2017 is a very cool time to be living when it comes to feminism. There is still a ton of work to be done, but it’s definitely awesome that everyone who reads anything knows about feminism. Even people whose reading material is limited to internet clickbait (hey-no judgement here!) know the basics of feminism. We’ve got huge superstars on our side; from Jennifer Lawrence to Will Smith, society is decrying sexism. Multi-million dollar companies are sponsoring media campaigns aimed at closing the wage gap, promoting positive self-image, and erasing gender role expectations.
With all of these amazing advancements we’re seeing, you’d think something as basic as compliments would be safe from sexism. Compliments exist to make people feel good, right? So many people are aware of feminism these days that there’s really no reason why compliments shouldn’t make us feel good. Yet the most well-intentioned, educated people are still saying some really oblivious things. And it’s not only guys doing it. These sexist compliments are so common, even women say some of them. I’ve been guilty of a few.
On top of everything, a lot of these super common sexist compliments also feed right into mental illness stigma. The front lines of the mental illness battle are still very hairy. People constantly misrepresent the mentally ill, or use disorders as insults. Ever called someone a psycho, or just plain ol’ crazy? That’s what I’m talking about! Even health care workers perpetuate mental illness stigma by deprioritizing complaints from patients with known mental health issues. For those women living with a mental illness or illnesses, like me, dealing with both sexism and mental illness stigma on a daily basis can be downright exhausting. Can we please just keep compliments out of it?
There is no reason why we should be denigrating anyone when all we’re trying to do is be nice. Whadaya say? Shall we finally abolish these common compliments that insult both women and the mentally ill? Let’s take a look at the six most common ones…
1.”You’re so much prettier when you smile”
There’s nothing wrong with telling someone she has a nice smile. But there’s a big difference between telling someone her smile is pretty, and that she’s prettier when she smiles. A lot of feminists have already spent a great deal of energy speaking out against the entitled male inclination to tell women to smile more. I totally agree: It is super annoying when a random guy tells a random gal she needs to smile. As someone who struggles with PTSD and depression, I’ve been on the receiving end of the “smile” line way more times than I can count. But it’s only part of the problem.
People love a smile. There’s a couple for reasons for that. Smiles tell the people around us that we’re friendly and relaxed. They’re a social cue telling others that we’re safe. Smiles are also good for our health. When we smile, our brain naturally releases “happy chemicals” that actually make us feel happier. Because of this, the “healthy living” movement has really latched onto the idea that smiling is awesome. A lot of people think they’re doing others a favor by encouraging more smiles. And telling someone that they look much prettier when they smile is a nice way of doing that, right?
The problem here isn’t that smiling isn’t awesome. It’s that, even if smiling is healthy and sociable, everyone has a right to do whatever they want with their bodies. And not all of us can smile or feel happy just because someone tells us to. People in the middle of a depressive episode or experiencing a PTSD flashback, for example, are not able to just wish their way into feeling better. There are real neurological events controlling those emotions and when that happens, the mentally ill cannot simply make themselves feel happier. Telling a depressed person that she’s prettier when she smiles is more likely to deepen her feelings of insecurity than to serve as a compliment.
2. “You’re so cute when you’re mad”
I’m not sure that people who say this mean it as a compliment at all. My abusive ex used to say it to me a lot, and it was definitely a way of asserting control over me, but let’s give people the benefit of the doubt. My abuser may have been intentionally trying to belittle my feelings, but maybe others who say this really are just trying to tell a girl they like that she’s still attractive even while she’s angry. Or something.
Nonetheless, well-intentioned or not, this “compliment” undermines the recipients’ feelings. Believe it or not, when women get mad, we have a reason for it, and that reason is generally more important to us than how we look at the moment. If someone you care about is upset, and you aren’t sure how to react, the best thing to do is listen, rather than distracting from the issue by talking about her appearance.
For those struggling with mental health issues, this “compliment” is especially nefarious. Anger is often one of the easier emotions to access when living with a mental illness or injury. Especially if the person has a mental health issue which causes her (or him, or them; I’m just using “her” by default because that’s my pronoun) to experience a shortened emotional spectrum, anger is usually on it. When you anger easily, anger can be difficult to manage, and it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between when it is justified, or an overreaction. When someone belittles your anger by saying it makes you look “cute,” well, that just confuses things even more.
3. “You’re smarter than you look”
I don’t know why anyone would ever think this is a compliment, but people say it all the time with smiles on their faces, so I guess they do. Reality check: Telling a female-identified person that she’s smarter than she looks, is telling her that she looks unintelligent. And since there isn’t an actual universal way for a person to “look unintelligent,” you’re pretty much admitting to playing into the stereotype that attractive women, or well-dressed women, or women with big breasts, or blondes, or…(you get the picture) are stupid.
Unfortunately, mental illness is often conflated with lack of intelligence too. It’s part of mental illness stigma; people ignorant to the reality of mental illness think that having a diagnosis means impaired brain function. How many times have you seen a mentally ill person on TV act like a complete fool? Maybe talking with some kind of lisp, because apparently lisps are also signs of lowered cognition. News flash: lisps have nothing to do with intelligence levels or mental illness!
Well, because of all this, when you tell a mentally ill person that she’s “smarter than she looks,” you are reinforcing mental illness stereotypes. We get enough of that everywhere else. We don’t need it creeping into our social interactions as well. Plus, not all mentally ill people are “out.” Those with disorders that are most often (wrongly) associated with violent behavior or cognitive impairment, such as Schizophrenia or Dissociative Identity Disorder, sometimes feel the need to hide their diagnoses for social or professional purposes. This “compliment” may make them question whether or not they are still “passing.”
4. “You’d look so much better with less makeup”
I would like to hope that everyone is aware this is a sexist comment. Unfortunately, I have been guilty of this one in the past, so I understand the thinking that drives it. It’s part of the stereotype that women who pay a lot of attention to their appearance are shallow. When I was a teenager, I believed that the “preppy” girls, or any girls who wore heels and makeup, cared about nothing but fashion and were, therefore, worthless. Pretty harsh, I know, but that idea is seriously perpetuated by the media. We are constantly seeing characters with lots of makeup and accessories who never seem to “get it,” while the smart girls usually dress on the plainer side. The media is just starting to depart from that stereotype, but it’s slow going. In any case, many people still associate a full face of makeup with an empty brain.
Which is pretty ridiculous, if you think about it. The way a person chooses to adorn herself indicates…the way she chooses to adorn herself. Nothing more. It’s fine to tell a woman that she’s naturally beautiful, but there’s no need to associate that compliment with her makeup choices. A woman can be naturally beautiful and still choose to accentuate that beauty with makeup.
This “compliment” gets even more complicated when you consider the mentally ill. Another stereotype associated with heavy makeup use is low self esteem. While this is often not the case (again: lots of women dress up simply because it’s fun or makes them feel good), sometimes it’s true. Some people suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder or have other body image issues, which cause them to hyper-focus on their self-perceived flaws. While these people ultimately need therapy to correct their aberrant thinking, covering these “flaws” with makeup may help them function on a daily basis in the meantime. Telling someone with one of these disorders to wear less makeup could cause her to worry even more about her appearance, and to potentially lose confidence in an important coping mechanism.
5. “You’d be really pretty with a little bit of makeup”
Again, there is no justification for telling a woman how little or how much makeup she should wear. Women choose not to wear makeup for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are intentionally trying to deviate from beauty standards set by the male gaze. Maybe they have severe skin sensitives. Or maybe they just prefer the way they look without it.Whatever reason a woman chooses not to wear makeup is totally okay, and there is no justification for pressuring her to wear more, even if you think it would look great on her. Plus, this particular set of words is a back-handed insult. You’re basically telling her she isn’t pretty as she is.
Grooming is a special issue for the mentally ill. For example, a decrease in regular grooming habits is often one of the most outwardly apparent symptoms that someone is experiencing a depressive episode. If you notice your friend wearing less makeup than normal and generally taking less care in her appearance, you should be direct, rather than passive-aggressive. Don’t tell her she would look better wearing that eyeliner she used to love; Instead, ask her how’s she’s feeling and if there’s anything you can do to help, even if it’s just listening to her talk.
We don’t always know what is going on in a person’s inner life. Someone you don’t know well could be struggling to overcome a serious body image issue such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Maybe wearing little or no makeup is part of her recovery. Telling someone in that situation that she would look better with more makeup would definitely cause her harm. Or, she could be going through a depressive episode like I described in the paragraph above, and you simply don’t know her well enough to recognize this. A “compliment” as judgmental and subjective as this one would be more likely to drive her deeper into her episode than to make her feel happy. Just because you’ve used the word “pretty” does not mean you’re being helpful.
6. “Nobody will ever love you as much as I love you”
The fact is, “nobody will ever love you as much as me” is an abusive thing to say. If you’re in a relationship with someone who says this to you, it’s a major red flag. If you’re someone who says this, you need to stop. Today. Now. Even if you’re genuinely trying to express your love for someone, find another way.
Sure, the words, “I love you,” are a compliment. Who doesn’t appreciate being loved? When you pair them with “more than anyone else ever could,” or any other variation of that statement, you begin weaving a web of self-doubt around the target of your affections. And why do that? Why would you want to be in a relationship with someone who needs to be manipulated into staying with you? That’s not love; it’s fear. This statement builds the foundation of a predator/victim dynamic. It is extremely sexist and controlling. Don’t say it.
For those of us living with a mental health condition, this “compliment” is especially dangerous. Unless a mentally ill person has something like Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder, there’s a good chance she suffers from some measure of low-self esteem. For conditions like PTSD, any form of Depression, or the low points of Bipolar Affective Disorder, low self-esteem are category symptoms. For other disorders, in which poor self-image may not be an inherent quality, mental illness stigma often leads sufferers to view themselves as failures or grossly abnormal. Telling someone you’re the only person who could ever truly love her feeds straight into those fears, and is an act of victimization. Need I say it? That is not okay.
The next time you feel like giving one of these compliments..
Don’t. Just…don’t. Think of something else to say. Don’t say anything. Put on a hat and do a silly jig. Basically, do anything but give one of these “compliments.” A compliment is something that makes the recipient feel good. If it makes her doubt herself, question your relationship, or any other negative emotion, it fails as a compliment. End of story.
What do you think? Are there any other backhanded compliments you hear often that put down women who are mentally ill? Have an argument in favor of any of these six? Leave it in the comments!
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Til next time.