Monday, July 19, 2010

Anatomy of a Compliment

“How do I look?” I ask him, turning this way and that. Smiling shyly, holding my breath, hardly daring to look at his eyes. “I’m afraid the color isn’t right for my complexion. Do you think I can get away with the ruffles"?

You look fine, Come on, let's go
And then it comes: “You look fine, come on, let’s go.”

Have I actually reached the time of a woman’s life when people begin to tell me I look “fine”?

What does that mean, anyway? No we’re not going, first tell me what you mean by "fine."
image used by Koala Clothing
Tinker "Light Bright and Sparkly"

Do you mean “fine” as in silken, gossamer, fairies in cobweb slips, the first grade crowd’s sex symbol Tinker Bell?

Or do you mean a queen, rare, elegant?
Maybe you mean fine as in “I feel good! Rrawhr! I’m feelin’ FINE!!”?
Or does your “fine” mean “You look good enough, you don’t look as bad as you think, but forget about  gorgeous, come on, let’s go”?

What has happened to “Wow!”?

After awhile you begin to see the formula in the movies. Boy meets girl, boy and girl don’t get along. Then about two-thirds of the way through any movie comes what I call “the dress scene”: the girl shows up in an absolutely gorgeous form-fitting dress, or is in her underwear, or comes from the shower by accident; just as he shows up. He is speechless. Wedding bells.
"The Dress Scene"

That's how every Princess finds her Prince. Just ask Kate Middleton- the sheer dress that captured the heart of a Prince who will make her Queen.

"The Dress Scene"

I am exaggerating about myself a bit- I do still get a certain amount of Wow in my own way. But this is the Scylla to the Charybdis of “you look fine.” Known as “You look great for your age!” Recognize it?

What does this mean? Is it even a compliment? Do I look terrible for some other age? If I said I was 20 years younger, would people think (privately) how terrible I look? Do I look good by an objective measure, or submit only to a relative measure, a qualified measure?

My dress thanks you
Then there’s the “What a pretty dress!”
Oh, the dress is the thing that’s pretty here? My dress thanks you!

The correct answer, class, is “That dress makes YOU look fantastic!”

When she feels she must be polite and compliment you, but she doesn't think you look all that great, she casts about, desperate for something to compliment.

This is where your shoes come in, the color of your dress; this way she can feel sincere.

What a gorgeous pin
I have discovered the formula: the smaller the object she finds to admire (such as your pin), the worse you look.

Most women feel instinctively that it’s a bit of an insult; when it happens to them, they feel vaguely uneasy, but don't know why. It's a bit catty, this careful avoidance of a direct compliment. They don't realize why sometimes they do it to another woman.

Then there are your artist friends. Forget for now inquiring of the one who spends his life objectifying the world through a lens (photographer). The artist I mean is your painter friend, who looks at the world in terms of form, and the space within the form, and speaks in a labrythine vocabulary of color as “hue” and “saturation.” The one on a walk with you in the park who stops suddenly to whisper, “Look at the pattern of those tree branches in the shadow!”

Jeanne Hebuterne, self-destructive wife of Modigliani

Painters do not see what other people see. Their world is broken down into form and void, angle, light, shadow, a world as dissected and rearranged as a Picasso. Painters surge past appearances—they can’t see it at all- straight into the structure and meaning and heat beyond it.
                                                                                                      Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror

What am I to make of a compliment from such a person! He is not looking at what I see. He is too busy calculating the panorama of my angles. Does he even know what I mean? “Ah, how wonderful! You are spectacular!” he cries out, in full sincerity.

When what he’s been caught by is the way the particular sheen of fabric emphasizes the curve of my shoulder, or how the shape of my hairline is repeated in the pattern of my hem. I have given him a moment of pure delight.

What you hope he will tell you, he has no opinion of at all. He scarcely sees it.
Alana, 'Frenemies' Flickr link
Hmm protests too much
Then there’s the overeager compliment. “Oh how wonderful you look! Your hair looks great! What a gorgeous dress! Where did you get it?!” Hmm protests too much.

In fact the older the woman, the more loudly she is complimented. If my complimenter feels so obligated to exaggerate, does that mean she feels sorry for me?

And the omitted compliment. This is the one that burns me up. You walk into a room accompanied by a lovely woman. She might be younger, she might be older; the point is that she is lovelier than you. Eyes upon her. Someone comes up to tell her “You look terrific!”

comes up to tell her
Have I actually reached an age when people think that I no longer need compliments?

To compliment one, and omit the other, is the equivalent of saying to the other "As for you-- you're not looking all that great!"

   Gugger Petter link
   Newspaper and mixed media

Both the ignorer and the ignored don't quite realize this. "I was just giving my friend a compliment!" But the ignored feels it in her bones.

Surely it is courtesy to compliment everybody in the room. “My goodness how spectacular you ladies are looking!” Then steer her to the kitchen to whisper: “You are the most stunning woman in the room!”

People explain that they compliment young girls the most because in this era of covergirls, the young are very insecure. I disagree. It is the woman who is on her way out the door who most longs to hear a compliment again. The girl just coming in the door, no matter how insecure, knows there will be compliments to come.

getting all Simone
I certainly need a compliment! I know this sounds all 1950s de Beauvoir Second Sex, but isn’t it the ultimate irony, the ultimate practical joke, that those who are most valued for their looks- and who most value their own looks- (for the most part, women) are the very ones who as they age grow “invisible” as the saying goes?

I’m always tickled when an old-school fellow, who has seen a different era, often for example a middle-aged bus driver or bookstore clerk—we’ve all seen this—says to any woman, to a 93-year-old woman, without a trace of irony:

“May I help you, young lady?”
That is chivalry!

for life
He is not making fun. He has no arrogance, it doesn't lower him to see it and to say it. A woman’s self-image is formed while she is a young lady; there is a certain sense in which she remains one for the rest of her life.

Stand on any street corner and watch the parade of women every age and shape, and realize that all, all are “young women.” Our chivalrous knight not only knows this, he sees it.

From this, we can actually feel a little tug of compassion for Snow White’s wicked stepmother the Queen. The magic Mirror continued to answer the Queen year after year that she was the “fairest in the land.”
How do I look?

When asked a question, the Mirror could not lie; and so when Snow White came of age, the Mirror told the Queen the truth.

The Queen was furious to be dethroned by the ingenue; her murder plot serves as the archetype of the fears and desires submerged in both older and younger women. Exaggerated of course, that's the truth of a fairy tale.

The inner Queen keeps asking 'How do I look’; no matter what the answer, can she stop?

[Note: I do intend to keep my promise, to tell of the voting physicists.]
Please comment, below


Jim said...

ARRRRGGGHHHH!!! As a guy who's subjected to this form of interrogation more times than I can remember, I would only offer the blanket dicta that THERE IS NO WAY YOU CAN WIN in responding to it--Does it match your skin color? Can you pull off the ruffles? I HAVE NO IDEA!! I'm just trying to stay out of trouble, and you're determined to get me into trouble, and you're always going to find something that I should have said that I didn't--I surrender, you win..

Eve Scherr said...

Hahaha! I know! I am very well aware of how you guys feel! It's true, you can't win! Sorry!

And for some people, they can't get beyond "It looks good," they can't figure out exactly why-- while we are waiting for a hairsplitting comment!
(Maybe I'll use this in my blog! Thanks, Jim!)

Jim said...

Pray, why would you want the hair-splitting comment from me?? I'm perfectly willing to be enchanted or captivated, and to credit this state to some female alchemy beyond my kin--do you really want me knowing enough to be able to understand how you pulled it off??

Eve Scherr said...

I hadn't thought of that. I'm so used to being able to spot at 20 yards on another woman exactly how many buttons she has on her shoe! In fact the reason I look at women is usually so I can dissect the effect and figure out how to apply it to myself!

A woman dresses for herself and for attention, male would be preferable but female will do in a pinch.

The old saying goes that "women dress for other women," but that saying is slightly off. What the saying really means is, a girl wouldn't want to be caught dead looking worse than the next girl. Women don't dress FOR other women, we dress AGAINST them.

I am sure there are women who feel differently; I am here as your local representative of the classic de Beauvoir kinda gal.

Jim said...

Never read deBeauvoir, so am a bit vague on what would be her type of girl--I thought she was big against women being "the other" who was mysterious and un-male

Eve Scherr said...

Yes she took her paramour Sartre's philosophical construct of 'the Other' to its most practical level that way. She was describing mainly a woman of a certain era, a just-slightly-pre-liberation woman (Second Sex was written 1949) who believes HERSELF to be the Other, and feels and acts accordingly, resulting in such behavior as the desperate need for compliments etc.

Jim said...

If I remember right, she was also involved with Nelson Algren, who was about as "unSartre" as it's possible to be.