But, you're not that hot.

July 21st, 2014, 7pm


The other day I posted an article about the perils of shopping at Safeway. It made me happy to see how supportive people were, but it got me thinking about a younger version of myself who would never have posted that story.

There are numerous reasons, among them, the irrational and by now well addressed concerns about seeming slutty. When I was a teenager stories about sexual harassment related to friends or (especially) boyfriends would get snappy responses like: “what were you wearing?” and “why were you doing walking around at night, anyway?” I learned early on, like most women, that there never was anything you could say in response to either of those questions that didn’t make you seem either slutty or reckless. If I said I was wearing pants I was apt to get another question in response, something along the lines of “how tight?” and if I dared suggest that I was walking home at night because well, I felt like it, then I was perceived as some kind of borderline idiot.

As I got older and read more, I began to realize how unfair those responses were. But there was still something bothering me.

It’s impossible to tell those kinds of stories without unwittingly drawing attention to your appearance.

I remember once, complaining about a man who stopped me on the street to say I was beautiful. He might have been well intentioned but random compliments about my appearance annoy me whether or not they are good or bad: both indicate that the speaker feels entitled on some level to comment on my appearance and that he thinks he is, as someone judging, himself removed from being judged. The other thing that bothers me is that men paying that compliment always seem to expect it to elicit some level of surprise. A woman who affirms a man’s evaluation of her appearance is likely to be deemed as bitchy or conceited and why? Because she thinks she is attractive as well? Because she has judged herself and found herself, by her standards, also attractive? Why are women denied this bit of agency, of self affirmation? I think, because it takes the power away from the man delivering the comment: she doesn’t need his affirmation and as an evaluator, he thought that was what he was bringing to the table.

Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent. The point is, I complained about being told I was beautiful* and I got a flurry of negative responses among them, “Don’t let that get to your head. You’re not that hot.”

As though that was the point.

*After I originally posted this it occurred to me that this needs some clarification.

1) I brought up the compliment not to gloat, but to induce a discussion. At the time I had no idea what to make of the compliment. He had also been attractive, his tone had been polite. He wasn’t trying to be a jerk and he had every reason to think my response to him would be similar. And yet… I’m sure women don’t randomly shout out their evaluations of him on the regular or begin conversations with him by stating his attractiveness. And why not, right? Is it because we worry that the man would respond: And why should I care, exactly? And so, we start off with real conversation starters like “Hello” and “Good morning”.

2) I like being told I am pretty, but I maintain that there is a difference between having a friend (or even a dude, after a prolonged conversation or interaction) tell me I am attractive. By then I care, or have at least given the person some indication that I care about their opinion and it means that totally random guys on the side of the street can’t just scream out that they find me pretty or ugly like judges in a beauty pageant. Or something - the distinction is fine grained and I am still figuring it out.

3)What bothered me about the “you’re not that hot comment” was that it was dismissive and because the last thing you want, after being scrutinized is to be scrutinized again, which results in a lack of desire to talk about being scrutinized in the first place. I’ve found that the “you’re not that hot” actually means: you should be thankful for the compliment or “your story is vaguely unrealistic sounding because who would tell you that”, which is something that happens whether or not the interaction described was a relatively classy “you are beautiful” or a crude “I’d f**k that”

4) Ladies - politely delivered compliments (i.e “you’re beautiful”) versus crude comments about your appearance. Are they on a spectrum or distinct? I have a definite preference for the former, because I know the intention with it, despite my thoughts about the larger cultural context they are derived from, is normally pretty benign. Sometimes it’s downright kind. That said, I think it’s part of a spectrum, but maybe I’ll change my mind?

(P.S I owe thanks to my brother, for taking the picture that is matched with this article. He took it in India while looking for tigers. Neat, right?)

Chris, Max, Sanna, Christine and 2 others said thanks.

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Dani Z

The hardest thing about getting older is realizing that I might, in fact, be a minor character in someone else's story. (I keep changing this bio. I'm not sure I'll ever nail it)

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