Ah, spring. What a wonderful time of the year. Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping, terrified college students are graduating, and dudes on the internet are pondering that age-old philosophical question: “But whyyyyy can’t I tell that random girl on the street that she looks hot?”
It seems that men are finally starting to realize that many women do not like street harassment (or, in the parlance of the uninitiated, “unsolicited compliments about a stranger’s appearance”). This is really great and a sign that activists are doing a good job.
However, predictably, I’ve also seen a surge of men desperately trying to find loopholes so that they can still, yes, give women their irrelevant and unasked-for opinion on their appearance. Hence all the “But what if I say it this way? But what if I say it that way? But what if I make it REALLY CLEAR that I’m NOT TRYING TO BE CREEPY? But why can’t I just give a girl a compliment for crying out loud?”
Okay. Before I say what I’m going to say, here are some things I’m NOT saying:
- Finding a random woman attractive makes you a Bad Person.
- Wanting to tell her she’s attractive makes you a Bad Person.
- Every time you compliment a random woman on her appearance, it makes her uncomfortable/scared.
- Every time you compliment a random woman on her appearance, that is harassment.
Here’s what I AM going to say:
- If you find yourself really invested in the idea of complimenting random women on the street, you should do some serious soul-searching and figure out why that idea appeals to you so much.
- It may very well be possible to compliment a woman you don’t know on her appearance in an appropriate way.
- But, if you choose to compliment a random woman on her appearance, you run a high risk of making her uncomfortable/scared, even if she doesn’t show any outward signs of it. Are you willing to take that chance?
- If you choose to compliment a random woman on her appearance, you may be harassing her.
So, about really wanting to compliment random women on the street. I’ve seen this attitude from many guys that women “deserve” compliments when they look good or that they “should” feel better about themselves, and it bothers me for many reasons that are articulated very well in this article.
The idea that women are all wallowing in a miserable pool of their own insecurity and desperately need a man to come save them by giving them compliments is really just a modern take on the Prince Charming fairytale. Yes, many women are insecure. Most of them are insecure not because no guy has ever expressed a desire to fuck them, but because of the dangerously unrealistic standards our society sets for women’s appearance and for the behaviors they must perform in order to maintain that appearance.
So as nice as it would be if all that could be solved by noble, kind-hearted men taking valuable time out of their day to compliment female passerby on their appearance, that’s not gonna happen. Women don’t need men to save us from insecurity. We need to stand up and speak out ourselves against the ways in which our culture keeps us fearful and insecure, and the ways in which we help it to do so.
Of course, this is rarely, if ever, what it’s really about when men “compliment” women they don’t know on how they look. If it were, then the collective male response to women’s advocacy about street harassment and our insistence that these “compliments” make many women feel violated, scrutinized, and afraid, would be, “Oh fuck, sorry, I had no idea. I’m going to think very carefully before doing this again, if at all.”
And really, how often is that really the response?
Usually, it’s a little more along the lines of, “Oh come onnnn, it was just a compliment, why can’t you just say thank you, why can’t I tell a girl she looks good, why’s everybody so over-sensitive these days.”
So it’s not really about making me feel nice, now is it? If this is your response to our opinions and you’re still claiming that you “just want to make a girl feel good about herself,” then this is a serious look-at-your-life-look-at-your-choices moment for you. Because maybe it’s not really about making people feel good. It’s about making yourself feel good, about feeling the power that comes with judging and expressing opinions about a woman’s looks–even if those opinions are positive.
Here’s the thing. Men in our culture have been socialized to believe that their opinions on women’s appearance matter a lot. Not all men buy into this, of course, but many do. Some seem incapable of entertaining the notion that not everything women do with their appearance is for men to look at. This is why men’s response to women discussing stifling beauty norms is so often something like “But I actually like small boobs!” and “But I actually like my women on the heavier side, if you know what I mean!” They don’t realize that their individual opinion on women’s appearance doesn’t matter in this context, and that while it might be reassuring for some women to know that there are indeed men who find them fuckable, that’s not the point of the discussion.
Women, too, have been socialized to believe that the ultimate arbiters of their appearance are men, that anything they do with their appearance is or should be “for men.” That’s why women’s magazines trip over themselves to offer up advice on “what he wants to see you wearing” and “what men think of these current fashion trends” and “wow him with these new hairstyles.” While women can and do judge each other’s appearance harshly, many of us grew up being told by mothers, sisters, and female strangers that we’ll never “get a man” or “keep a man” unless we do X or lose some fat from Y, unless we moisturize//trim/shave/push up/hide/show/”flatter”/paint/dye/exfoliate/pierce/surgically alter this or that.
That’s also why when a woman wears revealing clothes, it’s okay, in our society, to assume that she’s “looking for attention” or that she’s a slut and wants to sleep with a bunch of guys. Because why else would a woman wear revealing clothes if not for the benefit of men and to communicate her sexual availability to them, right? It can’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that it’s hot out or it’s more comfortable or she likes how she looks in it or everything else is in the laundry or she wants to get a tan or maybe she likes women and wants attention from them, not from men?
The result of all this is that many men, even kind and well-meaning men, believe, however subconsciously, that women’s bodies are for them. They are for them to look at, for them to pass judgment on, for them to bless with a compliment if they deign to do so. They are not for women to enjoy, take pride in, love, accept, explore, show off, or hide as they please. They are for men and their pleasure.
Some men who want to compliment random women on the street are genuinely good guys who just don’t understand why their comments might be unwelcome. Some men who want to compliment random women on the street are creepy predators. Most are somewhere in between, and guess what? I don’t know you, I don’t know your life, and I have no idea if you’re going to leave it at “Hey, you look good in that dress!” or follow it up with “But you’d look better without it! Har har! C’mon, where’re you going? I know you heard me! Fucking cunt, nobody wants your fat ass anyway, bitch.”
When you compliment a random woman who doesn’t know you, no matter how nice you are about it, there’s a good chance she’s going to freak out internally because for all she knows, you could be that latter type. And I get that it’s really unfair that women would just assume that about you. I get that it sucks that sometimes, expressing totally reasonable opinions like “hey you’re hot” will make women terrified of you or furious at you. That’s not fair.
But if you’re going to lay the blame for that somewhere, for fuck’s sake, don’t blame the woman. Blame all the guys who have called her a bitch and a cunt for ignoring their advances. Blame all the guys who may have harassed, abused, or assaulted her in the past. Blame all the people who may never do such a thing themselves, but who were quick to blame her and tell her to just get over it. Blame the fact that if she stops and talks to you and then something bad happens, people will blame her for stopping and talking to you.
In a perfect world, none of this would happen. In a perfect world, you could tell a woman she’s hot and she would smile and say thank you because there would be no millenia-long history of women’s bodies being used and abused by men, no notion of women’s beauty as being “for” men, no ridiculous beauty standards. Complimenting a woman on her appearance would be just like complimenting a person on their bike or their shoes or the color of their hair; it would not carry all the baggage that it carries in this world.
But that’s not our world, and it may never be. Yeah, it sucks that women often take it “the wrong way” when you give them unsolicited compliments. You know what sucks more? Yup, patriarchy.
So, guys, if you find yourself wanting to compliment a random woman you do not know and who is not asking for your opinion, ask yourself this: why does your opinion on her appearance matter?
Why do you absolutely need to express that opinion, even knowing that it might make her uncomfortable?
Why is it her responsibility to deal with that potential discomfort or “get over it,” not your responsibility to keep your opinions to yourself unless they are relevant or solicited?
And, most importantly–if complimenting people matters so much to you, why not compliment a female friend who knows and trusts you? Hell, why not compliment another man?
Look. When women want your opinion on how we look, we will ask for it. But I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.
Note: I’ve written about street harassment before and I’ve tried not to repeat any of the same arguments, but regardless, you should read that piece if you’ve ever heard a guy say–or been the guy who said–“Yeah, well, I’d LOVE it if women ‘harassed’ ME on the street!”
Update: Hello, new readers! Please take note of my comment policy. I’m pretty strict about it and let’s just say that quite a few of you are failing to follow it! :)