I often have a hard time articulating to people why even "compliments" on my appearance, especially those pertaining to weight (ie- "have you lost weight? you look so skinny! you look great!) make me feel so bad- the best way I know how to explain it is that even "positive" compliments still make me focus on my body when I don't want to, and they are reminders that people do, in fact, notice when the size of my body changes. The first thing I always think is, "great, now they will also notice when I gain the weight back." Not to mention equating "you look skinny" with "you look great" adds onto the pressure I already feel to look thin, and perpetuates our society's misconception that women who are thin, and therefore conventionally attractive, inherently have more value as human beings. But I recently read a passage from Renee Engeln's book "Beauty Sick" that finally articulated my feelings in a concise and precise way. She says:
"...most people probably imagine that paying a woman a compliment on her appearance will make her feel better about how she looks. But anything that draws a woman's attention to the appearance of her own body or makes her feel as though her body is being evaluated can result in body shame. Even when commentary on a woman's appearance is meant to be a compliment, it still reminds her that her appearance is being monitored. It brings to mind that ever-present-out-of-reach beauty ideal. It's easy to go from 'Wow! He thinks I'm hot!,' to 'Wait. He might be looking at my stomach. Is my stomach looking fat in this shirt? How do my legs look? How does my hair look?'"
Add to this a genuine feeling of being threatened and in danger of sexual assault, and you can also read this as an explanation for why women never experience cat calls as "compliments." But it is important for women to remember this as well- I get body monitoring "compliments" from well-meaning older women more often than I do from men. It's always important to evaluate the possible harm your actions can do to people, and to remember that ultimately, good intentions are irrelevant if your actions are inflicting harm. That is, it's important to remember this if you value other people's feelings, and the well-being and dignity of the other human beings you interact with. It has become clear to me recently that some people genuinely do not care that the people around them feel safe and valued- and for those people, there is no argument I can make to convince them to be better humans.