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Hate getting reeled in by hotness only to get snapped at for objectifying women? I hate that too.

What gets commented on most for me? My long hair. Photo by H. Root.
What gets commented on most for me? My long hair. Photo by H. Root.

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about how giving compliments (specifically to women) can avoid pitfalls that feel very bait-and-switch-y, yet actually arise from established and valid concerns over gendered hierarchy and oppression.

For example, I will never snap at someone for giving me a compliment…but I will take issue with how said compliment is phrased, if it implies that I owe it to the world to look or act a certain way. I don’t owe it to anyone to wear makeup or not, dress femme or not, style my hair a certain way or not… you get the idea.

Further, I take issue with the idea that if I “put myself out there” in some fashion then I need to accept whatever is said to me. There’s a long history and a deep ickiness of women’s bodies that are visible in public being regarded as public property, available for commenting, touching, and so on. As I’ve written, being sex-positive in public, or sexy in public, doesn’t mean you deserve harassment or anything, really.

The take-home is that we (women, feminists, people with bodies in public) are not trying to do a bait-and-switch by presenting ourselves for comment and then responding to said comment. Okay, there might be a small number of people doing just that, but it’s immature and ultimately not that helpful. If you feel drawn to that, ask why. Maybe briefly engage in the behavior to get it out of your system and then move on.

There’s a certain amount of bodily autonomy that men get in public, where fashion choices and aesthetic endeavors are not questioned or commented on nearly as often as those of women (yes, I know there are realms where masculine presentation is hyper-policed, like in occupational arenas and the military, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). But one of the main tenets of studying body art and body image is that people use dress and adornment to express various facets of their identity. Reception and response by others is part of that whole system, and so when reception and response are patterned in specific ways, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s a well-intentioned person of any gender to do? The first step is to not be prescriptive (I know, me telling you not to be prescriptive is in fact being prescriptive, ah well). And I’ll link you to this guide on complimenting women by my sex ed colleague Charlie Glickman.

And finally, I’ll point out that if your compliment has a prescriptive element to it, maybe reconsider whether it’s a compliment at all. Saying something nice to someone as a prelude to telling them what they should or should not do is the real bait-and-switch here, in my opinion… so stop laying that accusation at the feet of feminists!

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Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...