Compliments

Jan. 7th, 2015 02:58 pm
liv: oil painting of seated nude with her back to the viewer (body)
[personal profile] liv
I had an interesting conversation about this sort of general topic, which reminded me: do you prefer compliments on your appearance and body, or compliments on your intellect and personality?

I vividly remember coming across a comment by Simone de Beauvoir, it might even be in The second sex but more likely in her autobiographical stuff, to the effect that intelligent women would rather be told they're beautiful than that they're clever. Her reasoning was that if you're intelligent, you know perfectly well you're intelligent, and you don't need the external validation. Whereas being beautiful only really counts if other people find you beautiful. I mean, I was a strange kid, I spent a lot of my teen years mentally arguing with Simone de Beauvoir, anyway this seemed at best an over-generalization.

I mean. SdB was writing too early to know about the Dunning-Kruger effect, but my own experience very much bears out the idea that people who are highly able tend to under-estimate their abilities because they understand a discipline well enough to be aware of how much they don't know and can't do. Whereas perhaps a less skilled person might not even be able to imagine what it would be like to understand the most advanced elements of their field. Mind you, perhaps I'm over-generalizing too, because I work in academia which is absolutely rife with impostor syndrome and systems hugely geared to making highly intelligent people feel inadequate. And ok, de Beauvoir herself went from being top of her class at the Sorbonne, to being generally considered one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, maybe she knew perfectly well she was intelligent, but I'm not sure that's true of intelligent women in less rarefied contexts.

And part of me wants to argue with SdB on the obvious feminist grounds. There's already plenty of people telling women, even young girls and tiny female-assigned babies, that their only value is in how pretty they are. And equally, most women will encounter any number of assumptions that they are stupid just because of their gender, and perhaps even more so if they are in fact pretty, because there's this awful double-bind where you're worthless if you don't "look good" but if you do put effort into your appearance you're obviously dumb and shallow. Why should a prominent feminist thinker be adding to that chorus? When I praise a woman for her intelligence, whether to her face or when describing her, it feels political, it feels like my teaspoonworth of countering the sexism of judging women by their appearance and coming out negative however they rate.

I think there's maybe something in the idea about self-knowledge versus external validation, maybe. I can see an argument that nobody is really "qualified" to comment on one's intelligence; if the commenter is less intelligent than you (assuming that's a meaningfully measurable thing, which I'm not at all sure is valid, really) their opinion isn't worth much, and if they're more intelligent than you then what are they doing complimenting you? Whereas an appearance compliment is still flattering whether the complimenter is themselves pretty or ugly.

IIRC SdB was mainly talking about a context of people, mostly men, giving her compliments in order to flirt with her, rather than all possible compliments ever. (Though her style tends very much to broad sweeping statements about Women or People.) And the flirting context is very much about telling a person they're appealing to the flirter, not necessarily virtuous in the abstract. So the whole point there is somebody else's opinion of you. It's obviously inappropriate if people insist women (or anyone) should at all times prioritize being attractive to them, but if you're actually in a situation where it's appropriate to let someone know you find them attractive, are appearance compliments really better?

I do try not to be a dualist, I try to remember that my body is me, it's not a suit that I wear or a place where I live. But by inclination I think of myself as basically a mind; sometimes compliments on my appearance feel like somebody decided to congratulate me on living in a beautiful area of the country or on how great the weather is. Also when I was growing up everybody kept telling me that I'm amazingly intelligent and telling me or strongly implying that I'm ugly, and I've kind of internalized that. (I was pre-school age but highly verbal when a nice little old lady from synagogue said to my mother What a... erm, an intelligent little girl you have, Mrs B!, and I have a very strong memory of thinking, yes, intelligent enough to figure out that you can't quite bring yourself to say pretty, even when you're being soppy.) Specifically about beautiful, I kept hearing over and over as a teenager that anyone who tells you you're beautiful is trying to sell you something or worse, trying to groom you.

As an adult I'm a lot prettier than I was as a child or teenager anyway, and also I hang out with people who don't have a single fixed idea of what "pretty" looks like, so between those I have a reasonable degree of confidence in my appearance. But my immediate response if someone compliments my appearance still tends to be disbelief. Sometimes I think the complimenter is trying to get something from me, and sometimes I think they're trying to be nice to me and make me feel better from sincere motives. But in either case I have to work through that reaction to get to the interpretation of, maybe they said that because they actually literally think I'm good looking.

There are of course different possible compliments on appearance. There's a Twitter meme I've encountered sometimes to the effect that women (there goes that generalization again!) want to be called beautiful much more than they want to be called hot. I don't think that's true for me; I mean, I don't want sleazy, deniably-threatening sexualized "compliments", but that pretty much goes without saying. In an appropriate, safe context, though, I'm often more comfortable with people telling me I'm sexy or they fancy me, than with people telling me I'm pretty or beautiful. I think it's because sexual sorts of compliments are clearly referring to the complimenter's taste, there's no pretence that I'm being compared to some kind of external standard.

Compliments directly on how intelligent I am I have mixed feelings about. I mean, I don't take any more credit for happening to be intelligent than I do for happening to have shiny hair and a curvy figure. And intelligence isn't a moral virtue any more than beauty is, I'm not in any way a better person than someone else just because I happen to be very good at IQ test type puzzles and I have a lot of academic qualifications and do a "brainy" job. But since I've gone through my whole life being validated for how intelligent I supposedly am, at least a compliment on my intelligence feels like it's addressed to me and not to generic-flirt-object.

I would I think rather be complimented on stuff I'm actually proud of, my ethics or my interesting ideas, being a good friend (if you know me well) or a good conversationalist (if you've just met me). Or of course something specific I've actually done, rather than the kind of person I am. Those aren't really either personality or appearance, really; if I'm choosing between those two specifically, I generally prefer personality.

It seems obvious to me that at least some parts of this are gendered, but I'm not sure quite how to articulate that aspect. Complimenting appearance is possibly something done by higher status people to lower status people, hence it's much more socially normal for men to compliment women and adults to compliment children than the other way round. I do compliment good-looking men on their appearance sometimes, partly because I think it's a bit sad that men rarely get that sort of appreciation. But I don't know if I get it right, I feel like it can come across as deliberately violating gender norms for the sake of it, or being inappropriately sexual rather than just giving a compliment.

As for how it works for minority genders, anyone want to chip in? Trying to compliment people actually on their gender is even more of a messed up power dynamic than the male / female thing, and I get the impression that goes on. Also in general I think ideas of what counts as attractive are based on really binary assumptions, that men look good if they are stereotypically masculine and women look good if they are stereotypically feminine. Except that some of the stereotypes about masculinity are specifically about being ugly or at least making no effort with your appearance; a man who is too pretty might be seen as a bit metrosexual, ie not really masculine and therefore not really considered attractive. But I'm thinking that people who don't send strong gender signals, as well as people who are in fact non-binary, will be rated as lower on the mythical attractiveness scale. There's a kind of weird beauty standard for what's acceptably "androgynous" too, and I expect that plays in to this question. Anyway I don't really know what I'm talking about here, but I didn't want to write the whole post as if the only thing that matters is the dynamic between straight men and straight women.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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