Guest post: Compliments aren’t something separate from this problem

Originally a comment by Salty Current on Nail polish.

I think part of the problem is the conflation of identity with all of the cultural baggage that’s come to be associated with being a man or a woman. I’ve always felt that I’m a woman, felt that my woman’s body was “right,” and this has never had anything whatsoever to do with my preferences, interests, emotions, or abilities. I didn’t question whether I was a boy because I liked sports and math and had no interest in dolls or having children. I wasn’t confirmed in my girlness because I nurtured (stuffed and real) animals or liked playing with other girls or dancing. The thought that I might actually be a boy simply never occurred to me, and in the years since, as I’ve learned about people whose experience was very different, I understood them but still never shared that experience. And I believe this is true of everyone: people understand their identity, however complex that might be; they don’t develop that identity on the basis of what they like or what interests them. I’m sometimes a man in my dreams, but I don’t wake up confused about my identity.

I just don’t think there’s a connection – I don’t think trans women know they’re women because they like nail polish or weddings or whatever is associated with women in their culture. I think they know they’re women, and then, like everyone else in the culture, often have (stupid) ideas about what that entails.

None of the nonsense associating women with some things and men with others is the fault of trans people. They can reproduce it, as we all can, but the problem is with the culture generally. So when I as a feminist challenge some aspect of patriarchy – including the media or public response to a trans woman – I’m not trying to lay the problem at their door.

I didn’t read the Jezebel thing, or your post about it, Ophelia, or any of the surrounding arguments, but I did read Alex Gabriel’s post here at FTB, and in general I don’t think I agreed. I almost commented at his blog, but pretty quickly decided it was a bad idea given the probable appearance of the asshole flash mob. You’d think they’d have enough spaces what with Pharyngula, the Pharyngula FB group, the Atheism+ forum, all of their own FB pages, etc., etc. But no – they have to swarm comment threads everywhere they can (where have I seen that before…?) to squelch discussion by launching attacks and throwing out misrepresentations. I’m not at all happy with Gabriel for giving them another space in which to do it.

Anyway, I found his post strange and unconvincing. He asks at one point something like “Are compliments only acceptable for cis white women?” It’s a bizarre question. The point isn’t about compliments, but about a culture we inhabit as women. Women raised as girls,* from the very moment we’re born, are responded to based on our appearance. We’re looked at, watched, assessed, compared, judged, commented on in our presence or absence, chastised, warned about our fate as we age, instructed on how to be properly decorative, and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. And we see this happen to other women. There’s no escape, and it’s unimaginably tedious. We all have one life, and we have to put up with this bullshit?

Compliments aren’t something separate from this problem – they’re part of it. Within this system, every compliment carries several messages to women: “I have the right to assess and comment upon your appearance,” “You should heed my opinion,” “Your value is in how you look,” “You should respond positively,” “You can always face a different judgment,” and occasionally “I’m threatening.” In this perverse environment, some compliments I outwardly greet with a smile meet with an internal “Go fuck yourself.” But like almost every woman, I’ve been shaped by this culture – of course I can’t just leave it behind practically speaking, but I also can’t just erase all of my responses to it.

And this is terrible. We all like compliments. In all cultures, people work to make themselves attractive (and this can be fun when it’s not felt as an obligation or necessity or impossibility), and enjoy it when others express appreciation for their efforts. But our system of appreciation of physical beauty is so distorted in so many ways, and especially when it comes to women, that we can’t separate even an ostensibly complimentary focus on a woman’s appearance from it. I would trade never being on the receiving end of another compliment for an end to this system, for a culture in which equality reigns, in which appearance is just one part of how everyone is seen, in which tastes aren’t shaped by commercial interests, in which “dressing up” is for special events, in which no one is derided or held back for not measuring up to anyone else’s standards of attractiveness.

So…the cover. I’ll say at the outset that I’m thrilled for Caitlyn Jenner. I hope she lives in happiness every moment of her liberation, with her family by her side. I’m also thrilled for the innumerable other trans people her brave decision will help. I’m not interested in her political views, which, judging by the Sawyer interview, are fairly conservative rubbish. But I honestly had forgotten even that she was an Olympic athlete. When I googled and was reminded, I had a memory of the 1976 Olympics, at which Bruce Jenner won the decathlon. I was glued to the gymnastics, where 14-year-old Nadia Comăneci received a perfect 10 and the gold. I was awed. When they had a tour of the gymnastics Olympians across the US, my best friend and I went and were enthralled. They were strong, athletic, and impressive girls. Not once did I think they were boys, or that we were boys for thinking how fantastic it was. It was just another step in the “this is part of what it is or can be to be a woman – we’re not restricted” advance.

I won’t judge Caitlyn Jenner on her choices; nor do I think she’s responsible for all of the commentary that surrounds the VF cover. I’m not saying she did it wrong. But she was a world class athlete. It would have been amazing had the cover shown her running (does she still? does she have injuries?) or doing something athletic. It would have been great had she contributed to the understanding that “woman” is expansive, not an essence but an existence, not a corset but a leap.

* Obviously the identity-experience issue is complicated: men raised as girls and women raised as boys, for example, have more complex experiences.

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