliment you on your eyes, say thank you then start to tell them about the fabulous new eye shadow you just got. If they compliment you on your hair, say thank you and tell them about your fabulous hairdresser. It's still sort of related, leaves the conversation open to something positive for both of you, and it will also remove any awkward silences.
posted by Vaike at 10:19 AM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm naturally very slender and only recently started eating healthy and hitting the gym 5 days a week. The only change in my body has been a slight toning. I can run farther then ever in my life, but I look the same. It doesn't affect my skin or weight to eat poorly, and I don't like or dislike my appearance any for all the effort. I do really enjoy the energy, power, and mental stability, but physical appearance isn't part of the bag.

Like you, I tend to get compliments on my appearance and body type. Unlike you I've always been a tomboy and have a tendency to shave my head and skip make-up, so compliments run more of the "you don't realize how attractive you are!" insultiment. I think it's just part of social interaction where everyone is subtly and not so subtly forcing the status quo. You fit the mold of what media says we all should, so you get pushed up, they don't so they get pushed down. People "complimenting" me are pushing up the parts that are socially mandated, and pushing down the parts that aren't.

Personally I have that conversation with people, depending on who they are and our relationship, but I don't know if that's the route you want to go. It sounds like you believe the people pushing themselves down deserve to be pushed down and should be fighting to fit social constructs of beauty to be happy. Beauty is so subjective, be careful about placing your esteem or worth on it.
posted by Dynex at 10:25 AM on June 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

To those of you who are suggesting I am full of myself, I admit after re-reading my post I can see how I might have given off that impression. I apologize for doing so.
posted by DorothySmith at 10:26 AM on June 27, 2012

In my experience there are two good responses, depending on the persons relationship with you:

A. The person complimenting you is a stranger. Say "Thanks!". Smile. end of interaction. Don't put yourself down. Don't get into a conversation where they can put themselves down.

B. The person complimenting you is someone you see on a regular basis. Say "Thanks!" Smile. And give them a genuine compliment another time that you see them.

I'm really not a fan of the whole female exchange of compliments "You're so pretty" "no YOU'RE so pretty". Ugh. It just comes across as disgenuine and rehearsed. But a genuine compliment from you when you don't feel socially obligated (in the same vein as the original compliment they gave you) is a very nice return gesture. Just make sure to mean it.
posted by sarahnicolesays at 10:28 AM on June 27, 2012

She also said she hated her stubby little eyelashes. It breaks my heart for women to believe that they are ugly or to long for my features when I think they're beautiful. I responded by saying that I thought her eyes were beautiful and when she tried to argue with me I just went on about how she was truly gorgeous. She smiled and said that talking to me always makes her feel pretty. I left the interaction feeling awful and wondering what I should be saying in these situations?

See, here's where you're doing it right. There is nothing wrong with "making someone feel pretty" or valued or cherished or whatever. We have this narrative about "that will never do any good unless the person realizes [Big Truth About Something]" but actually in my experience if you tell someone that they are beautiful and cherished and amazing and so on eventually it starts to sink in. You don't want to be propping up someone who has pathologically low self-esteem and who exhausts you by demanding positive reinforcement, but that is a whole different personality issue and there's nothing wrong with telling your friends that they have good qualities when the subject comes up.

I guess you might also want to get your head around the matter of your own beauty. It sounds a bit like you value yourself for your looks and feel that you're a good person for maintaining them, which might bite you in the ass if you ever lose them or go through a serious illness and can't get to the gym all the time. At least one of which is inevitable.*

It also sounds like you would like to believe the faux-feminist canard that beauty can be nothing more than neutral and fun, that you can enjoy the props you get for being beautiful without there being a shadow side, that it's just good feminine capitalist fun as long as you can get your head right. Now, you have to get up in the morning and put on clothes, and you might as well put on ones you like - there's no point in wearing sackcloth and ashes. But there will always be this shadow side - you are valued more than you should be for something you basically didn't earn, and other women will be put down and will lose out because of the system that lifts you up. People will believe that you are "good" for exercising and eating right, but a fat or plain woman who exercises and eats right will still be believed to be lazy and useless because most folks feel that if you are not beautiful that's because you're a lazy slob and a bad person. That tension is always going to be there. You can't have shadowless fun or unclouded enjoyment in this life.

I think I wouldn't try to get past or defeat those feelings of sadness or concern over the shadow side of your looks. I'd accept them, think them through, keep them present. There are lots of people who get really vapid and selfish about their looks and about style - men women and others. Maintaining that productive discomfort can keep you from joining their ranks.

*Let me tell you, having been homely your whole life spares you a lot when you hit your late thirties and the wrinkles and grey hairs start crowding in - lots of laments from the pretty girls about "turning invisible"and having trouble dating and finding it harder to stay slim...and I still feel the same as I did when I was 25. I don't "feel" old because I never felt young and pretty in the first place.
posted by Frowner at 10:28 AM on June 27, 2012 [43 favorites]

I have a truly stunning friend -- absolutely gorgeous by the strictest standards of conventional beauty norms. When I think about the way she handles compliments that denigrate the speaker of those compliments, what I like most is how *genuinely* startled she often seems by the speaker's self-denigration. "Thanks, but what are you talking about? You're lovely!" And then she leaves it at that.

However, I think this works for her because it clearly really does puzzle her that other people might not feel good about themselves, since she genuinely sees beauty in just about everyone she looks at. Her positive perception of other people translates so clearly. It's a true gift -- the most beautiful thing about her, in fact. And I see people feel better about themselves just by interacting with her.

I guess, then, my suggestion to you is to accept compliments with a "thank you" and maybe, on a larger scale, to let go of the idea -- unwittingly reflected in your post? and present in so many of us! thanks, social conditioning! -- that there's only one narrow mold for attractiveness. Genuinely look for the beauty in other people. Your own beauty can be a gift in this regard because your lack of insecurity frees you to look at other people NOT for evidence of how you don't measure up, but instead for ways in which they are beautiful, too. And let your appreciation of their beauty show in your replies to their compliments.
posted by artemisia at 10:37 AM on June 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

Yesterday, a beautiful woman who has impeccable taste in clothing and is the cutest woman you've ever seen told me how she hates her 'Chinese eyes' and would much prefer to have mine.

Maybe "thank you", possibly followed by an honest kind comment of some sort in return. "You are so beautiful and cute and I love your dress" or something. The challenge is to avoid getting sucked into their (possibly racist) way of seeing people and the world. I don't think you should have to respond to a comment about eyes or skin color at all.

I saw a guy on Fei Cheng Wu Rao actually mention "big eyes" when describing what sort of woman attracted him, and went on about how he would prefer a Chinese woman to a Japanese woman who was attracted to him at school. I've heard eye widening surgery is very popular in Korea: The eyelid-lift is so common in this country (to widen the eyes), that most girls don’t even consider this $800 procedure plastic surgery. Maybe the eye comments are not considered that offensive? The thing is, it wasn't anything you were thinking or would be thinking about until she approached you with it, and I don't think there is any need for you to try to figure it out.

I guess a burden of being attractive (not that I would know) is receiving all sorts of unwelcome projections from both men and women.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:46 AM on June 27, 2012

Years ago, we happened to catch Ike Turner at a matinee show in Austin. This was before his successful resurgence in the 2000's, and his band was wearing identical suits that were ill-fitted and hemmed with duct tape showing how often his backup players must have been rotating through. Also on stage with him was a gorgeous and incredibly talented young woman, fitting your description actually, but, you know - black - doing all the "Tina" songs. She was stunning. She could sing, she could move, and she was a blast. She was primping in the ladies' room and I said to her "Wow, you're just gorgeous and so talented. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have gifts and opportunities like yours." And she spun around and looked me dead in the eye and said "Honey, it's work." All I could respond with was "Well, I admire that."

So I think that if you're looking for something beyond "Thank you," which is why you've posted this question, you might consider either frankly acknowledging the amount of effort you put into your appearance and how much it means to you to look that way with "Thanks, I work hard/spend a lot of time/enjoy playing with my appearance" -- or you can also be self-deprecating and come up with something like Dolly Parton's famous line about her image or "I keep it in a jar by the door." You don't have to volley compliments with anyone, or prop up psyches and you don't have to educate or even attempt to discern what other issues abound when they're complimenting you in that way - you maybe just have to be polite and then keep the conversation flowing. Having one pat line that does that and then changing the subject is probably the way to go, but you have to find out what you can get away with and what works for you. I do agree with those that suggest you find a way to show your appreciation or a way to return the compliment. But if this is enough of an issue that you seek guidance, whether it's for random interactions or people who are frequently in this habit with you, I think finding a way to shut down that avenue and change the dynamic might be an option.
posted by peagood at 10:56 AM on June 27, 2012

Also, have you read Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability? It's orthogonal to your question, but it seems like the only answers that are likely to work are orthogonal.

Perhaps the most relevant part is this:

The magnificence of a body that shakes, spills out, takes up space, needs help, moseys, slinks, limps, drools, rocks, curls over on itself. The magnificence of a body that doesn’t get to choose when to go to the bathroom, let alone which bathroom to use. A body that doesn’t get to choose what to wear in the morning, what hairstyle to sport, how they’re going to move or stand, or what time they’re going to bed. The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but un-human. The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain in an hour. Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly. Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength.

Because we all do it. We all run from the ugly. And the farther we run from it, the more we stigmatize it and the more power we give beauty. Our communities are obsessed with being beautiful and gorgeous and hot. What would it mean if we were ugly? What would it mean if we didn’t run from our own ugliness or each other’s? How do we take the sting out of “ugly?” What would it mean to acknowledge our ugliness for all it has given us, how it has shaped our brilliance and taught us about how we never want to make anyone else feel? What would it take for us to be able to risk being ugly, in whatever that means for us. What would happen if we stopped apologizing for our ugly, stopped being ashamed of it? What if we let go of being beautiful, stopped chasing “pretty,” stopped sucking in and shrinking and spending enormous amounts of money and time on things that don’t make us magnificent?

It's very much a piece about being a disabled queer femme woman of color - and thus it's important not to just rip it out of context and repurpose it for white folks - but there's something so radical and amazing about this sort of politics of transformation, becoming, opening, this replacement of "how can we make 'beauty' an acceptable category?" with "how can we move forward into newer, more magnificent, more wonderful ways of being?"
posted by Frowner at 10:59 AM on June 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

This question really resonates with me because while I'm a fairly fat, plain lady and don't have this problem at home in Canada, when I lived in Japan I received many uncomfortable compliments on my super-white skin. I would certainly have felt uncomfortable just saying "Thanks!" to those remarks.

I never found a response that really satisfied me, but I usually went with "Thanks, but I think your skin colour is beautiful!" or "Thanks, but it really burns badly, I don't really like it." It's a weird moment, and I don't think I always handled it well. But your friend's eventual response that talking to you always makes her feel pretty? That makes me think that you ARE handling it pretty well. I feel like the best thing we can do is to keep being aware of the context of these remarks, keep thinking about it, and hope to respond in a way that makes someone else feel pretty.

But please, never say 'well, you can, you just have to eat right and exercise' I also eat fairly clean, small proportioned meals. I'm not up to snuff right now, but there was a time when I swam 1-2km every day, and I drink a lot of water. I am a size 16. Changing how I exercise or how I eat, for better or for worse, does not change my body very much. I will never have a body like yours, no matter how I eat or exercise, and I would be offended if you said that to me.
posted by snorkmaiden at 11:20 AM on June 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

You should also think about the fact that most people don't think about appearances as much as you. Frankly, your beauty routine and standards sound as out there to me as an Ironman athlete describing her training regimen. So, when I say to someone like that: "wow, I wish I could run that far, I'm too out of shape." It reveals an insecurity, sure, but it's just idle talk. And why should an athlete try to pep up my lazy ass?

Now, I really hope I wouldn't make that kind of comment because I'm now a grown and mature person. But if I did make a comment like that, I would hope that I would be thanked and then brushed off.

"That's a very sweet thing to say, thank you. Do you know when the next bus is coming?"
posted by amanda at 11:23 AM on June 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

I agree with the consensus above, that you should just say "thank you" and leave it at that. It's definitely not your responsibility to make others feel good about themselves, although it's kind of you when you do do that.

But I also think the backlash you're getting here is ridiculous. No, you may not be a perfect feminist or have a perfect understanding of all the various things that factor into beauty, but I thought your original post was just being honest. You told us what you look like, and what sort of behaviours go into making you look that way. There's nothing wrong with being attractive and working on your appearance.
posted by barnoley at 11:33 AM on June 27, 2012 [15 favorites]

I'm torn between saying, ... 'well, you can, you just have to eat right and exercise' and 'you're beautiful too!' I don't know if it's appropriate to be truthful and say I get it through being healthy or if I should try to boost their ego. I eat fairly clean small portioned meals, workout 3-6 times a week, and drink a lot of water.

What you're saying here, is that it's easy. That just a small amount of common sense behavior would make anyone look like you. But, note, everyone knows that drinking water, eating reasonably, and exercising regularly are good for them. What does it imply, then, if you tell them this? Giving this advice when complimented implies the following: the person you're speaking to is either too lazy to do what meager amount is necessary to look good or just too stupid to realize they should. That's pretty insulting. So, I suggest you avoid giving advice unless the person specifically asks you for advice.

In your post, you actually make reference to three separate factors that lead to your good looks: 1) uncontrollable forces (genes and social ideals); 2) common sense health activities; 3) hard, concerted work. I don't think you should ever try to focus on #2, for the reasons listed above. Given context, focusing on either 1 or 3 may be beneficial.

Personally, I'm fat and I have been thin. But what I've never been is good-looking. Why? Because I don't know how. I can't style my hair to save my life. I don't even know what most make-up does. I'm okay with that, and it's okay for you to be happy that you look better than me. It doesn't make you a better person than me, just as my exceptional skills and natural abilities at Mario Kart don't make me a better person than you (I'm guessing here -- but feel free to take this as a challenge if you wish!). You seem to understand that you're not a better person than me because you look better, but I think you may benefit from trying to feel comfortable with the first bit: you can be proud of the fact that you look better than me. It's okay for you to take pride in the hard work you put into looking good -- into the skill and effort it takes related to make-up, etc. It's okay for you to acknowledge and be happy about your genetic luck. It's okay for you to take joy in exercising and eating reasonably. It's okay for you to say "Thanks!" to the compliment and shrug off the rest.
posted by meese at 11:42 AM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Years ago I read an interview with Isabella Rossellini about her having the problem. She said her standard reply to people gushing about her beauty was "Thank you, aren't I lucky?". (she also has an amazingly warm genuine way of speaking, otherwise that lone could come off as unsufferable).

Yes, it takes work to look conventionally pretty, even if you have good genetics to start you on third base, but admitting that it is largely beyond your control and also a blessing is probably what most people want to hear.
posted by saucysault at 11:46 AM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Over the past few months alone I've had two Asian women tell me how they had ugly features in comparison to me. Yesterday, a beautiful woman who has impeccable taste in clothing and is the cutest woman you've ever seen told me how she hates her 'Chinese eyes' and would much prefer to have mine. She also said she hated her stubby little eyelashes. It breaks my heart for women to believe that they are ugly or to long for my features when I think they're beautiful. I responded by saying that I thought her eyes were beautiful and when she tried to argue with me I just went on about how she was truly gorgeous. She smiled and said that talking to me always makes her feel pretty. I left the interaction feeling awful and wondering what I should be saying in these situations?

I'm first generation Asian-American, and I can tell you that you're basically doing as well as you can hope to do in these situations. There's a mess of cultural baggage that you're caught in in these conversations. If these women are walking away genuinely feeling better about themselves, then you're doing it right.

I am by no means a beauty, but I have big, Western looking eyes and long eyelashes. I also used to be very petite. I grew up hearing my fellow Asian-Americans' mothers shaming them for not looking more like me. I would either hear them say things to their daughters like "Your eyes are too small, your skin is too dark, your legs are too thick, why are you so fat, etc etc." or I would actually be put in the awkward position of hearing "Why aren't you as skinny as rhythm and booze"? The first thing my grandmother said to me after not seeing me for 15 years was not "So good to see you!" but "Wow, you're too fat." Later as I grew up I would hear these things from my friends. "It's not fair, my eyes are so small. You have big eyes." or "You're so cute and little, that's what all the guys like, it's not fair." They have really internalized that standard and feel shame about not meeting it.

So when these women approach you and repeat what their mothers and grandmothers and aunts and family friends told them about themselves, the best you can do is tell them as an outsider, you think they're beautiful. It's not much compared to the endless criticism that they hear from their families, but it's something they should hear, especially from someone they probably consider an expert on being beautiful.
posted by rhythm and booze at 11:50 AM on June 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Insulting oneself is a very deeply-ingrained part of chinese (and other Asian, as well, I gather) culture and it is complicated and not necessarily because Asians don't like themselves. In Asian culture it is thought that people should express humility and insulting oneself is a way to do so. Parents will even insult their children, calling them unattractive or unintelligent. In China where I have lived for several years, people do this regularly and it usually shouldn't be taken literally.

So, I think you can worry about this a little less. Good for you for being conventionally attractive, but I wouldn't take these women's words literally and I wouldn't think about it too much. They are probably just trying to compliment you while expressing humility regarding themselves.
posted by bearette at 12:49 PM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have a lot of sympathy for you in this situation. It can definitely feel alienating when people draw attention to how different you are from them. In any context where they're not paying you a compliment, it's obvious it's rude, but in this context, it can feel unpleasant while not being intended as such (except maybe subconsciously).

So, how to respond? Well, like everyone else said, don't tell them how they could be like you. But do try to deflect the compliment from complementing you on what you are to complimenting you on what you do. So when you're told you're beautiful, accept it as a compliment on the effort you've put in. However, when the person goes back to blame their race or other natural features, they're indirectly saying that it's just your good luck which makes you worthy of the compliment. So feel good saying "I like to make myself up a bit" and "I try to watch what I eat and exercise". These are things you can reward yourself for doing, and genuine gracious ways to accept a compliment.

Having changed the nature of the compliment from one where everyone's compared against one global set of standards to one where people compare themselves against their own standards, you're now in a position to actually repay the compliment by saying "I think your eyes/smile/dimples/hair* is lovely". Because you're saying what you think, not comparing them against some immutable standard of what a person should look like. It'll feel great.

You're probably not going to turn anyone's worldview around in one conversation. But these kind of things are the kind of things people have epiphanies about. So the more times you lay the ground for someone to realise "hey, I am beautiful", the more likely you are to hit that time when they actually see it.

And there's no need to thank people for compliments which make you feel awkward like this. Far better to replace a false banality with a genuine personally directed compliment.

*Whatever's true with this particular person.
posted by ambrosen at 1:39 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

. I wasn't meaning to suggest if people did what I did then they'd get my body, I more meant they'd be healthy and probably like their bodies better.

Um, yeah, except they might already be doing what you do. Really, you don't know what anyone is doing with their diet, health, and exercise and how that interacts with their genetics. Stop extrapolating from yourself to other people. You aren't the norm, and they aren't the exception. You really don't know what they are currently doing, or how change would affect them. You only know about yourself.

When I get an appearance compliment from someone, I often say "Thanks! That totally makes my day!" It's a positive and happy response but doesn't seem to beg for reciprocity.
posted by Miko at 1:41 PM on June 27, 2012 [10 favorites]

Thanks again everyone. About the physique compliments, I was actually referring to a couple of friends whom drink a lot of alcohol and eat out all the time. I would never pretend to assume I know about someone's daily routine if I didn't know them, I was more thinking of these select friends who always go on about how small I am while we are out and about dancing or at pubs. I don't drink, for a few reasons, mainly I can't afford it and I don't like feeling awful the next day.

Anyway, thanks again! I've learned a lot.
posted by DorothySmith at 1:55 PM on June 27, 2012

Other person: "You look lovely!"

Me: "Thank you! I was just thinking about how fantastic you looked. Where did you get that beautiful scarf?"

Other person: "You look lovely! I wish I could do eyeshadow like you, but it would look terrible on me."

Me: "Thank you for the compliment. It's funny you should say that, because I was just thinking that I wished I could pull an outfit together the way you do. I guess we all see each others' beauties more easily than our own, maybe?"
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:00 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have a gorgeous friend who gets unsolicited compliments constantly. She generally looks slightly embarrassed, says thank you, and moves the conversation on quickly. They often keep going on and on and she just does the same thing "oh thank you, thanks, uh uh thank you, oh uh so how is the new job going?" If they insult themselves she quickly tells them that's not true and changes the subject. You don't need to dwell or dissent the casually expressed insecurities of others, you really don't. Just go "oh that's not true at all, you look great, we need another drink..."

For the love of god don't tell anyone that if they worked out and ate better they could feel better about their body. That's like something out of Mean Girls.
posted by whoaali at 2:18 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't take these women's words literally and I wouldn't think about it too much. They are probably just trying to compliment you while expressing humility regarding themselves.

bearette makes a good point. Even absent any cultural differences, it really might not be as big of a deal to them as it sounds to you. I can totally imagine myself saying something like "You always look so perfect, I'm totally hideous compared to you" and meaning nothing by it except to compliment you and express that pretty people's lives are completely foreign to me. It would be an unthinking throw-away comment on my part, not a deep confession of hating myself or anything.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:13 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thirding bearette and DestinationUnknown. In my family's culture (Chinese), denigrating yourself while praising others is considered to be the polite thing to do. Preening over yourself is a big no-no, as it is believed that this will attract the attention of vengeful gods who will want to put you back in your place. Even if many Chinese people don't believe in vengeful gods anymore, it has remained a part of Chinese social culture. I'm not saying there aren't any problems with the beauty standards of various cultures, but as previous commenters suggested, it really might not be the heartbreaking horrible thing you think it is.
posted by keep it under cover at 3:51 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

meaning nothing by it except [...] that pretty people's lives are completely foreign to me.
No offence, DestinationUnknown, but this is exactly what I think's wrong with this type of compliment. Surely communication's all about making people feel their similarities, and here's this example of creating greater distance between people, through something they utterly can't help being.
posted by ambrosen at 4:59 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I feel like you should think about how your rush to make these women of color you know feel immediately better fits into larger Western feminist histories of "rescuing" unenlightened women of color "from themselves."

Beyond that, accept the compliment, and move the conversation forward.
posted by spunweb at 5:01 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

ambrosen, none taken, but I think compliments (and all other types of communication) often stem from, and revolve around, differences between people. I wouldn't compliment someone on being like me; what moves me to compliment someone is that either they do something I can do, but better (e.g. they're an amazing writer) or they do or have something unfathomable to me (e.g stunning beauty or a huge, beautiful house.) With the latter, "wow factor" type of compliments, it's all about that difference. Notice I didn't say I do that all the time - in fact I'm not sure if I've ever done that exactly. But I can imagine saying it because I would be thinking it. My point in that comment was that bluntness of that sort doesn't mean the OP is obliged to read anything deeper into the compliment. (And while very few people have ever complimented me on my looks, I'm quite flattered and pleased when people make a point to compliment me on talents or abilities I have preciously because they themselves don't share them.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:17 PM on June 27, 2012

She smiled and said that talking to me always makes her feel pretty. I left the interaction feeling awful and wondering what I should be saying in these situations?

Sounds to me like you handled it just right, and that you actually did her a favor (left her feeling pretty).

It just is saddening to find out that somebody you've just been talking to has body-image baggage. But if you concentrate on the part where she says you've made her feel pretty, then you can remind yourself that you have done what you can to chip away at that, and that doing so was a good thing.
posted by flabdablet at 5:29 PM on June 27, 2012

I think we're both beautiful, no matter what the media tells us
Uh, maybe not quite with that wording... If someone does have body issues* then it is too easy to hear this as "the media says you're ugly".

*Yeah, not always, sometimes this is just a meaningless ritual, pride that apes humility, or fishing for a compliment. But it's hard to tell.
I guess we all see each others' beauties more easily than our own, maybe?
I really like this.

I think if you go down the list of reasons why people do this, the thing that will make the largest number of those people happy is a sincere, specific compliment. Some days you have energy to go all moral, and some days you just try to keep the peace.
posted by anaelith at 5:45 PM on June 27, 2012

I feel like you should think about how your rush to make these women of color you know feel immediately better fits into larger Western feminist histories of "rescuing" unenlightened women of color "from themselves." -Spunweb

I completely get your perspective and I assure you I'm not some white feminist trying to rescue women of colour. It breaks my heart that anyone feel badly about themselves and I also know that I don't want to be part of the problem by reinforcing western beauty ideals by saying the wrong thing. That's why I was asking for advice, because I was unsure how to respond to these compliments. Also, as a white feminist, I was asking advice about how to appropriately respond to this type of situation because I fully acknowledge that I'm not in that social position and don't know anyone's experiences but my own.

However, I also know that I look a certain way and other than dying my hair, I can't change the fact that I primarily fit into those beauty norms. My goal isn't to look like some weak super model. My workout goals are to build strength and noticeable muscle and that's what I think is sexy. I also like my hyperfemininity in contrast to the androgynous and oftentimes masculine women I'm attracted to. This display of 'gender fucking' is something I think is hot. So, while my appearance might reinforce a lot of stereotypical gender norms, my behaviours, my goals, and my relationships are largely to disrupt the mainstream.

Regardless, while I appreciate the feedback, I also think that the constant attacks on here are unwarranted. I'm not full of myself, I have tons of body hangups, just like everyone else. I'm not some white racist running the Aryan nation like someone suggested and while I may like myself to appear a certain way, that's definitely not what I desire in others. Perhaps my question was worded poorly, however a lot of you have presumed to know who I am and that I need to check my ego at the door. Rather than assuming the worst, why not create a dialogue where people aren't shut down instantly for trying to ask an uncomfortable question about race and compliments? I've felt throughout this entire threat that with the attacks I've had to defend myself and justify all of my beliefs whereas if any of you actually knew me, you wouldn't have attacked because I'm one of the least judgmental people I know and I'm just awkwardly shy, especially when it comes to compliments. I also know that it's a trait I get from my mom, that when people tell me their problems, I try to actively come up with solutions, which I know isn't my responsibility and it's often not what people want (they merely want to vent). It's something I'm working on. So, all-in-all, let's stop with the attacking. My question may have included poor choices of words, but it was genuinely awkward, which is who I am. I don't think I'm better than everyone else b/c I fit into mainstream ideals.

People shouldn't be nervous or afraid to ask questions here. Save your fire for once you actually know that someone's out to hurt others. Even if you believe I'm misinformed and racist, then don't you think you'd be more likely to change someone's mind using less fueled language? Attacks just get people's backs up and they stop hearing potentially positive and constructive criticism.
posted by DorothySmith at 5:57 PM on June 27, 2012 [16 favorites]

It's true: there can be drawbacks to a situation that is generally considered fortunate. It's standard kneejerk though, to deny the drawbacks, or assume that complaining about them is really disguised bragging. I'd say Coatlicue has grabbed at the low-hanging fruit. Also, I've noticed that favoriters here go for the obvious.

Even if you are in fact proud (but not "grandiose", I'd say), you still have a practical problem, one that's not serious but still pretty pesky.

You get this problem with all kinds of things. My brother's a musician and once in a while someone will rave at him about how well he plays but even more about how they themselves could never, ever play like that or even the simplest lullaby, and they vehemently go on about how they're tone deaf, etc, etc. My brother might say, "well, if you practise for several years..." but they won't have any of that. Are they scared of being sandbagged or something? What's their psycho-agenda?

Who cares? The first response you got (and others) said it right: it's not your obligation to deal with them. Give 'em boilerplate! "thank you" or any other comment you can come up with that's short and leads nowhere.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 6:17 PM on June 27, 2012

First of all, you don't sound full of yourself, and I think it's nice you are genuinely wondering how to affirm others when they seem intent on denigrating themselves. I must agree that, "well, you can, you just have to eat right and exercise'" is all sorts of wrong and often inaccurate. It's just not the reality of things and, while you may mean it as encouraging & aspirational, will come off as condescending & judgmental, which is clearly not your intention. Your response to the Asian woman you described was just right. You can't own other people's shit. That's theirs to deal with, regardless of what brought them to that place. If you had said something insulting, I'd say something totally different, but this was a self-assessment/personal insecurity. It sucks and it's not fair, but it's not for you to solve. Graciously accept the compliment and give compliments freely. In the situation you described, I think expressing admiration for her fashion sense and beauty, as long as it's sincere, will accomplish way more than you'll ever know. Enjoy yourself and others. Always be appreciative of others' flattering words (easier said than done, I know), and, when it's warranted, be complimentary with confidence. If you don't believe what you are saying or are just reaching for a compliment to reciprocate, it will fall flat, even with the best of intentions. You sound like a good person blessed with beauty. Just let you kindness and appreciation of others count more than anything else and it will be fine.
posted by katemcd at 6:44 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

[Folks, this derail needs to stop right here and I am sorry about that.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:20 PM on June 27, 2012

I agree with PhoBWanKenobi, the negative body talk is disturbing. I find it troubling when people run themselves down and I'll ask them why they're doing it. "Why do you run yourself down? I think you're very good-looking" or similar.
posted by BibiRose at 7:56 PM on June 27, 2012

It seems like you have a rather high-maintenance look so it wouldn't be surprising that women would notice and be more likely to pay you compliments, because they can tell that you are willing to spend the time and effort on makeup, style and generally being put together.

So that's why it seems appropriate to them, they can tell it matters to you and you spend the time. I think they are really just trying to appreciate that and the self-deprecating stuff is just being friendly.

Sometimes I think about the number of hours - many, many, many hours thinking, and shopping, and reading magazines and advice, and surfing fashion blogs - that I've spent developing a particular personal style and worrying about whether it was feminine enough or not. The goal is to look like I don't try too hard, but for crying out loud, I could have learned advanced Photoshop and Illustrator or another foreign language or joined an activist community or produced a series of essays or become an expert in a field of public policy. The space this stuff takes up in your life can really hold women back in my opinion.
posted by citron at 9:57 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

People do this to me, and I hate it. The other person thinks (or claims to think) they are complimenting me, when really I feel like they're saying "Hey, I know this is completely unsolicited but, just wanted to let you know that the way you look makes me feel bad about myself."

Making comments on other people's appearances used to be considered extremely rude. Now total strangers thinks it's my business to know what they think about how I look and how it makes them feel.

These women are not blameless. They feel bad, so they want you to feel bad. Don't feel guilty. They decided to make a comparison between your appearances, not you.
posted by thebazilist at 10:02 PM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think you asked this question in good faith, DS, but don't read so much into people being less than kind. You need to sift through and take the good advice that works for you from the bad.

One thing that I think you were honing in on when you posed this question is that some people compliment you and it may come from a place of sincere envy. And sometimes people consciously or unconsciously want to make you feel a bit guilty. You know the saying: "What helps a bad mood? Spreading it around." Same sort of thing. And guess what? It works. You feel guilty and then maybe a little defensive. BUT, that's not what everyone is doing so for your own mental health and to make the world a better place, it is best to assume the best of people and respond in kind. But no need to go beyond that.

One of the other insidious things in our culture in regards to women besides that we must all be beautiful and fuckable at all times (but not too much! Slut!) is that we must also be responsible for how people feel about us. It is really, really hard to let that one go. And if you do let it go, people will maybe call you a cold bitch. We are the weaker sex until we cross some invisible line and then we are the worst kind of ball-breakers. Anyway, my larger point is, you aren't responsible for how people feel about you. So, be kind, yes, but don't lay yourself down for other people to walk on.

And if one of your boozing, lazy friends (I'm teasing here, okay?) keeps on about your appearance? I call that kind of person an emotional vampire. Just cut those conversations off. Because that is a person who wants to make you feel crappy.
posted by amanda at 10:02 AM on June 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

I responded by saying that I thought her eyes were beautiful and when she tried to argue with me I just went on about how she was truly gorgeous. She smiled and said that talking to me always makes her feel pretty. I left the interaction feeling awful and wondering what I should be saying in these situations?

The first two sentances and the third really odn't seem to fit here - but I'm not sure where the disconnect is. From my perspective, she complemented your looks, then indicated you made her feel she was attractive as well, and you were left feeling bad about that; there might be something to why you felt bad. Do you feel responsible for other people's perspectives/baggage in some way which is playing itself out in these interactions? Something odd is going on in that spot in your reactions, imo, and you mgiht learn valuable things if you figure out what's going on.
posted by Deoridhe at 11:47 AM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Well, you're wrong about your features not being beautiful, so you might be exaggerating a bit in describing what you like about me. There's too many people talking about our appearance anyway; I tell you what -- let's split the difference and agree we're both great people who are lucky to have run into each other today!"
posted by anildash at 9:46 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

My advice is to work on taking it less personally. Give yourself permission not to feel guilty/sad/etc when you find yourself in these interactions, and follow the thanks-now-changing-subject route. Otherwise you're sort of trapping yourself into constantly picking up other people's baggage driven by generations of cultural bigotry, when really it sounds like you could be enjoying a more productive use of that time.

I'm saying this as an ugly duckling who grew up to be "beautiful", with people letting me know it throughout both phases. My experience has taught me how shallowly people DO look at others. I figure if it can go so easily from one extreme to the other without me actually doing anything (I feel like I look the same as I did as a kid, just older now), then it's probably other people's baggage (which was definitely more clear in my ugly days) and not worth my time focussing on too much. YMMV.
posted by human ecologist at 2:02 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older Help me hook my friend up! TV as a computer...   |   I don't even want to know how bad I am. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.