“Take a compliment!”

That’s what the older gentleman called out to me as I was buying lunch at the beach. I had on a tank top and a maxi skirt. That’s all it took to warrant him shouting out to me in public, “You got a nice shape, baby!” For the first few seconds after, I felt so uncomfortable. It was one thing for a close friend or family member to say that I look good; it’s another to hear it from a random stranger in a loud populated area, for all to hear. Deciding to not let him get away with such callous behavior, I confidently shouted back at him, “Go away!”

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Hearing that I wasn’t giving him positive reinforcement to what he thought was a gesture of good will, I heard him shout back at me, “Take a compliment! People these days don’t know how to take a compliment!” He continued to walk down the pier voicing his anger that I rejected his “compliment”. I could hear him still shouting several feet away from me that, more or less, I should be grateful that someone said nice things about my figure, that I should be nice, et cetera, et cetera.

And then it happened–– I started to feel bad. I started thinking to myself, “Was it compliment? Maybe he was just being nice. He didn’t say anything vulgar to me. Was my reaction rude? How would someone react?” And honestly, I’m still having those thoughts.

I grew up thinking my body was not my own. I was sexually abused as a child and growing up as a woman in a large city, being catcalled at was part of my daily reality. I remember walking down the street with my mother when I was in high school and a man shouted at me, “Damn, you got a nice ass!” My mother and I laughed it off, after calling him a creep, but I still felt dirty. Another time, I was walking out of the train when a man coming toward me commented, “You’re lookin’ fine!” Once, I recalled to my mother how a young professional businessman walked up alongside me and commented on my skin and asked about my ethnicity. Which doesn’t sound invasive, but I had headphones in and he purposely followed me and walked within my private space, shoulder to shoulder. My mother’s response? “Well, how else are men supposed to get to know you?”

All these experiences have reinforced the notion that my body is not my own. Because of that, I frequently doubt my anger when men comment on my appearances. I think myself rude when I respond back and rebuff catcalls. And even when I don’t say anything, I give these men the benefit of the doubt. I say to myself, Maybe they do find me attractive and are just being nice. But I logically know that I’m right and justified in feeling violated. Still, it’s hard to know that mentally and emotionally.

It’s hard to empower yourself after a lifetime of insecurity. Every time I have the courage to speak up and speak out, I doubt myself. But at least I’m speaking out. I’ll figure out a way to be confident in reclaiming my body and who gets to speak on it. But for now, the first step is letting these men know my body is my own and not for them to talk about without my invitation or permission. I will not take your compliment.

East River Lady

24 years old. LDS Convert. New York Native. Mormon Feminist.

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8 Responses

  1. Jettboy says:

    I suppose this is a different context, but the body according to 1 Corinthians 6: 19-20 of those who belong to Christ is not their own:

    “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?

    For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.”

  2. “You got a nice shape, baby!”

    That’s not a compliment, it’s a poorly thought out ejaculation. (definition: an abrupt, exclamatory utterance)

    Compliments should be crafted and thoughtful, not a pre-wrapped exclamation you make when you see something that matches. Trying to compliment body parts is especially problematic, as you’ve no idea if what you see has any relation to reality (unless you live in a nudist colony). And don’t even get me started on the use of “baby”.

    Save the compliments for someone with whom you have some kind of relationship (even vague acquaintance), so they can more accurately gauge your sincerity and intent.

  3. Ziff says:

    I’m sorry that you get this crap, East River Lady. I’m especially sorry that you doubt yourself when you get mad, because you have every right to. Random men commenting on your appearance are tossing in the not-so-subtle metamessage that they have a legitimate right to be concerned with how you look. That your appearance is public property. I’m sorry that this is such a common belief. I’m glad that you’re pushing back.

  4. EFH says:

    I am not sure about this issue because everyone comes from different experiences and backgrounds and we are all sensitive to compliments/statements/catcalls in different ways.

    For me, I would have not thought that the comment the person gave you and the way he did it was rude and I would have simply smiled and said ‘thanks’ and moved one. It was probably not done in the best way, but there is a chance he did not meant it as an harassment and to objectify you. My intuition tells me that if I pay too much attention to a comment/compliment – whether I like it or find it offensive – I am letting myself become an object. I try to move on from it because at the end of the day it is about how I feel about myself rather than what others think about my appearance.

    I do have noticed though that in America, it is very difficult to pay a compliment to the opposite sex without coming off in the wrong way. The attitude/law/culture around compliments and harassment is very different in this country and in some ways it has brought great things but in some others, I find that it has created too many issues out of nothing. The american man are the most awkward ones when it comes to trying to say something positive to a woman. No one talks to them about how to pay a compliment to a girl/woman. All they hear is about sexual harassment. It is very difficult to be a boy/man and show appreciation for the woman’s physic without not coming as a psycho or brute.But frankly, in 15 years I have lived in this country, I can tell you that people feel very insecure on how to formulate a compliment. It is difficult to be a victim of sexual harassment but it is also difficult to simply tell the other person that you have noticed that they are looking good.

    For me, I take a positive comment about my figure as a compliment from people that are not diminishing my work or personality just to the way I look – even when they could have found better words to say it.

  5. Em says:

    I’m sorry, I hate it when that happens. As for the line between harassment and being nice — well there are a few things at play. For one thing, he yelled it. It wasn’t just for you to hear, it was for everyone to hear and so it was as much about his power as your beauty. If he just wanted you to feel nice he would approach you and say something in a quiet voice. Second, I think the question should always be – would you say something similar to a man? If the intent is simply to compliment someone then you would be equally comfortable with either gender. At church I might compliment a man’s tie or a woman’s necklace. I have occasionally complimented strangers, but I do so in a quiet voice if we’re close enough physically to have a conversation.

    I hate the self-doubt. I remember being aggressively propositioned on the subway on my way to church. Afterward my first thought was about my appearance — I was wearing opaque tights, a long wool coat, nondescript flats and a scarf. My attire was extremely conservative and you could hardly see any bare flesh. I thought “why was he bothering me? I was dressed modestly!” Then I remembered that harassment is about male power, not my choices. He wasn’t complimenting me, he was exploiting my vulnerability as a single woman on a train with few people. It had nothing to do with my beauty, my body, or my (not at all) seductive clothing, and everything to do with his entitlement and the fact that I was not accompanied by a man and so was vulnerable.

    Good for you for sassing back.

    • Caroline says:

      I agree. If he really just wanted to give you a sincere complement on looking nice, he shouldn’t have shouted it, and really, there’s no call for strangers to ever comment on other strangers’ shapes. Like so many others, I too struggle with knowing when I should be nice/diplomatic and when I should call people on being out of line. I think you were brave to do the latter in this case.

  6. Jessica says:

    Well done telling the leering harasser to “Go Away.”

    EM said it best: “harassment is about male power” (I’d take out male if it were a woman doing the harassing)

    I really dislike the first comment from Jettboy quoting scriptures about your body not being your own. Cringe.

    Same goes for some subtle junk EFH dumped into their comment like:

    “if I pay too much attention….I am letting myself become an object” (Objectifying behavior CAN be defined)

    or “it is very difficult to pay a compliment to the opposite sex” (No it isn’t. try not sexually harassing strangers for starters)

    or “it is very difficult to be a boy/man and show appreciation for the woman’s physique” (Leering=creepy)

    and “positive comment(s) about my figure (are a) compliment…..(and do)not diminish my work or personality.” (But they DO! They objectify the recipient. This IS harassment. It is creepy. It is leering. It is aggressive. It is wrong)

    • EFH says:

      You have made it very clear of what is wrong in this conversation- people like you who think other people’s opinions are junk. As I said earlier, this topic is very personal and I don’t expect consensus with anyone. Thanks for showing to us what real junk looks like.

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