I still remember, as a child, going shopping with my mom. I was 12. She was 38, a very attractive woman with long auburn hair and a petite, hourglass figure. She always wore short dresses and high heels. She looked great! I was so proud of her.
Male store clerks would often flatter her, looking at her, then at me, and asking me, “Is this your sister?” She always smiled politely. I always cringed a little, because even then, at the age of 12, a good 2-3 years before I became a feminist, on some level I knew that their “compliment” was in fact an insult.
It was an insult because they implied that a woman can’t be attractive unless she’s very young. And it was an insult because they stripped away her identity, the knowledge and wisdom she had gained through the years. Through their compliment, they implied that as a woman, she should aim to stay a child forever.
I am now about the same age my mother was back then. Today, at my 11-year-old daughter’s basketball game, one of the dads approached my husband, all smiles, and asked, gesturing towards me, “Is this your other daughter?” He was beaming, proud of himself for earning several brownie points with that one. I smiled politely (what can I say, politeness runs in the family), and when he left, turned to my husband, vexed, and said, “I don’t get it. This is exactly why I stopped coloring my hair. I don’t want this type of compliment! I don’t want people to think I’ll be grateful if they tell me I look younger than my age because (a) I don’t and (b) I’m not trying to!”
My husband thought it was a harmless compliment, the man’s way of letting me know he realizes I’m not young, but thinks I look good. To me, it still feels just like it felt back when I was 12: an insult to my intelligence.
Speaking of my husband, he had recently lost some weight and started exercising daily. He’s in his mid forties, and he looks – and feels – great. When a friend, who hadn’t seen him in a while, met him for lunch the other day, he told him “Wow, you look in top shape.” Now, THIS I consider a compliment. The friend was not implying that my husband looked younger than his age, that he SHOULD look younger, that he should WANT to look younger, or that the only way for him to look good is to appear younger than his age. In addition, “being in top shape” emphasizes health and fitness and not just looks.
If you want to pay me a compliment, please don’t tell me I look like my daughter’s sister. A simple “You look great” or “Wow, you obviously work out” will do.
In the photo: Vered DeLeeuw, female, age 39, looking in top shape. 😉