This post is going to be slightly off-topic from the sort of thing I generally talk about, because this has nothing to do with books or stories or movies or anything like that at all (I suspect there are going to be more of these non-media-related posts in April because, oops, I can’t actually read/watch things fast enough to blog about them every day). It is, however, related to the topic of being female, which makes it tangentially related to what I’ve spent the last eight posts talking about: sexism! And it is also relevant because a dude did this to me like two days ago and then got all kinds of upset when I wasn’t instantly in love with him, and frankly I just kind of felt bad for him and wanted to explain what he did wrong. If you’re a girl, this is probably all going to be preaching to the choir, but clearly some guys need to hear it.
So let’s talk about why you shouldn’t tell girls who you don’t know that they’re beautiful.
First off, I have to tell you what happened. I was at the bus stop, around 9 PM, after happy hour with the coworkers, waiting to go home. Headphones in, playing spider solitaire on my phone (don’t judge). This was mistake number one on his part, honestly–if someone has their head down and headphones in, they are not seeking social interaction (if said person is female and you are male and it is after dark, you should be doubly cautious about this, because that’s how every alarmist stranger-rape PSA starts out and us girls are pretty skittish about it).
In this case, though, the guy was actually pretty polite. He made eye contact from a respectful distance, waved for me to take my headphone out, stayed well outside of my personal bubble, and asked, “Is it okay with you if I give you a compliment?”
Suspicion dies hard, but he seemed genuine, so I said, “Depends on what the compliment is.”
And then he pulled out the most tired, over-used, and absurdly impersonal pick-up line known to mankind: “I just wanted to tell you how beautiful you are.”
This instantly turned me off to the conversation, and here’s why:
1) It’s generic. This line has been used in literally every romance movie ever, because it is applicable in all situations. I have probably heard this line a few dozen times, and most of my female friends are even sicker of it than I am. You aren’t complimenting me–you’re just saying something that you think girls want to hear. It’s basically on par with saying, “I noticed that you are the gender I am attracted to.” Good for you, dude, but I don’t see how that’s my problem. Please to be going away now?
2) It doesn’t give me a compelling reason to continue the conversation. In fact, it does the opposite, because it puts me on the spot. Now I have to come up with something to say in response that isn’t an outright rejection, because that would make me a bitch, but also isn’t hearty agreement, because that makes me stuck-up and vain. My options are either an uncomfortable “uh…thanks?” or a flat-out denial of the compliment, which is just bad for a girl’s sense of self-worth.
3) It’s objectifying. Now, I know what you’re going to say–that “beautiful” is a positive physical characteristic, not like “hott” or “sex-ayyyyy,” which are clearly intended to highlight sex appeal. This dude intended it as a compliment (making it benevolent sexism). After all, “beautiful” is what you call your mother, or your sister or grandma. Girls call each other beautiful. Love songs are written about beautiful. Hearts and souls can be beautiful. Beauty is inside, right?
Uh, yeah, you’re right, and that’s why I don’t get mad when my parents or my friends tell me I’m beautiful. They know me. Coming from them, the word picks up all of the above-mentioned layers of meaning. You, though? Hypothetical would-be romantic interest? You don’t know anything about me. You don’t think I’m smart, or kind, or witty, or any of the things that actually define a personality. All you know about me is what my face and body look like, and those things are all you’re talking about when you tell me that I’m beautiful. You’ve assessed my worth to you purely on the basis of physical features over which I have no control. Even if it was unintentional, I do not appreciate being reduced to my aesthetic appeal, and I am going to shut you down real fast.
Of course, I can’t tell you what not to say without providing an alternative, so I’ll let you in on a little secret: pay attention to what girls are wearing. I don’t mean how the things they wear accentuate their bodies. I mean the actual clothing itself. What someone wears says a lot about them, and what’s more, each item of clothing has a story behind it. If you want to start a conversation, ask about something that girl is wearing or holding or doing that is interesting to you (don’t fake interest–actually pick something you’re curious about, because we know when you’re being disingenuous). For example, when I was standing at that bus stop, I was wearing a leather jacket that I am particularly proud of, and also a very fluffy pair of gloves that draw all kinds of great stares from strangers on the bus–both objects I chose for myself. If the guy had asked about either of those things, I would have been more than happy to engage him in conversation.
Instead, he basically told me that he liked my face, which I have literally nothing to do with (I don’t typically wear make-up, so I’m not even engaged with it on that level). So I chose the least odious of my reply options–“uh…thank you”–and then he really put the nail in his own coffin by asking me what my name was. Sorry, guy, but names have power. Haven’t you read Rumplestiltskin??? You have to earn that kind of trust.
“Everyone else in the room can see it. Everyone else but you.” –What Makes You Beautiful, by One Direction: an entire song dedicated to praising low self-esteem