September 12, 2013 Leave a comment
We’ve been talking about looking at women respectfully around The Good Men Project. The Good Men’s top post right now is about a dad who is thinking about how he will explain to his son that, “It is a woman’s responsibility to dress herself in the morning. It is your responsibility to look at her like a human being regardless of what she is wearing.” Then in a really great discussion today among a few of the writers, one man explained that he’s confused by what he is supposed to do when confronted with a woman who is dressed in beautiful or sexy attire. My understanding of what he said was that he feels like women work to get attention for being attractive—but he is not supposed to look too much or compliment them on that attractiveness. This is a man with a Ph.D. in psychology from one of those really impressive schools and decades of working with gender roles. If he’s confused, I’m betting almost everyone is.
I think the problem is that we confuse the system with the individual. We confuse the unhealthy wants with the healthy needs. Our culture teaches and enforces that a woman’s value is in her ability and willingness to be attractive. It’s so universal, that when you meet a little girl you compliment her on how pretty she is, or how cute her dress is. I caught myself doing this not long ago and I know better. It’s an easy default when you don’t know someone. It’s the easy opener, it seems nice and it doesn’t ask them to talk to you except to thank you as if you’ve just done something for them.
I want to challenge you to think of complimenting women you are not in a relationship with as you would think of force-feeding candy to a diabetic. Yes, they may want the candy badly sometimes, even if they know it’s making them sick. You are not being kind or noble to give it to them. I know it feels good, as if you’ve done something positive. You think “I made her day.” It’s comfortable to say something “nice” about something so shallow, so accepted. Most women will find cheap pleasure in the complement or pretend to. So either way you don’t have to be mindful of what you are saying, you can just roll out the ‘old compliment them on their looks’ thing and move on. If a woman has any reaction but gratitude you get to say she’s being a bitch and feel superior because you were only being “nice.”
The problem with that is, you are not being kind. Everyone has an innate need to be valued and so often women are told the only value they have a chance of achieving is with their ability to attract male attention. People need to feel seen. Women and girls are often trained to believe that the only way to be seen is to be attractive to the eye. Men, you can related to this, right? Men and boys are often told they only have value in how well they provide, in how invulnerable they are, in how successful they are.
Some people are probably saying “But some women like it! Why shouldn’t I give it to them if it makes us both feel good?” If you only care for your own “good feeling” then I hope you’ll spend some time thinking about why you would feel good doing something even if it feeds into someone’s unhealthy attention-seeking.
Other people may say, “But it does make her feel good.” This is where the analogy to candy comes back. You can get pleasure from being complemented. You can get pleasure from eating candy. You can get pleasure from using hard-core drugs. Pleasure is not an indication of health.
For some women, compliments on her looks are like having a candy bar. Not good for her but not that harmful, if she’s not having too much. For some women compliments on her looks can be like a candy bar every day for a diabetic, slowly and maybe silently damaging and undermining their health. For some women, compliments on looks are like crack. They hold a serious high at first, but eventually they are brought down to doing anything to get the next compliment, the next bit of attention. They need them just to try to feel somewhere near OK for just a moment.
Now I bet quite a few of you are going “WTF? Over dramatic much?!?” That’s OK with me because I’m not one of the women for whom compliments are an addiction or a disease. I got lucky, I was never abused as a child and I was always in the middle. I was never the pretty one, never told I was worthy because of how pretty I was. Nor was I ever the girl who was told she was ugly, sold the illusion that if she was pretty she would be worth something. I look around at the women around me and I feel like the one in a war zone who managed to not get hit by anything too serious. This isn’t personal to me, I get to be the reporter on the inside without being one of the badly wounded.
Since I’m not one of the badly wounded, I don’t have a personal story to share with you about seeking compliments while hating myself for doing so. But I sure see and hear enough of those stories. There are the stories from my girlfriends, most of whom have many times starved themselves in unhealthy ways, sacrificing their bodies in attempts to be attractive. There are the stories told by the bodies of the women I see around me who have taken their complement seeking to the extreme of plastic surgery. Sometimes to the extreme of living a life with not one part of them OK as it is. I see these women and they have covered themselves in makeup and fake tans, covered their smell with perfume, covered their eyes with contacts, covered their hair in dye and products, covered their body in things to change their very shape. Not one part of them is allowed to just be, not one part of them is OK as it is.
Do you want to play into that?
I am sure there are some of you who are saying “Well, if they say they like it, why should I believe you?” You are absolutely right. If you know someone well enough to have talked to them about this and they have said that they find compliments to their looks healthy or no big deal, respect that. But if you don’t know someone, I’m asking you to consider that even if they seem to be seeking attention and compliments, it may not be as simple as you think.
I’m not sure how many of you know this, but there are women who dress attractively not to be noticed by men but to avoid being harassed. Women who do not conform to society’s idea of attractive are, in different ways and amounts, treated badly. Sometimes it’s just a matter of “more attractive/gender conforming = more privilege” but there are times when not being what society says women should be gets you abused or harassed. Sometimes it has to do with how much you weigh, sometimes it has to do with not wearing makeup or not shaving your legs, sometimes it’s the clothes you wear. On rare occasion not conforming to the expectation that you will do your best to be attractive puts women in danger of being assaulted.
Often it involves people telling you what you should be doing with your body. “Hey! Smile for me, it’ll make you beautiful!” or “Women should always wear jeans, they look sloppy in track pants” Sometimes it involves things like, “Let’s punch a fat person to see if they have feelings!” These are real examples BTW. If women don’t want that kind of attention they may not wear casual clothes to run to the store again, and the next man may say, “if she didn’t want attention why did she dress up to go to the store?” It’s a lose-lose situation for women.
It’s a lose-lose situation for men, too. Chances are that if you compliment a woman you don’t know on her looks you are very likely either irritating her or playing into dysfunctional dynamics she has going on. So what is the solution? How about if you just make it a point to never compliment a woman on her looks unless you know her well enough to know she is OK with it coming from you? You may even find that once you take that option off the table, you find much more interesting ways to engage a woman in discussion. If you have no interest in engaging her in discussion…don’t talk to her.
I know this is complicated, any time you have someone who seems to want something and then says they don’t it’s confusing. It’s often confusing for the women who are doing it too. But I don’t think they are alone. I think that some men have a similar issue. Only for men it is not wanting to be desired for money. They truly do not want to be wanted because they have money. Yet the car they drive, the clothes they wear and the things they do are often an advertisement for the fact that they have money (even when they don’t). Does that mean that it’s healthy or acceptable for women to be with them for their money? I don’t think so. I don’t buy “she was asking for it” and I don’t buy “he was asking for it” either. In any situation. We all have the responsibility for our own actions.
How you treat people is about who you are. It is NOT about who they are or what you think they want or deserve.
I’m interested to know if you can think of other areas men do this? Leave a comment on something you do or that you’ve seen other men do that advertises themselves for something they do not want to be valued for. I’m looking forward to a thoughtful insightful discussion.
Photo B Tal/Flickr