The Face of Flattery
April 7th, 2010

On Monday I ate lunch in my office.  Then I popped out to run a quick errand.  I had to deposit a check and there is a bank branch with a drive-through ATM just a couple of minutes away.  However, when I pulled up to the ATM I found it out of service and had to walk inside to use the lobby ATM.  When I left the bank lobby I walked across the parking lot to my car and about halfway to my car I heard a voice from the driver’s seat of a nearby sedan shout “Nice legs!”

I immediately shot the guy a dirty look.  I am a woman with a brain and a life, not just some skirt on the street.  How dare he objectify me that way, right?  But as soon as I stepped behind a parked utility truck and was removed from the heckler’s line of view, I smiled.  The thing is, I do have nice legs.  Specifically, I have muscular and defined calves.  When standing flat footed I’ve always thought I look a little blocky, but I’ll concede that when wearing high heels the effect isn’t half bad.  So this guy, whom I don’t know and will never see again, simultaneously insulted and flattered me.  And in the face of something as simple as a cat call I was surprised at the level of conflict that ensued in my mind. 

My initial response was to dismiss the flattery as derisive and cheapening objectification.  I am smart and educated.  I was raised to understand that I am complex and nuanced; a multidimensional person whose worth lies in a subtle composite of valuable traits, my appearance being least among them.  But I am also a woman who was raised in a culture that disproportionately values physical beauty.  So, much as I may try to factor my looks out of my own assessment of worth, some vestiges of that perspective will always linger.  And hearing my looks complimented – regardless of source or context – feels good.

GAP has long faulted me for choosing the least pleasant interpretation of any statement.  He says that if I can reasonably select between two interpretations of something said to me, I will always choose the one that is more negative.  Sometimes he’s right.  But I refuse to ignore my powers of discernment merely to choose the happy path.  I will critically consider the words that are spoken to me and decide for myself whether or not my inference accurately matches the implication.

But GAP’s criticism jumped into my mind as I frowned and then smiled in response to my heckler’s compliment.  Because wasn’t it, even if crudely delivered, just that – a compliment?  It wasn’t just the generic “Hey baby!”  He chose a particular feature (one that I myself happen to like) and tossed his opinion my way.  Under different circumstances – the fabulous gay fitting room attendant at Banana Republic, or a girlfriend – I’m sure I would have found those same words to be a bright spot in my day, rather than an objectifying insult.

So I’ve been wondering since my little encounter on Monday what my interpretation of my suitor’s advances says about me.  (I’m sure he wasn’t really pursuing me.  And oh what a surprise I’d have given him if I’d walked over to the car and reciprocated his interest!)  If I take his comment as flattery does it mean that I am shallow and easily manipulated?  If I take it as an insult does it mean that I can’t accept a simple compliment?  And does the fact that I’m waxing philosophical about this conundrum in the first place mean that I am judgmental, weighing the value of the statement based on its physical trappings?

I’ve certainly gotten cat calls that were in fact insulting and aggravating.  I can tell the difference.  But something about this one was different.  Even though my first reaction was to scowl, my first instinct was to smile.  It was a contrivance that those sentiments were manifested on my face in reverse order.

As I’ve thought more about it I’ve been surprised at my conclusion.  Flattery doesn’t always come from my husband, father, or friends.  Sometimes it comes from a disheveled guy in a dented car in a parking lot.  But to dismiss it for that reason alone says more about me than it does about him.  I will not always choose the happy interpretation just for the sake of sparing my mind the taxing task of discernment.  But choosing the dismissive path can be similarly lazy.  In this case I’ve weighed it out – much more than was ever warranted – and have decided that despite their source, these words flattered me.  And that feels good.

6 Responses to “The Face of Flattery”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I remember once–I think I was in high school–when a friend and I were walking down the street and someone whistled and honked their horn and “Hey Baby’ed.” I was shocked when my friend giggled and waved and shouted back, “Thank You!”

    My mom had always told me that that kind of attention was insulting.

    I do think the specificity of you compliment makes it less “macho/demeaning”. And let’s face it, at this age? I’ll take any compliment I can get :)

  2. Anne Says:

    I think I would have reacted much as you did…I’d be insulted, then wonder if I really had nice legs, and then wonder if I should be insulted again. In general, I’m not a fan of cat-calling…probably depends on the day for me. Wasn’t there an episode of Sex and the City about this??

  3. Eva Says:

    Sounds like a genuine compliment – I’d take it!

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I agree with Eva. Huge compliment. Own it – and love it! It isn’t dismissive of your brain, it’s a natural response to a beautiful pair of legs.

  5. D Says:

    So funny you posted this because lately, somewhat strangely on my way to work, on several occasions, a guy whose age ranges from 20s to 50s, has made some sort of comment about my attractiveness. (never the same guy or even the same part of my commute). It has ranged from “Good morning beautiful, I like your hat,” (on a day I was wearing a rain hat) to the more generic catcall. I can’t figure out why the sudden burst of compliments. Is it Spring? Am I giving off some new vibe since winning my trial? It is flattering of course but also perplexing. I am not so much insulted but confused, maybe because I turn 40 in October and I am becoming more open to compliments wherever they come from. And I am no supermodel nor have I lost weight recently, had a boob job or even was wearing anything particularly headturning unless a trench coat counts given its adult theater connotations!) I’m sure it’s just a coincidence but especially in light of your post, I plan to smile and take it as if the fabulous gay dressing room assistant from banana republic said it!
    PS: I am jealous of your shapely legs, I have long but boxey ones, so if I’d received your compliment, I would known something was up :) !

  6. Nicki Says:

    Definitely a compliment. I am usually known to turn, smile and yell “Thank you!” back.