The Objectifying Compliment

I don’t think I’m alone in greeting the unofficial start of summer with slight trepidation. In addition to all the lovely things about the warm weather and proliferation of outdoor activities now possible, summer makes it all but impossible to avoid putting one’s body on display. As a woman already loathe to be objectified and cat-called, I have a twinge of discomfort every time I leave my house in a sundress because I know it’s literally a matter of minutes before I am deflated and reminded that while I see myself as a person with thoughts and valuable experiences to offer the world, I become walking genitalia to many men. Something about summer exaggerates the tendency to objectify women, and the overall amount of visible flesh seems to invite much more commentary and criticism than in other seasons.

I thought it was just my own prudish hang-up, but it seems like every day I see more and more articles like this one about women being objectified every minute of every day and the downright predatory behavior that becomes normalized in the summer. The solution isn’t sartorial, and it’s not women’s fault. For every one example a man might point out of a woman seeking attention by dressing or acting a certain way, I can easily find thousands of women who just want to go to work and home and not have to talk about their breasts that day. I’ve written about the ripple effect of objectifying microaggressions before, and now that I am working out of my home I am both relieved of the constant, daily barrage of comments and less guarded or inoculated when they do happen. At least it’s mostly strangers?

A boyfriend once explained that it’s a biological imperative for heterosexual men to look at women’s bodies, and that when more of it shows, you notice it more. I agreed that at a certain size, no matter how many cleavage-concealing camisoles and cardigans you wear over dresses, or how baggy one’s clothes, breasts are just an unavoidably obvious part of torso topography… but the same could be said for a penis, which is sort of the definition of projecting off the body. Somehow, I countered, I was able to speak with men in bathing suits or running shorts without staring at their crotches the whole time, and at work I could be around an attractive colleague without constantly checking out his butt or imagining laying my head on his shoulders or spending half of my conversations with him distracted by picturing him naked.

“Yes, but as a man when you see a beautiful woman,” my boyfriend claimed, “you see the woman first, before you see your coworker.” I want him to be wrong, but I kind of get it. We have uniquely visceral responses to visual stimuli, and sometimes it’s involuntary. But that doesn’t mean it has to be shared. I think that’s the point where it becomes objectifying, especially when examining the reasons why men speak to women about their bodies when and how they do.

Lorenzo Lotto, Venus and Cupid, c. 1526, oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I was thinking about the lament of men who want to pay compliments but don’t want to seem predatory this weekend when a woman wearing a beautiful dress was standing by my mother and me outside of the Met before a ballet. It was clear she liked her dress and had taken care to put herself together nicely. When she turned toward us, my mom said, “Excuse me, I just want to tell you we’ve been admiring your dress, and it’s lovely!” Two other women next to us piped up and said, “We were just saying the same thing!” The woman in the dress smiled, thanked us, said it was new and she really liked it, chatted for a moment about the print, and we all wished each other a nice day.

I thought about what made that exchange pleasant, compared with the way I’d felt an hour earlier when a guy talked about my skirt in a way that made me wish I could Purell my brain. For one thing, none of us wanted to have sex with this woman (as far as I know) so the intent really was just to compliment her style. We didn’t talk about her body or the fit of her dress, no one assessed whether it was flattering or not, and we weren’t passive-aggressively underscoring a power dynamic with approval or disapproval of her appearance (I’ll come back to that point). No one asked where she got it or introduced any economic points about quality or cost. We just stopped at the compliment and, I hope, gave her a smile and a good feeling as she went on to enjoy her day.

I talked with my mother a bit about how sometimes compliments can make you feel worse, and we discussed the article linked above. I mentioned an older woman who never failed to compliment my outfits or shoes when she saw me, but always did it in a way that made me feel like I’d just barely passed her approval. It didn’t ever feel like a true compliment, rather that she was making me aware that she was always looking and judging. Friends and boyfriends too have (intentionally or not) fallen into paying objectifying compliments, where I feel more slapped in the face than admired. I know I’ve done it to other people, said one too many too-specific things about the fit of clothes or how flattering an outfit was instead of just saying they looked great. I always feel terrible afterwards because it’s never my intent to make people feel bad with a compliment. But that is not true for many people.

© AMC, Mad Men – “You can’t dress the way you do and expect… You can’t have it both ways.”
“So what you’re saying is I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you, and that’s very, very true.”
(Also this article is a good read. I miss Mad Men.)

I’ve had male coworkers and bosses pay objectifying compliments more times than I can count, especially when they were uncertain of the power dynamic. To put me in my place they talked almost compulsively about how “pretty” everything I wore was, as if I were six years old and twirling for their approval, or spoke at length about how flattering a dress or hairstyle was. Frequently vendors would talk to me like we were in a bar and they were trying their hardest to pick me up, and I wondered if they would talk to the physicist heading our team the same way about his tie or how nicely his jeans fit. In my younger days and when my bosses didn’t respect me either, I blamed myself – I must be acting too childishly to be taken seriously – but I wasn’t doing anything wrong. The comments were meant to objectify me in the guise of a compliment, and the intent was to take away my dignity.

I mentioned this issue to a supervisor once, saying it made me feel belittled and uncomfortable that every time I interacted with someone he talked almost exclusively about my clothes and appearance, and she dismissed it as paranoia, saying he was probably just trying to be collegial (he wasn’t) and that I wasn’t being harassed because he was gay (it wasn’t ever about liking me). I said I’d prefer if he didn’t say anything to me at all than if he talked about my appearance every day, and she said I should imagine it was another coworker, who was a friend, paying the compliment – would I react so negatively? The clear difference was that this friend never paid creepy, power-dynamic objectifying compliments, rather infrequent statements of, “Those are cool shoes” or, “I like your earrings,” and it never came with the full-body dressing-down of approval or disapproval, reminding me of my economic status compared to his, or belittling effect of underscoring the primacy of my appearance to my actions every time he saw me.

Gustave Courbet, Jo, La Belle Irlandaise, c.1865-6. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Even when we try to be supportive and empowering, we still cut women down. My cousin is a bad-ass, confident, awesome young woman who speaks her mind. I won’t get too much into it because it’s her story to tell, but she recently spoke up about an event poster that made a joke about date rape / drugging your date, and she called it out for what it was. A friend of the event organizer sent her a private message body-shaming her in a really disgusting way, and when she reposted it, it became clear that he was messaging every woman who said anything in a similar way, followed with a hollow apology unknowingly acknowledging that he was using attacks on women’s appearances to try to shut them up.

I was so proud of my cousin for speaking up and refusing to let someone take away her voice, and then I started cringing at all the other comments rolling in on her post, reassuring her how beautiful she was. I know that the people complimenting her love and adore her the way I do, and they wanted to encourage and support her, but she was never asking for validation that she was beautiful (she is, but that is besides the point) or healthy at her weight (same) or “still sexy” no matter what a body-shaming creep on the internet says. The more I read, the more I felt it was two sides of the same coin – in showing their support and love, they were objectifying her just as much as the body-shamer was. Although they were talking about her appearance positively and trying to say he was wrong, they were still making the conversation about her and her appearance, not about how important it is to speak up for women’s dignity and stand against rape culture.

It can feel like a no-win situation. I know that my father loves and respects me as a person, that he has proclaimed himself my biggest fan, and that it breaks his heart when I am mistreated in life. And yet, occasionally when we are talking he’ll interrupt me to say I look beautiful, that I should wear that outfit to the bar in my neighborhood and see guys line up to talk with me, or that my hair looks pretty. I know there is nothing but love in his heart, but I also know he wouldn’t interrupt my brother to compliment him that way, no matter how handsome he looks.

I don’t believe people always mean to objectify women as much as we do, but we’re socialized in a way that still very much treats women as decorative objects and products. I remember when I was learning about eating disorders and reading about the suggestion that images in fashion and advertising affect women’s self-image (duh, of course they do) I wondered if the bigger problem is the way they reinforce men’s tendencies to objectify women and hold them to a certain warped standard. At age 12, I could see how ridiculous it was to idealize and glamorize a pre-pubescent body type for adult women, but the leering grown men at the beach who were staring at my body couldn’t. I still can’t wrap my head around the adult women who were openly jealous and started treating me like I was trying to steal their husbands the summer I developed breasts.

By my 30s, I have now had boyfriends offering advice on exfoliation, easing pain from waxing, ways I should adjust my diet or exercise to improve muscle tone, which swimsuit styles they think would best flatter my figure, and so many other insipid and shallow topics it feels like I am dating Cosmo. Why do men think I want to talk about my appearance with them or hear all their thoughts on how I could improve it? Is it their fault they have so many opinions on my clothes, shoes, hair, skin, teeth, fitness level, etc., or are they just part of a distorted, objectifying global conversation that treats women this way?

In just about every television show or movie, it’s shown as romantic and sexy when men pay women objectifying compliments. And when it’s a welcome advance (i.e. coming from a handsome man perceived as non-threatening and a viable partner) women don’t always respond negatively, myself included. I like when men who are sincerely interested in me pay me compliments, and I like when the guys I’m dating find me attractive and say so, but only if it’s included with interest in my thoughts, sense of humor, kindness, talents, generosity of spirit, or whatever other qualities they find attractive. I lose interest pretty much immediately in men who objectify me, but I see a lot of women who are happy to be objectified when it’s by a handsome and successful man they’d like to date or marry. It’s two sides of the same problem, and it’s hard to be vigilant about objectification if it seems harmless.

If we allow ourselves to be treated as objects – and more precisely, commodities – then we are sealing our fate as second-class citizens. I think it is time to stop doing it to our friends and daughters with objectifying compliments and to teach men how to talk respectfully with women as equals. It’s totally possible to compliment someone’s style or beauty without taking away her dignity, if the intent is pure. We need to take away the power dynamic of objectification by calling it out for what it is, and I think men would do well to examine their true intents when they’re inclined to sidle up to a woman and talk about how her body looks in a dress. I also think we need to stop supporting companies that use objectification in their advertising, full-on. Really, we’re long overdue to insist that women be treated with the respect we deserve.

4 thoughts on “The Objectifying Compliment

  1. David Sheahan

    This is a wonderfully large canvas of gender dynamics and rings in a call for behavioral changes that are long past due. With any luck, as our culture advances and becomes less and less brutish, behaviors and roles will continue on their upward path. Men will allow themselves to be less combative and more decorative (as it seems they already have, to a degree); there will be power struggles, yes, but wounds will be neatly sealed off and added to one’s unique self-presentation.

  2. Vicki Post author

    Heh, social scarring, the hottest trend for spring 2017. Amazingly, the response to criticism over objectifying women in television and fashion seems not to be presenting women with fuller complexity and humanity, but instead to just objectify men more. That’s why we get to look at a warty penis on Game of Thrones and are told we should celebrate it as equality and progress. :-/

  3. Allena Backhuus

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    Contraversial maybe, however severely, this is called a “trial” historically, and logically.


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